Passionate, opinionated, sometimes unnervingly direct, even to the point of being politically incorrect, Myrna Pattichis says what she thinks and doesn’t hesitate to interrupt and correct you when she feels something you said conveys the wrong message.
How can a journalist not be a little nervous about the prospect of writing about this independent-minded, 54-year-old businesswoman whose husband Nicos Pattichis is the owner of Phileleftheros Publishers Ltd? I admit to some initial misgivings but soon realise it’s best to take the direct route and address the subject Pattichis is currently most passionate and, by her own admission, frustrated about. She is ardent in her commitment to reviving the renowned Lefkara lace and embroidery tradition. Her frustration stems from what she perceives to be the lack of government action to save this unique Cypriot art form from extinction.
“Nothing is being done to protect it,” she proclaims with a fervent conviction that is all the more startling given her cool elegance as she sits across the table from me in a coffee shop.
“If it continues like this, it will disappear and I will let it disappear because I have done my bit. I have done what I could to save it. This is now the government’s job but nobody seems to care about it…”
Pattichis says her enthusiasm for Lefkaritika, the distinct and intricate embroidery perfected by the women of Lefkara village over hundreds of years, was first sparked in her childhood and then consolidated through “many particles of different things coming together”.
To start with, when she was at school there was a Domestic Education class that required girls to learn the basic Lefkaritika stitches.
“The reason for such a class was not for us to master the form but to know the basic steps because only then could one start appreciating how difficult this embroidery is and how brilliant the people who make it are,” she explains.
She recounts how learning to count threads in the linen to create the patterns proved so difficult she had to go home and ask her mother for help. “Of course, my mother helped me because all women at that time knew how to do it. It was our connection as women – my mother knew how to do it, my grandmother, my aunt, my sister, all the other kids’ mothers. It was as if the whole thing was under a big umbrella encompassing the whole country.”
She stops, momentarily upset, recalling how a Minister of Education (“I don’t remember which one”) put an end to those invaluable classes. “Now we have whole generations who have no idea about Lefkaritika. So how can they understand its value and safeguard it?
Pattichis’ love for Lefkaritika and her appreciation of the skill and the art behind it developed further thanks to her encounters with Margarita, a woman from Lefkara. The name Margarita is common in Lefkara, she notes, “because the daisy is one of the most popular patterns used in Lefkaritika.”
In this instance, Margarita was the wife of Yiannis, a guard in her father’s factory. “She had beautiful blue eyes and would be sitting there in their house, located by the factory, embroidering away. My father would tell her ‘Margarita when you finish this it will go into Myrna’s dowry’. I would hear him and have a look and of course I could see that this woman, being from the village and of the tradition, could do the embroidery much better than my mother. That is how I started appreciating the quality.”
An added factor, Myrna hastens to point out, was that Lefkaritika featured as a part of everyday life at that time. “We all had it at home. It existed around the whole island. When there was a wedding of somebody important, the President would order a big piece of Lefkaritiko from the village and the entire country was aware of this and appreciative.”
So when did it all stop?
“You know, it was a process. I have been collecting Lefkaritika since I was a little girl. First my parents were buying it for me and then I was buying it myself. Gradually I began to realise that places that once sold it were disappearing or that there was an absence of new stock. Slowly, slowly I started wondering what was happening but it took me a long time to react because I had to be sure I understood things correctly, that I had the full picture. And when I did, I told myself I had to do something.”
By then Myrna already had a few successful public initiatives under her belt focusing on other things. In 1996 she had helped the government forge contacts with one of the world’s premier AIDS research centres – the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre. As a result, Cypriot patients were able to access and secure AIDS triple therapy. She was also responsible for organising a series of fundraisers for the Sophia Foundation For Children, helping them build an orphanage in Kenya and provide children from 16 all-day Cypriot schools with free daily meals.
Asked how she succeeded in persuading top HIV/Aids researcher David Ho to come to Cyprus and provide local patients with his innovative treatment (again in 1996), she laughs. “It is always important to have your ears open and of course to want to help your country. It was the 90s and we were totally ignorant about the whole AIDS situation. At the time there was a Cypriot, Dr Leontios Kostrikis, working at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Centre so I called and said ‘You are a Cypriot, I am a Cypriot, when you come to Cyprus I want to meet you’. Not exactly reinventing the wheel, but it worked. And the truth is even if there had been no Cypriot connection, there’s always a way to find a way…”
At the mention of finding a way, Myrna becomes even more animated and turns once again to the subject of Lefkara lace. “You know, with Lefkaritika it is exactly the same thing… I have developed a project here in Cyprus that can have a huge significance for the sustainability of Lefkaritika. This means there is a Cypriot here in Cyprus doing this, yet nobody calls me. It is like there is no reaction, no interest. No reaction. There is no blood, no veins, nobody cares any more.”
In development since 2016, the project goes under the name retrovi, a word Myrna tellingly selected from Esperanto, the international language, meaning ‘to rediscover’.
The project draws mainly on the skills and knowledge of five “really good” Lefkara embroiderers, exponents of the stitching art who work in close consultation with Myrna to develop new colour schemes and designs. The retrovi concept emerged from a serendipitous meeting Myrna had with Lady Hayat Palumbo, the renowned Lebanese-born, London-based embroidery expert.
“When I told her what was happening with Lefkaritiko she immediately understood what I was talking about. She knew the embroidery because she had lived in Cyprus for three years during the war in Lebanon.”
Sympathetic to the plight of the dwindling sisterhood of highly skilled embroiderers, she asked the resolute Myrna what she had in mind. “I told her we had to change the use of the embroidery. She asked if I was planning to change the colours as well, and I said ‘yes’ because it would refresh and energise the lace work. This is how the idea of a clutch bag was first conceived. In fact, it was Lady Palumbo herself who made the first clutch bag for us.”
But why did retrovi start with a clutch bag?
“The idea to make the clutch was to show that Lefkaritika can be used in elegant new ways. Plus the clutch is something that by its simple elegance can be easily promoted by the woman carrying it. In this way, the women who buy our clutches can be ambassadors for this beautiful embroidery in everyday life,” she explains.
Elegance and respect are key to Myrna’s approach.
“For me it was important not to disrespect the Lefkaritko tradition. For example, I consider it a sacrilege when people put it on shoes.” In 2009 Unesco in 2009 placed Lefkaritiko on its intangible cultural heritage list. “It belongs not just to Cypriots but to the whole world,” she says.
The line of retrovi clutches, embroidered in a range of new colours by the Lefkaritiko lacemakers are proving especially popular among a new set of international buyers; women eager and willing to look beyond a brand in their search for something unique and special. “If I can buy a branded bag, a bag that costs thousands of euros, others will immediately understand that I am not poor. Lefkaritiko has a different clientele. People who buy it don’t care about branding. They want to be different.”
She describes it as “a niche product”, highly favoured by Japanese women and the Central European, who appreciate the detail and painstaking intricacy of the skilful embroidery. “It is also bought by some Russians and others, people who don’t want to be brand identified. This is a developing trend in different countries and this is where Lefkaritiko clutches fit in,” says Myrna.
When I ask how sales are going though Myrna sighs. “I could sell much more than I am. Your question should really be do I have women to do embroidery? And the answer is no, I don’t. So I have to keep production to small numbers. They are sold immediately.”
It takes time to make a Lefkaritiko clutch, often as long as a month. The fact that there are few women in the village capable of the level of needlework required to meet the project’s exacting standards doesn’t make things any easier. Moreover, the women cannot devote themselves fulltime to embroidery. They must fit it in with the routine of daily domestic, family and work obligations.
Looking me steadily in the eye, Myrna admits with a touch of resignation: “That is why I cannot deliver more and that is why this project should be really taken off my hands. What we really need is a well-designed, government-led programme that would secure the future of Lefkaritika and the women who know or are willing to be taught how to do it. The tradition and the skillset are in danger of disappearing as the older lacemakers die, taking their secrets to the grave. If I tell you that we have perhaps no more than five women at this level of skill, how do you conserve or even measure it? If one knows something the others don’t, the only way to pass this knowledge on is to gather these women together, where they can show their work to each other, and to experts, and to other, younger women who want to learn. These women are ready but the government has to do something about it.”
Myrna is adamant it is the government’s job to take care of the future of Lefkaritika and to come up with a strategy. “There are EU funds available and I am offering my services too, without being paid. I can share a lot of ideas. But the government has to start doing something about it, otherwise we are going to lose this vital part of our Cypriot heritage.”
Time is running out, it is now a matter of urgency. “I cannot take the project any further on my own. This is the government’s job. All this knowledge belongs to the country and to the women of Lefkara – how to embroider in new colours of red and pink and yellow and black and gold and use new designs that can still be easily recognised as Lefkaritika. The women and the skills are still there. They have embroidery in their DNA.
“There are young women in the village who want to learn because they have seen these new beautiful, colourful embroideries we make and they understand that if it lives on it offers a future. But how are they going to learn? We need a ‘school’ where they can be taught. This should be easy to achieve but only if the government takes action now.”