The age-old secrets of Greek lacemaking reveal a fine art

Northern European lace is nowadays held to be of the technically finest in the world, yet lace in the Eastern Mediterranean is the one with the oldest tradition. Although theories on the origins of lacemaking differ, it is generally believed that Greece in the Byzantine period is where some of the earliest laces appeared. Termed «punto greco» (the Greek, button-hole stitch), this particular technique that was distinctive to Greek lace made its way to Venice during the 16th century and developed into the so-called Italian «reticella.» Greek laces from that late Renaissance period to our day is the subject of a small but engaging exhibition currently held at the Benaki Museum. Organized by Benaki curator Xenia Politou and Despina Koutsika, member of the OIDFA, «Greek Lace in the Victoria and Albert Museum» shows laces from the V&A’s collection and reveals the most representative techniques of lace-making that developed in Greece and its region. Each of the categories presented has a unique style. The so-called «bibila» or «birbila» needle laces which, in the exhibition, are shown in bands used to adorn garments (kerchiefs or upholstery) are marked by their delicate, mostly floral motifs and beautiful, pastel colors. Their most distinctive trait is that they resemble a combination of small knots and stitches. Bibila lace is considered to be Greek but variations of it also appear in other areas of the Eastern Mediterranean like, for example, Turkey. Needle lace, which is another category, originates from embroidery and is made with a sewing needle. In its most basic version, the technique is based on the use of a solid embroidered cloth. The final lace is made by the threads that are removed from the ground of the cloth and are combined with additional threads. The effect is ethereal and delicate. There are also bobbin laces. Here the technique involves pinning a pattern on a cushion and the use of bobbins that draw the lace’s design around the pins. A different section is given to Cretan laces, which are usually made in the bobbin-lace technique. Densely woven, they almost resemble embroideries and are set off from the rest of the laces presented in the exhibition by their tight designs and deep colors. Also from Crete are the laces that were made for the so-called «koleto» or «spoleto,» a kind of tippet that was inspired by Venetian clothing and was fashionable in Crete from the 17th to the late 18th century. In the koleto, laces are used as bands of stitching between pieces of fabric or as borders. Seen with the rest of the exhibition, they show the variety of techniques and aesthetic effects in Greek lace and describe a rich tradition that, quite possibly, grew out of the Greek and broader Eastern Mediterranean region. The exhibition coincides with OIDFA’s (Organization Internationale de la Dentelle au Fuseau et a l’Aiguille) 12th international conference, held in Athens from May 26-28. The former Athens bursary which will host the conference will also hold a large international exhibition on lace. Separate exhibitions on Greek lace will be held in Athens venues. ( At the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, Kolonaki, tel 210.367.1000) to June 18. Gifts of thanks are returned to their home Most of the holdings in the Greek lace collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum were originally owned by the late-19th-century British diplomat Thomas Sandwith, who was consul in Crete from 1870-1875. Apparently, Sandwith was not a collector of lace but was given laces from the locals as presents for the charity work and economic assistance that he offered them. Upon his return to England, Sandwith donated his collection to the South Kensington Museum (the present V&A). He kept a small part of his collection, which his granddaughter Priscilla Boys-Smith donated to the Historical Museum of Crete at Heraklion and the Historical Archive of Crete at Hania in 1975.