From charming kato Drys to renowned Lefkara and the stunning Omodos, the journey is an intricate embroidery of tales handmade with needle and thread.
Text: Eleni Xenou
Photos: Panagiotis Mina
First stop: Kato Drys
It’s almost noon, the silence in the cobbled streets is absolute, coloured doors are closed, and the beauty of the village is captivating. We walk through a lovely garden full of purple flowers and end up outside the door of the Bee and Embroidery Museum. Mrs Ellie is sitting in the courtyard: “Come and let me show you around,” she says. She and her husband established the museum in her great-grandfather’s house, making it the perfect setting for their cherished collection of Lefkaritika embroideries from 1880, family heirlooms, many intricately stitched by her hands. “I grew up amidst the rhythmic hum of needles.” Her gaze shows that she’s wandering in an era when the alleys of Kato Drys were full of women embroidering next to each other, writing the history of Cypriot lace with their needles. She tells me about her grandfather, a skilled kenditaris (embroidery merchant) of his era, emphasising their bravery. She explains, “These daring souls, barely 20 years old and barely literate and unfamiliar with foreign languages, carried two suitcases filled with lace and fearlessly set sail to Alexandria, Smyrna, Constantinople, and later on, to central Europe, to sell their village handicrafts.”
As we explore the museum, she guides me through the halls showcasing embroidered couvre-lit, tablecloths and delicate doilies: “My dowry,” she says, “is the essence of Lefkaritika embroidery.” She explains the distinction between the Lefkaritika crafted by the women of Kato Drys and those of Lefkara. It was their choice of fabric. French linen, finer yet more challenging to embroider, was the preference in Kato Drys. Yet, certain elements remain consistent, such as the captivating river technique. This method intrigued even Leonardo da Vinci during his visit to Cyprus in 1481. He acquired such an embroidery, which he later donated to decorate the Holy Altar of the Milan Cathedral. I gaze at the photographs of these merchants displayed in a glass case. Mrs Ellie has a final surprise, sharing that her mother-in-law was one of the skilled embroiderers behind a grand tablecloth meant as a gift for Queen Elizabeth. “Surprisingly, the Queen declined the gift,” she confides. “Fortunately, it found its place in the Lefkara Museum for us and other visitors to appreciate,” I add with a smile, and she nods in agreement.
Second stop: Lefkara
On the way to beautiful Lefkara, I refresh my memory of the historical information about Lefkaritika embroidery that, since 2009, has been included on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list of UNESCO. Its history began when the island was under Lusignan and Venetian rule. According to tradition, ladies from the West staying in Lefkara taught embroidery to young women from the village who, in turn, passed it onto the next generation. Inspired by nature, the intricate Lefkaritika designs transform through a blend of unique stitches.
Historically, embroidery was a cherished skill among village women, utilised for crafting dowries and adorning homes rather than a means of livelihood. This changed under British rule. In the late 19th century, a dynamic resident of Lefkara, Theofila Hadjiantoni, gathered embroideries from local artisans and travelled to Alexandria, where she successfully sold them to the Greek community, marking a turning point for the craft. In a brief span, she returned with an impressive £500, a colossal sum at the time. This windfall transformed embroidery into a lucrative profession, enticing men to become merchants. By World War II, Lefkara’s merchants made Lefkaritika world famous, enriching their village and ushering in fresh ideas. “What a captivating tale – almost cinematic,” I remark to the photographer as he veers toward Lefkara, stopping in front of captivating graffiti portraying five generations of women crafting a splendid piece of embroidery.
After photographing the graffiti, we encounter Mrs Maro in the winding alleys of Lefkara, seated outside her shop where she embroiders and sells her handicrafts. She tells me that she has known how to embroider since the age of ten, learning from her mother, her mother from her grandmother, and so on: “It was a way to keep us at home, behaving,” she says. “But it was also a way to continue this precious art,” I tell her. She agrees, saying, “The village streets used to teem with embroiderers. Now, you only find them in old photographs. There are very few of us left,” she laments, her expression turning sombre. Next door, Mrs Georgia proudly displays a photo of her grandmother featured on the cover of Cyprus Review, an old magazine. Adorning the walls are photos of her mother embroidering with fellow women and a painting portraying her and her sister with needle and thread. “An Iranian tourist sketched us,” she fondly recalls. She instructs us in discerning authentic Lefkaritika, insisting that “The fabric must be linen and the thread colours should be white, beige or shades of brown, so you can’t distinguish the front side from the back. Most designs are geometric, delicately framed with stitching and finished with lace. The linen is Irish, the thread French, and the ploumi (a small pillow) is an essential tool.” Expressing my gratitude, I move on to Rouvis, the only shop that abstains from machine embroidery, according to owner Mr Michalis, who crafted the renowned embroidered tablecloth gifted to the Milan Cathedral in 1986, echoing a tradition initiated by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years prior. “My father was exceptionally skilled in embroidery design; it was his talent,” reveals his son, Demosthenes, who possesses in-depth knowledge of every embroidery piece in their shop. Toula Rouvis voices her concern, stating, “We are the last generation to know this art. Who will continue this legacy once we’re gone?” she wonders sorrowfully.
The next stop, perhaps an answer to Mrs Toula’s question, is the Lefkara Handicraft Centre, created for this very purpose: to preserve and continue the Lefkaritika tradition in embroidery by organising, among other things, courses in embroidery. Old black and white photographs of embroiderers on the walls, tablecloths and bedspreads in the room and a bunch of stories locked up in display cases leave us with a great need to reassess the little doilies that grandma once gave us and that we have kept deep in a drawer.
Third stop: Omodos
Arriving in the late afternoon, I tell the photographer, “We hardly have time to visit the Lace Centre Museum,” and we briskly step into a narrow, elongated room in the north wing of the Timios Stavros Monastery that once functioned as cells for monks. Here, the narrative shifts from Lefkaritika embroidery to the renowned pipilla (needle laces). This delicate art is primarily upheld by the pipillarena (the embroiderer), predominantly in Omodos. It’s believed to have Byzantine origins, although its style and motifs echo designs from Constantinople, Smyrna and the Eastern Aegean islands.
With daylight fading, the village women, who spend their days embroidering in the charming alleys, retire indoors. Our exploration is confined to the museum, where we capture images of their exquisite handicrafts. The exhibits are a testament to their dedication. Upon learning about the creation of the Centre for the Preservation of Narrow-Knit Lacing, these women eagerly retrieved their cherished embroideries, once reserved for their children, to enrich the exhibition. Reading through the information, I learned that, in οld times, Omodos lace adorned women’s shawls, sheets, pillowcases and beds, transforming their homes into personalised havens of beauty. I hurriedly jotted down as many notes as I could. With the museum about to close, there’s a sense of urgency to revisit and engage further with the remaining embroiderers and hear more stories about their handmade creations.