KONIAKOW, Poland – Delicate, hand-stitched lace from this mountaintop village has long graced the altars of Polish churches and tables of Polish homes.
But now tradition has taken a modern twist with thongs, G-strings and other racy undergarments – offending some villagers but giving new life to a 200-year-old cottage industry.
“Lace wasn’t selling in the quantities it once did, and the tradition was starting to slowly disappear,” says Malgorzata Stanaszek, co-owner of KONI-art, the company that stitches the lingerie. “Our friend then said, as a half-joke, ‘Why don’t you make thongs? They’re popular now.’ “
Stanaszek, 32, recruited her mother and two sisters into the business, and they started stitching the thongs and selling them on the Internet in 2004. Now, Stanaszek says she employs 65 women who work from home churning out lace panties, G-strings, thongs and bras for customers around the world. Orders come from across Europe and as far away as Japan, China, New Zealand and the United States; a Koniakow thong sells for about $20.
“Our company has a global reach,” Stanaszek says from her tiny office in Koniakow’s sister village Istebna, a smattering of wooden houses lining the road that snakes along the mountain’s crest.
The sexy designs are a far cry from the stodgy doilies, curtains and table runners of the past, leading some residents to view the thongs as a slap against the village’s lace-making tradition.
“It’s really not beautiful at all what they’re doing,” said Joanna Pielka, an elderly woman on her way to church in Istebna. “Do there have to be so many holes?”
Stanaszek says some older lace makers remain opposed. “There is a small group of people that is against the underwear, and they will remain that way,” she said.
“But the dispute is tailing off because it’s not as if people are running around in the streets in this stuff.”
In a small, mountainside Koniakow home with apple trees running down the slope out back, Anna Barska, Elzbieta Kukuczka and Krystyna Kajzer sit on a couch stitching small circular patterns for new thongs under a picture of the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II.
“It pays more to make thongs,” said Barska, her fingers rapidly stitching blue thread. “Table runners take a week to make because of the detail of each flower. Thongs you can make faster.”
Barska, who has stitched lace for 35 years and has taught the craft to four of her five daughters, brushes aside criticism.
“There’s no shame in doing this. Shame would be stealing,” she said. “This is work.”
Publicity about the thongs has benefited older lace makers too, says Tadeusz Ludzki, who owns a gift shop in Koniakow.
Stanaszek’s business shows no sign of slowing down. She plans to release a new collection this summer and may launch a silk-lace line later in the year.