Traditional Crafts and Folk Art from Crete

 In a rural society like Crete the folk art and the handicraft grew out of the need for making objects for everyday use. Carpets, blankets, bed coverings and other weaved and embroidered articles, boots and bags of leather, knives and scissors, ceramics and earthenware and baskets made from reed and osier. 

Today, hardly anyone produces such articles anymore. And when they do it's mostly for the tourist industry and the quality is often as might be expected. In other words, you will have to search carefully to find quality items. But it is definitely possible and there are still people who uphold the old traditions of Cretan handicraft. 

Cretan weaving

Weaving

The prefecture of Rethymnon is especially renowned for dyeing, weaving and embroidery on Crete. For generations, the skill of weaving have been passed from mother to daughter. But today, weaving is rapidly becoming a defunct craft even here and commercially active hand-weaving workshops are getting hard to find. Only a few decades back it was different. Women used to dye their own yarns, using vegetable dyes, and the loom was present in every household. They used materials such as cotton, wool, flax or silk and made blankets, bed coverings, sheets, towels, tablecloths, sacks, aprons and more.

Cretan weavings are characterised by the vivid colours and the rich decorative design. Geometrical patterns are common with the rhombus as a basic motif. But also flowers, animals or humans or motifs from the history of Crete are used.

Not too far from our holiday house is the village of Anogia which is actually a small hand-weaving community famous for keeping the tradition of Cretan weaving alive. Many of the families here are occupied full time with weaving. There are several shops in Anogia, where you can see hand-weaving in action and there's a factory where the wool from the local sheep is processed. The background for Anogias occupation with weaving is tragic. During the second world war the German occupying power destroyed the entire village and killed many of the men as a revenge for the abduction of General Kneipe by some of the villagers. Deprived of their livelihood several women of the village took up weaving to survive.

Stivania, Crete

Leatherwork

The traditional leatherwork of Crete find its most noticeable expression in the making of Στιβάνια (stivánia) the Cretan high boots. In Chania there is an entire shoemaker area called στιβανάδικα (stivanádika) on Skridlof Street. In the village of Anogia (mentioned above) the Koniós family of shoemakers have been making 'stivánia' since 1918. The boots were (and still are) practical when you walk in the mountains as they effectively protects the legs against thorny bushes and boulders. They are only made to measure and not two pairs are alike.

You can still see people wearing them in the mountain villages as part of their everyday dress but mostly they are only used in connection with performances and dances where people wear their traditional costumes.

Embroidery

The 'Cretan' or 'Rethymnian' stitch is the name for a characteristic technique used in the particularly renowned embroidery from this area. It is used in the so-called 'Grafta' embroideries, where the intricate motifs and are drawn on the fabric as a kind of templet before the actual embroidering is done. Another commonly used technique is called 'xombliasta'. Here the stitches are counted directly upon the face of the material, without any pattern having been drawn beforehand. The fabrics and threads could be silk, linen, cotton, wool or flax, dyed with vegetable or animal substances. There were embroidered items for the house's decoration, for the traditional garments' adornment and for ecclesiastical use. Sheets towels, pillows etc. for the home were often embroidered with multicoloured silk. The velvet jacket that is part of the women's traditional costume were richly adorned with gold embroidery. 

The motifs could be either purely decorative or they could be narrative or symbolic. Some examples show traces of the influence of the Venetian presence on Crete but mostly the motifs and techniques are from the Byzantine tradition. They include complex floral designs, fabulous creatures like mermaids, double-headed eagles or winged snakes and birds and other animals of Crete. Later works also feature motifs drawn from history or the mythology of ancient Greece.

Silk and lace making

In the village called Gavalohori on the Apokoronas Peninsula overlooking Souda Bay you can see some old mulberry trees planted by Turkish silk merchants in the 19th century. Today, the Gavalohori Women's Cooperative run by 30 ladies from the village still sells lace hand made from silk produced from the worms that feed on the mulberry leaves. Also, in the small folklore museum in Gavalohori you can see examples of the art. Lace making on Crete can be traced far back to ancient times but it seems to have been forgotten for a period and then reintroduced during the Renaissance. 

One technique of lace making is called κοπανέλι (kopaneli). A number of silk threads are rolled around bobbins (called 'kopanelia') and interweaved. With other techniques the laces are made using the hands alone (finger lace). 

Basket-weaving

The traditional art of basket weaving on Crete stems from the agricultural and household needs. Baskets and panniers were used for carrying grapes or olives or for storing grain. Some were made for cheese making and others for storing garments. The materials all came from the local Cretan flora. Usually baskets were made from reed, osier or splinter or rods from trees and bushes like oleander.

The village of Mixorrouma, near Spili is one of the places where the tradition of basket weaving is still alive. Another place which is also known for basket making but a little further away from our holiday house is the village of Argiroupoli.

Pithoi, Knossos

Pottery

At the Palace of Knossos more than 400 'pithoi' have been unearthed. πίθος (pithos) or πίθοι (pithoi in plural) is a Greek word that has been taken into the English language as a general word for a storage jar. At Knossos oil, water, grain and other necessities were stored in pithoi located in magazines or storage rooms. An average pithos can hold 550 kg (1.100 pounds). Ever since the Minoan times these enormous jars have been produced on Crete and in the rural areas they are still in use. They are very heat resistant and some years ago such jars were also transformed into huge ovens that were hidden in the mountains. Here sheep thieves would use them to cook and preserve their stolen meat. The traditional Cretan dish 'Kleftiko' comes from this practise. (Kleftiko means something like 'à la thief').

The village of Margarites which is nearby our holiday home has been an important centre for pottery for centuries. This is one of the few places where they still make pithoi today. But they also make smaller items such as flower pots, jars, mugs and decorative ornaments. Very often it will have the characteristic dark blue glaze of Cretan ceramics.

Tο κρητικό μαχαίρι - The Cretan knife

Crete, that peaceful and tranquil island of today has a violent and disorderly past. No wonder then, that a knife or dagger until recently was part of every mans attire. And the Cretan knives are renowned for their superb quality. They are the quintessence of Cretan cutlery and they used to be important status symbols to the Cretans. A sign that you were willing and able to defend yourself. The blade has only one edge. Opposite to the edge the blade is flat and growing thinner near the tip, ending in a sharp point bend slightly upwards. Often the blade is decorated with a poem or proverb inscribed. The hilt traditionally is made of animal horn or bone. The classical hilt is V-shaped at the end. Beautifully ornamented scabbards are made from silver or for the more simple knives in wood or leather.

Especially in Chania and Herakleion you will find the traditional cutlers' workshops that are still in function today. The craft of cutlery is passed from generation to generation and in the shops you'll be able to not only admire and buy the knives but also hear the fascinating story of this artefact so dominant in Cretan history by the very same people who preserve the legacy.

Wood-carving

The wood-carvers of Crete used to make mainly items for religious purposes. The richly decorated ikonostasis of the monastery of Arkadi is a fine example of the art. Other items could be icon stands, pulpits candlesticks and other things that were used for the decoration of the churches. Another area where the wood-carvers are still engaged today is the production of instruments. In Rethymnon in particular you can see them working in their workshops creating lyras and other folk instruments. Also, in a number of shops you can buy salad servers, bowls, trays and other items made from olive wood, cypress etc.