By a Thread: Weaving the Stories of an Island

In the Odyssey, Homer describes Crete as a rich land, filled with people of different races who speak several languages. As the island is located in the eastern Mediterranean at a crossroad of three continents, the cultural influences are many.

In Rethymno town on the north coast of Crete, this wonderful museum housed in a 17th century Venetian mansion provided a window into traditional Cretan culture.

As I’m especially interested in indigenous art-making and the ways in which women’s stories have filtered down to us through these mediums, it was wonderful to see the many styles of embroidery, weaving and lace that were often given as gifts to mark significant life events: birth, baptism, engagement, marriage and death.

Older Cretan women, interviewed by Despina Tzanidaki in 2011, took pride in preserving and teaching traditional skills and designs. They perceived art-making as promoting continuity of self, social status and spiritual well-being and as a way of coping with the challenges of later life such as bereavement.

There was a range of embroidered items that had been donated to the museum, ranging from slippers given as an engagement gift, to beautiful sack- drouvas used to transport things hung on the pack saddles of animals.

Embroidered bands on dresses were able to survive for generations, incorporated and integrated into the next generations’ costumes with changes and additions being made by each new generation, a secret language handed down among women, reflecting their inner and outer lives.

The examples below show the complex and constantly overlaid influences that have made up such a significant amount of the decorative arts of Crete. These weavers are the storytellers and culture-keepers of the family.

The silk was often dyed with vegetable dyes, and subjects are often linked to the mythological and the organic, or occasionally political, depicting actual events. Many are drawn from the Byzantine tradition and feature decorative motifs with complex floral designs, mermaids, double-headed eagles, snakes, winged snakes, animals, birds of Crete, and female figures at prayer. 

Baskets, and even bread was woven into different styles that represented a particular locality.

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