In cosmopolitan Mykonos, where an estimated 1 million visitors flood its town and beaches every year, a group of women strive to keep a local tradition of lace embroidery alive. Before it became known for its jet-setting crowds, beach clubs and parties, Mykonos was in fact famous of the touli lace, a kind of embroidery unique to the island and which takes extreme skill and patience to make. The artistry of Mykonian embroideresses was so advanced, that even the once-time kings of Greece would commission them to make ornate tablecloths, collars and other items, to offer as royal gifts to their guests.
The touli lace got its name from tulle, as this intricate lace is traditionally embroidered on French, superfine cotton tulle using shiny silk thread. Featuring mostly floral or geometric patterns, the touli emerged on Mykonos in the late 19th century, but it spread in many Mykonian households by the 1900’s. The making of touli was a rather exclusive and closed craft: only women from affluent families had the free time and resources necessary to make these time-consuming handiworks, and the ladies who already knew the craft were very secretive about it. Gradually, women from other classes learned the secrets of making touli, either by peeping over the shoulders of embroideresses, or by trying out the various stitches themselves on pieces of scrap cloth.
A selection of well-preserved samples of touli one can find at the Mykonos Folklore Museum, next to maritime maps, journals and portraits of notable Mykonians. Mrs Dimitra Nazou, who is in charge of the small museum, speaks of how the uncanny beauty of these ethereal pieces of embroidery are interwoven with the worries, joys, dreams and disappointments of generations of women: The touli was also empowering women at the time, since making and selling lace to tourists was the only way young girls could help their families survive during periods of extreme poverty.
“There are many stories about these laces. Some of them were made by very young women as part of their dowries, but they were never used —either because the woman never got married after all, or because she died very young, or some other reason. Others were made in exile, by immigrant women married into wealthy families of Greek merchants abroad. That’s why you sometimes find the word ‘Mykonos’ embroidered in them, they were missing home…”
Today, the Mykonian touli lace tradition has been overshadowed by tourism of course, but the locals are striving to keep the tradition alive. Mrs Mary Stavrakopoulou is the vice-president of the Mykonian Women Cultural Association, a non-profit based in Mykonos that documents, preserves and promotes local traditions. “The association maintains an archive of traditional costumes,” she explains, “which we lend out for dance performances and parades. We also want young people to learn more about Mykonian lace and weaving; that’s why we organise workshops led by experienced craftswomen, which are open to the public and the younger generation in particular.” Hopefully, actions like these will kindle new interest for these time-honoured traditions, and help the island’s culture and history remain alive for generations to come.
The Mykonos Folklore Museum
The Mykonos Folklore Museum is right next to Paraportiani Church at Kastro, in Mykonos Town. The museum is open from April to October, 16:30-20:30 or by appointment. For the activities of the Mykonian Women Association please contact us.
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