Household Textiles in Kalotaszeg, Transylvania

The women of the Hungarian region of Kalotaszeg usually made domestic textiles for private use. Highly skilled, they started learning the necessary techniques in childhood, beginning with wristbands and handkerchiefs. By the age of six or seven, little girls were already able to decorate the edges of bed sheets and pillowcases. Especially skilfully embroidered trousseaus, to be displayed once they had married and moved to their new home, attracted a considerable amount of praise and recognition.
In some parts of Hungary, these items were considered so much a part of the person who created them that – should a young woman die childless – it was customary to bury her with the most beautiful items she had made. The advent of industrial textiles at the end of the 19th century of course saw the market flooded with much less significant textiles.

The pre-traced, extraordinary needlework from Kalotaszeg is called Írásos, “written” embroidery. It was sketched out with a goosequill or tip of a spindle dipped into milk mixed with soot. Today, the old ladies still practicing this craft use a ballpoint pen. In general, it was the older women who were in charge of tracing out the designs, as they learned all the motifs and variations from a vast repertoire of forms and patterns by heart. Less skilled embroiderers had the designs sketched out for them by professional designers. There were even professional embroiderers, who could embroider entire dowries for a small budget or a sizeable fee.

Until the end of the First World War, women created these “written embroideries” strictly for private use. Once the war ended, a rural industry of sorts started to evolve, which saw embroidered goods and other wares being sold to the public.

The colour scheme of the embroidery and appliqués is characterised by contrast: large, undecorated white spaces are juxtaposed with black, red or blue embroidery, red being much the most important colour. Almost all the domestic textiles are embroidered in two colours; with gros point embroideries this is sometimes also the case. With clothing and objects exhibited in the home, only areas visible to others would be embroidered, since they saw little point in spending any time decorating part of a sleeve generally covered by another garment. Besides chain and stem stitches, over the years satin stitches also came to be used to fill in designs, making the patterns increasingly solid. Unfortunately, this density and high level of detail have lessened since the end of the last century.

The general rule governing interior design seems to be: the more, the better. The close arrangement of textiles along the walls, stacked cushions on beds – embroidered side turned out to face potential visitors – as well as the many tapestries and table cloths seem to point to a horror vacui, a kind of fear of empty spaces. Despite the quantity of fabrics and abundantly florally decorated furniture – which can still be found in some of Kalotaszeg’s living rooms today – everything had its place and was meticulously arranged.

In 1939, the art historian Walter Passarge painstakingly documented the principles governing these folk art designs. These included: the surface structure, the geometric simplification of patterns used, typology of shapes and objects, motionlessness, adherence to order, alignment, symmetry and repetition; whether there was a simple or rhythmic sequence, concentric organisation, ornamental-symbolic conditionality relating to proportion; the unwavering, graphic silhouettes, consistently strong use of colour and finally the propensity for embellishment. One can imagine that he was studying an item from Kalotaszeg when he set out these qualities.

Know more about the folk art of Kalotaszeg.

Fotos von oben nach unten:

1. Erdödi Mihály, Körösfö 1940. From the archive of the Museum of Ethnology in Budapest:  Neprajzi Museum Budapest.

2. Körösfö 2013, At home at Anna Mihály.

3. Interior from the book “Izvoru Crisului, Poarta Ardealului 2011

4. Vados Ernö, Körösfö 1930. From the archive of the Museum of Ethnology in Budapest:  Neprajzi Museum Budapest.

5. Detail of the embroidery. 

6. Typical alcove construction. Seen in the Museum of Ethnology in  Cluj-Napoca. 

7.-9. Interior impressions today