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PANO LEFKARA, Cyprus (Reuters Life!) - An ancient Cypriot craft reputed to feature in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper" is getting a new lease of life.
Lefkaritiko lacemaking, an intricate form of needlework passed down from generation to generation is expected to be declared a heritage item by UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for the protection and promotion of culture.
"This particular lacemaking is passed on from mother to daughter, and the young girls start to learn from six, seven years old, even before they go to school. It's unique," says Andreas Soseilos, Mayor of Pano Lefkara, a hamlet nestled in mountains some 50 km (31 miles) southwest of Nicosia, Cyprus's capital.
Following a 500-year-old tradition, women of this 1,100 strong community still sit in doorways shaded with lush bougainvillea along narrow streets, nimbly working pieces of beige Irish linen with deft strokes of a needle and single thread.
"There are no patterns we copy, it's all in our heads," said Eleni Raouna, who has been making lace since she was 13.
It was an art form good enough to impress Leonardo da Vinci when he visited Cyprus in 1481, local legend says. He is said to have taken one of the embroideries back with him as a gift for the Milan Cathedral.
That same legend suggests, but cannot be verified, that it inspired the tablecloth design on The Last Supper painting, depicting Jesus and his 12 disciples having their last meal.
Da Vinci began work on the mural, which does feature a light-colored tablecloth draped over a long rectangular table, around 1495. Notebooks left by the Renaissance master which include references to Cyprus suggest a visit to the Mediterranean island.
"We know da Vinci visited Cyprus," said Soseilos. "Lace was bought by Leonardo da Vinci and taken to the Cathedral at Milan. It wore out...so 20 years ago we replaced that with a new one which is now in the cathedral."
The community expect ratification of the lace as an item of world heritage by UNESCO in September, he said.
Today, a handful of women eke a living out of lacemaking.
"This is a job which requires a lot of patience, young women today won't do it. They want to go to study, become doctors and lawyers," said 66-year-old Christalla Raouna.
She was five when her mother first taught her the basics; how to embroider a thin border along a sheet of linen.
"I gradually moved on to more complex designs," she said, showing a tablecloth with "zig zag" needlework running parallel to the outside edge of the fabric.
Locals call it the Da Vinci design.
Lacemaking is thought to have been introduced in the 12th century, when noblewomen from Europe used to spend summers in Pano Lefkara to escape the heat of the lower plains, passing on their embroidery skills to locals.
Since then it has played an important role in the economic development of the village. In the 1800s and early 1900s, mothers would dispatch their sons to Europe and the Middle East, carrying suitcases stuffed with lace.
The men would sell it from door to door. Today, many of the benefactors of the town are individuals who left penniless, but were able to establish themselves financially by selling mother's lace.
Each piece of needlework is unique. Only single thread is used which is either white, brown or khaki, its designs are geometric, and looks exactly the same on the front and the back.
Depending on the size, it can take a lacemaker between three months and three years to complete one piece of lace. Buyers will get what they pay for; prices can range from 200 euros ($288) for a small coffee table cover to 18,000 euros for a banquet-sized tablecloth with exquisite needlework.
"Its an art which is a continuous learning process," said Eleni Raouna, whose 44-year-old daughter is now considered one of the youngest in the village proficient with lacemaking.
"It's not easy for the young girls to sit here and earn a living," she said.
Sosielos is hoping the UNESCO seal will change all that. He hopes to open a school in the community, putting needlework tuition on a more formal basis than that of mother to daughter.
"Lefkara lace is an art form and we want to give it the recognition it deserves," he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato