Lefkara lace, or Lefkaritika, is unique to the island of Cyprus. I was fortunate enough to visit this island in the early 2000s, and the culture is rich, beautiful, and complicated. Cyprus has long been split into Greek and Turkish elements – sometimes physically, sometimes culturally. More recent integration has been a blessing for those who were separated from their families when the border went up. I still had to have a day pass to cross into the Turkish side when I visited.
Jewel of the Mediterranean
Cyprus is a jewel in the Mediterranean, the fabled birthplace of Venus, and a figurative treasure trove of culture. Do not go there to steal artifacts! Lefkara lace is one of those cultural treasures. Named after a town in a setting that could only be described as idyllic, the women of Lefkara utilize Byzantine and Greek geometric patterns to create incredible, handcrafted, and intricate laces.
Lefkara lace is crafted generationally, taught by grandmothers and mothers to young women who still find this craft a principal occupation. They learn the basics from their teachers, and then begin to incorporate their own inspiration and creativity into the designs, producing unique and beautiful representations of culture.
Tradition tells that Leonardo da Vinci traveled to Lefkara to take the lace back with him to adorn the Duomo cathedral in Milan. The “da Vinci” pattern of this lace is still practiced today, unaltered from that pattern.
Lefkara Lace History
Lefkara lace was an additional stream of income for many families, and prompted work by lamp when daylight was no longer available. Unfortunately, the craft is threatened, as more young people are focusing less on the slower ways of making, and more on jobs or careers outside of the tiny village.
One of the options to preserve a craft such as Lefkara lace is the application to UNESCO for a world heritage. The heritage description doesn’t only apply to places, but also to tradition – and lace is a frequent applicant, as the unique designs around the world are threatened by modernity.
UNESCO did approve Lefkara lace as a cultural heritage, which preserves it, at least in its current form. The tradition of teaching must go on, as the women of Cyprus note, but what their children do with it is the difficult reality. Fortunately, crafters outside of the town itself are often willing to learn, and makers across the world (like me!) are so inspired to learn and practice new techniques.
Lefkara lace is a form of pulled thread embroidery, with satin stitch detailing around the edges. It is similar in construction to the Italian punto tagiato. It is primarily worked on linen, and the traditional colors are whites, creams, and ecru. A beautiful element of Lefkara lace is that it is totally reversible! It’s generally used in modern ways as table runners, cloths, or covers, but traditionally was incorporated into clothing as well. The designs are geometric, often trellises around stylized floral designs.
Lefkara combines four basic elements: cut work, hemstitch, satin stitch filling, and needlepoint. The designs are inspired by nature and the environment. They evolve over time, and like other needle laces, incorporate more modern designs into the traditional geometric ones. Some designs include athasi (almond), makoukoudi (a small weaving row), mi me lismonei (forget-me-not), potamos (river), klonotos (branched), arachnotos (spiderweb), and many more. The women who create the laces are known as kentitria, and the men who are the embroidery merchants are know as the kentitaris.
Lefkara embroidery evolved from a technique called asproploumia, which means a white or cream background with white threads. The first lace of Lefkara was made in this fashion, using cotton thread on local, hand-made, woven fabric. Later, a thin, imported fabric was used called kampri, and also a cotton-thread fabric bakaris. In the early 20th century, the artisans began using the local linen fabrics from Zodia and Astromeritis, and incorporated linen threads as well. These were handspun and whitened for the contrast in the Lefkara. In addition to the linen threads, people in other villages began using silk fabrics and silk threads.
The diversity of fabric and thread prompted diversity of design as well. The silk styles incorporated more of the anevata and gemota designs, which are raveled satin stitch embroidery. The are very well suited for cutting and removing small numbers of threads. The finished products resemble the Lefkara/Lefkaritiko style, but have small aesthetic differences. Another form of silk stitch, the straogazo, which is a stitch without ravels, is different both in technique and final presentation.
Design Evolution and Adaptation
The original embroidery lace of Lefkara kept with the old elements of the asproploumia. These included the various types of gazia or silk backstitches, paragazi, or side stitches, donti tou kattou, or cat’s tooth, and other traditional stitches used only for the boundaries and completion of the ploumia, or ornaments.
The geometric shapes remain, evolving into continuous designs like the potomoi, or rivers. The kopta, or basic embroidery designs, are kept, but also grow as they are used by different artists with different visions. The different stitches are complemented by raveling threads in the warp and woof of the fabric. They are usually separated into pairs, tied together, or plaited, and the width of the element can range from 3 mm to 2 cm.
The original asproploumia was greatly influenced by the techniques of Venetian lace, and was imported into the cultural creation during the Venetian Domination from 1489-1571. The lacemakers adapted the designs into their own, including the gyroulota (circular cut designs), liminota (striped cut designs), and others. The combination of both cut work and lace created the foundation for the Lefkara lace culture.
Tradition, History, and the Responsibility of Makers
Lefkara lace is so unique, and incredibly beautiful. I hope you get the chance to visit Cyprus for yourself and meet the fabulous artists who keep this tradition alive. If you have more experience with this lace, or have questions, please let me know in the comments below. I love to learn about these traditions, and hope to eventually connect with people who can teach me their technique!
Makers like myself and other artists around the world have a responsibility to our craft to learn as much as we can, and to teach those who want to learn. This is what keeps these traditions alive, and what will give future generations a medium through which to learn about their culture and heritage. As someone whose culture is not threaded through the lace I make, I am sometimes even more conscientious about the responsibility of honor to the people and culture who are crafting and living through their embroidery and lace. Let me know in the comments how you honor your craft’s history, and if you are passing it on to someone else!