Lefkaritika cushion

Creative Writing MA student on her placement in Cyprus

This summer Marina Castledine studied Lefkaritika, traditional Cypriot embroidery art, and wrote about it for her studies, supported by Grampus Heritage and funded by Erasmus. Read her report.

“My interest in the craft of Lefkaritika began during the development of my final dissertation, as part of a Creative Writing MA at the University of Brighton, although my connections to it go back much further. Lefkaritika is a style of lacemaking employed in the villages of Cyprus, especially that of Lefkara. Named after the white rocks that surround it, the village is situated at the foot of the Troodos Mountains in the south eastern region of the island1. Also known as ‘Lefkara Laces’, the origins of the craft go back to the 11th century and the ‘white embroideries’ of Cyprus. As a result of the Venetian invasion in 1489, new techniques and designs were absorbed into the tradition, which became known as Lefkaritika, (meaning ‘from Lefkara’). As the only documentary film about the history makes clear, 2 the survival of not only the village but Cyprus itself, owes a significant debt to the women lace makers (‘pluemistras’) and the men who traded it abroad. Today, with a population of less than 1,000 and an estimated 250 of those being women who practise the craft, an economic, social, political and cultural understanding of Lefkaritika, is central to an understanding of the people and place of Lefkara.3 This interweaving of place and art extends to the design of the lace itself, with patterns being influenced by local landscape and culture, as the image below, taken of a cushion in the local ethnographic museum during my research trips demonstrates.4 The main cut work diagonal, known as ‘potomos’, is made up of a repeated zig-zag pattern. A ‘potomatós’ as seen here, is an embellished version, described in Lefkara lace embroidery as ‘compared to the wide, raging, winter torrents of Cyprus that come sweeping down from the mountains after the winter rains.

“Another incentive for researching both Lefkara and Lefkaritika is that of my family history, largely unknown to me. My father was born in the village, before emigrating to England around the age of 15. With nobody alive of my parent’s generation, I was keen to visit a place I only have a vague memory of walking through as child. Additionally, hazy recollections are a symptomatic characteristic of a type of memory loss I am diagnosed with, called dissociative amnesia, that leaves me with an inability to recall autobiographical information. As a creative writing student, I see a parallel between the deliberate cut holes in the lace and gaps in memory. Part of my ongoing research is exploring how the latter can be protected as sites of positive choice (rather than spaces that need filling) and, influenced by the former, I hope to develop a new pedagogical framework, that supports memory loss and memoir.

“During my placement, the host arranged for me to meet Margarita and her daughter Elli, lace-makers in Pano Lefkara. Arriving slightly early, we first visited the tiny chapel near their home. Like most chapels across the island of Cyprus, the heavy wooden door was unlocked, although it needed a forceful push as it resisted opening, scraping against the white stone floor and alerting the locals to our presence. After reassuring a nearby Yiayia (grandmother) we were genuinely interested in entering, we spent several restful moments inside.

“Seeing Lefkaritika in situ is a very different experience than viewing it in the many small shops that line the alleyways of the village and the chapel is a wonderful example. It houses two main pieces of lace, each embroidered with the holy cross design, one using white and the other brown thread. The practical dimension of the lace is one that was reinforced throughout my visit, both to the chapel and Margarita’s home, and is sadly a significant reason for its decline. 6 Originally, the cloth was made for numerous domestic functions, from cushion and bed covers, to tablecloths and curtains. In her house, Elli showed us white embroidered squares placed over the tops of armchairs, to protect them from the pomade Cypriot men used to liberally apply to their hair! Today, the cost, availability and therefore role of cloth has changed. Within an international market, you are more likely to own machine manufactured duvet covers than hand-made bed linen, and so Lefkaritika, once a treasured family heirloom, is mostly redundant.
During a conversation over the obligatory Cypriot coffee and homemade biscuits, Margarita also revealed that she remembered my Yiayia, confirming she too once made lace to support her children, including my father. This added dimension, of uncovering lost family knowledge intertwined with learning new skills, resonated deeply, resulting in a rich and moving experience. I even discovered that I share the same cousins with one of my teachers!

“However beautiful the lace, it is a disappearing artform and this situation has resulted in concern for the craft’s survival,7 so in 2009 Lefkaritiko was inscribed as both an art and social practice on the UNESCO ‘Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ 8 with the ambition of protecting it. Informed by ongoing safeguarding practice, UNESCO define ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ as having four key characteristics: traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; inclusive; representative; and community-based. They highlight that, ‘the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next […] to be kept alive, it must remain relevant to a culture and be regularly practiced and learned within communities and between generations.

“The work of Grampus, through schemes such as PEATS Traditional Skills, is key to this, with students not only learning artforms such as Lefkaritika, mosaic and icon painting, but also working within the local community to apply those techniques in contemporary ways. I am only half-way through my time in Cyprus, yet already it feels life changing and I am sure what is being taught will resonate through my work in years to come.”

By Marina Castledine

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