Koniakow, the 500-year-old village in a strongly conservative southwest part of Poland that produced Pope John Paul II, is almost totally unreachable during wintertime, particularly heavy in terms of snowfalls. For two centuries, the women have hooked thread in intricate crochet patterns to create lace tablecloths and altar ornaments coveted by royalty across Europe. It was an art taught by mothers to daughters, done at home after the daily farming chores were finished, bringing honor and income to the small local population.
Oval or round, made with tremendous patience and skilled tablecloths reached tables of kings, aristocrats, bishops and all those with abundant amounts of money to spend and a desire to live surrounded with splendor and beauty. Koniakow lace decorates tables in Vatican, Buckingham Palace, the White House and many other eminent places.
Then came G-strings. Last fall, some lace makers trying to earn money spun a racy twist to the art, deciding that underwear would sell better than doilies. Since, the town of 3,000 has been in an uproar, neighbor pitted against neighbor over lace thongs.
“Lace making has always been a way for people to earn money here,” says the 56-year-old mayor of the village, “But since the strings started, the community has been divided: about money, about morality, about tradition.”
Some traditional lace makers accuse the renegade lace makers of greed. Others say the thongs defile tradition, are indecent and promote sex. “Our lace graces Polish altars, the office of our president and that of the holy pope in Rome,” says the president of a local craft guild of lace makers who has been working with lace for six decades. “And suddenly, our lace is turning up – I don’t dare say where. How did the lace makers of Koniakow come to this?”
“Times are tough,” say their adversaries in the conflict, “handkerchiefs and tablecloths don’t sell well.”
Lace making in Koniakow began in the 19th century when young women began creating caps of white lace to don after their weddings. Soon after, say lace makers, women in the town began to weave tablecloths, altar ornaments, clergy robe collars and other ornaments that adorn Polish religious and family occasions, as a way to supplement their income. Like heirlooms, patterns and lace needles passed through generations.
During communist times, business was good. The community was supported by the state in official craft guilds and subsidized as a nationally recognized art. Orders poured in from state-run stores, prominent officials wanting to use them to present as official gifts and clergy who used the lace in ceremonies and on their clothing.
Things changed when communism collapsed in the late 1980s. The government subsidies stopped and state-store orders dried up. Borders opened to influence and products from the West. People became poorer as they lost state jobs in the former planned-economy.
The scanty underwear some lace makers already were quietly making for themselves started stirring local debate in June 2004. The suddent shift from religious ornaments to sexy lingerie was noted by major news sources worldwide. Magazines as reputable as The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times covered the topic and around that time the thongs have began being available online. Each pair can be made to a customer’s specifications of color and design. Although the lingerie is definitely feminine, it stirs interest among men as well, being unique and sophisticated romantic gift ideas.