Written Threads

True expression in embroidery

Írásos or "written" embroidery, a true expression of Hungarian Kalotaszeg and Transylvanian culture in Romania and a pride of its people, adorns textiles for use in the home and for decoration.  The style was developed in the rural area west of Cluj Napoca, Romania in the late 18th Century.  Wall hangings were produced to commemorate ceremonies and as gifts for the church. Girls would sew their dowries, comprising pillows, sheets, and bedspreads, as well as elaborately decorated dresses that included ribbons, beadwork and other embroidery techniques.

Tulips, flowers, stems, leaves, lines, and circles form patterns often nearly covering portions of the fabric, inspired by Renaissance or Turkish motifs.  Patterns are first drawn or "written” using various methods, from drawing with a pen to tracing a cardboard or metal stencil to using the traditional prick and pounce method.  Originally the designs were drawn with a combination of milk and ashes on linen or hemp fabric.

Frequently women work together, some specializing in drawing and others in embroidering. The stitching is done in all one color—red, blue, black, or white—on white or natural linen or a linen-cotton blend using a small or large, square chain or open braid stitch.   Women stitch without a hoop or support structure.  Using heavier fabric with a tight weave is vital, as the weight makes it easier to hold and keep stitches in place without pulling and wrinkling the fabric.

Today, fewer and fewer young women are learning the technique nor are they doing much handwork of any kind.  Other styles of embroidery, like cross-stitch and vagdalásos, a style with pulled or cut work, are now more commonly practiced by elders in the community as they are less labor-intensive. 

Throughout my travels and work with artisans from 2012 - 2015, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find high quality írásos for sale.  The Hungarian Reformed Church, a Protestant Calvinist religion, is second to Catholicism in its membership in Hungary and is the major faith of the ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania. Hungarian Reformed Calvinist Churches display large, beautiful wall-hangings and many of the Bibles and hymnals have embroidered covers.  Apart from churches, museums and the occasional find at the weekly market, the work is hardly visible and rarely offered for sale.  Several people told me that even traditional textiles are now being made in China for sale to tourists in Transylvania.  I was lucky enough to meet and stay with a woman in Huedin who showed me her personal collection of textiles and costumes, including pieces she has stitched herself and work she has organized for exhibitions in Germany.  

Women like Anna, Piroska P. and Piroska S. are still stitching written embroidery, making pieces for their grandchildren to remember them, for sale locally, and for the joy of the craft.  Following the traditional rural lifestyle, many still do most of their sewing in the winter, as they are out in the fields or tending gardens and animals in the spring and summer.  

If you visit a Kalotaszeg village in the warmer months you may stumble upon a fence draped with handmade textiles for sale, and just maybe a piece of írásos. 

ThreadWritten is currently crowd funding on IndieGoGo for its next textiles research trip in the Netherlands and Ukraine. Contribution gifts include Kalotaszeg written embroidery made by the women pictured above as well as kits and classes in the technique.  For information go to www.threadwritten.com.

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