Cypriot Lacing, a disappearing skill

 

By Ismail Veli……

Cyprus is famous for its Sun, beaches and history. But the name of Cyprus is also synonymous with its legendary  Lefkara  lacing,. Lefkara is only a part of this unique talent however. I doubt we could get into  a time machine, visit every village on the island 60 years ago, and find a single place where lacing did not exist. For many, lacing was a means of earning a little extra income. Lefkara was the Queen of lacing, but the other 650 villages in Cyprus were its princesses.  Lacing may not be unique to Cyprus, but  mention the name and many travelers and historians look to Cyprus as the island of lacing. Its tradition and quality has a place in people’s hearts.

Cyprus lace 3

What about the history however? Lefkara lace derives its name from the name of the village of Lefkara. Other places like Kato Drys, Athienou, Kornos, and Skarinou are well known for what the locals call Lefkaritika. The lacework with its amazingly fine and intricate patterns originated from a local style embroidery called ”asproploumia” (white embroidery). In the old days when money was scarce this would also be used as a dowry. During Venetian rule Lefkara was a summer retreat of the ruling Venetian families. The Venetian ladies took their embroidery to the village in order to pass the time. With little else to do  this fascinated the local women so much that they took on lacing as a pastime. The silk production on the island was at an advanced level, therefore using this amazing material was ideal for work of such delicate nature. Many women would gather around in small groups for endless hours producing lace of extremely advanced quality. It could often take weeks or maybe even months to complete one item.

Cyprus Lace 1

The immense range of patterns and motifs date to the Venetian period. But lacing predates the Venetian period in Cyprus. French convents, the Apennines, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy and many places were well known for their unique form of lacing. No doubt many countries try to claim the honor of being the birthplace of lacing. I doubt even historians can pinpoint with any degree of accuracy as to where lacing originated from. A lace originating from Egypt, during Roman rule  has however survived which proves that this amazing talent existed thousands of years ago.

Cyprus Lace 2

In medieval times Venice was a major trading power with contacts all over the Western world  and beyond.  Lacing was established and popular  during the 15th and 16th centuries. It was in Venice that the first known lace book named  ”Le Pompe” was published in the 1550’s. The book had a multitude style of patterns, and advice for women on how to lace.  Venice was at the time spreading its unique knowledge of lace. In the 1600’s England, Spain and France and other centers in Europe  were producing immense quantities of good quality lace.  As women were skilled in textiles their adoption of lacing seem to have become popular. The nobility in particular sought  good lace-makers for their women. Refugees and immigrants who moved to different countries helped spread  this skill even further. Good quality lace-makers were therefore popular with royal families.

As Cyprus was under Lusignan rule during the 15th century, it was natural that the Latins would bring this form of skill to the island.  James II of Cyprus of the housQueen, Catherine Cornaroe of Lusignan became King in 1468. His decision to choose Catherine Cornaro as his wife and queen was to change the course of history. Only 14 at the time Cornaro was part of the Venetian nobility. This marriage in effect secured Venice major trading  privileges in Cyprus. Venice eventually took control in 1489, and with this their influence and culture became more established on the island.

It was during this period that lacing in Cyprus became a firmly established tradition. Cypriots inherited this skill but  turned it into their own unique style of which, as mentioned, Lefkara lacing became the most famous. Other styles of lacing however are also very popular.  The first half of the 20th century, but in particular the middle part saw the steady growth of tourism in Cyprus. To satisfy tourists desire for these beautiful handmade laces  many traders often travelled to villages in order to seek out women who were skillful and dedicated enough to spend hours on end each day to produce infinite styles and patterns that tourists would buy as souvenirs or gifts for their families and friends.

My mother was one of these. With 3 children to feed and my father needing a life saving operation in the UK in 1957 she used this unique skill to earn whatever she could to ensure her children had food on the table and whatever clothing could be afforded. Not that the family did not help. However she was too proud to sit idle and live on handouts. Within a short period of time she was also helping to create patterns, and designs for her friends and neighbors who admired her immense dedication and hard work.  She trained many other women in how to lace successfully. Though in the UK since 1962, she never gave up lacing and continued to lace as a hobby, creating endless laces for all her children and grandchildren.  At the age of  80 she finds it difficult to lace as she used to, therefore she has turned to knitting instead.  Her sister, (aunt Emine) is skilled  at  Lefkara lacing, and just like my mother devotes much of her time to this amazing skill as a hobby.

Pictures of my mother and our family and you can see me as
the youngest child.

The Veli family

Present days sales of lacing are mostly cheap imported and machine produced items. No doubt the cost of buying handmade lace in this day and age is immense. For some like my family who are fortunate enough to have  inherited an immense number of original laces made by a dedicated mother, we no doubt consider ourselves lucky. The number of women capable of traditional Cypriot lace may be on the wane, but  I doubt this unique skill will ever be forgotten in the hearts of Cypriots who will carry this tradition with great pride to future generations who will be less fortunate, and may not truly appreciate the immense skill, hard work and ceaseless dedication that  has helped to put Cyprus on the map. After all not many places can boast that Leonardo De Vinci one of the greatest artists in world history preferred to buy his lacing from Cyprus. Exaggerated or not, this story has remained part of our proud heritage for centuries. And so it should.