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Lefkaritika: Delicate Lace of Cyprus

text and photos by Gerald Ring

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In 1481, during a visit to Cyprus, Leonardo da Vinci found an embroidered lace tablecloth in the village of Lefkara that he thought beautiful enough to grace the main altar of Milan’s Duomo Cathedral. On the cathedral’s 600th anniversary, the women of Lefkara made a gift of another tablecloth, identical in its intricate design to the original. They did not need to check with Milan or see a picture of the first cloth to match the original motif. Their craft had continued uninterrupted for centuries. Although they produce several different designs of lace and embroidery, the pattern used for the altar cloth has been known as “Leonardo da Vinci” ever since the artist’s visit.

Today, as in centuries gone by, lacemakers can be seen everywhere in Lefkara. They sit in the sun or in the shade of an arbor while they delicately convert each piece of linen into a work of art. These women and their lace have kept the village alive.

Midway between Larnaca and Nicosia, the village of Lefkara is about ten miles off the main road and high in the hills. It still retains the special atmosphere and appearance of a typical Cypriot mountain village. Yet, its prosperity is immediately discernible, especially when contrasted with other villages in the area.

In the dry, mountainous terrain of eastern Cyprus, its natural spring was essential for the establishment and maintenance of this community. Its sloping, often stepped cobbled streets are narrow. Originally, they only had to accommodate a donkey bearing two sacks of carobs on either side! Balconies overhang the streets, and open doorways reveal immaculate courtyards decorated with canopies of vines; lemon, almond, and fig trees; and earthenware pots with all manner of plants and herbs.

With its quaint old-world charm, Lefkara thrives – not only proud of its past and present but confident of its future. Until recently, though, it was in danger of dying like other rural communities, whose young people had left for better economic opportunities.

In Lefkara, agriculture was the economic mainstay. Carobs, grapes, and olives are the local crops. Lacemaking had been a pastime to be enjoyed in the lazy afternoon siesta hours or in the quiet of evening. The lace was solely for local use. The unmarried women would keep pieces for their dowry. Only occasionally would a piece be sold to a passing visitor.

Village life had been precarious because Lefkara’s agriculture was unreliable. With rainfall uncertain, droughts could leave peasants without enough to feed their families. The lure of prosperity in America, England, and Australia could not compare with the hardships offered by tilling and toiling in their arid, rocky soil. Many young people and families began to leave.

Faced with economic decline, the village found unexpected hope in its craftswomen. In 1896, a woman named Theophilia Hadji Antoni first attempted to market Lefkaran lace. She brought some choice pieces from the village women to Alexandria, Egypt. Although she had little success on this trip, she was not deterred. She tried again with her husband’s help in 1902. This time, not only did she sell some lace; she actually came home with orders for more.

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Tags: Village life Economic hardships Women (rights/issues) Cyprus