Embroidery on Village Women’s Shirts in Metohija and Kosovo
The rich collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade has recently enabled us to acquaint ourselves again with the skills of making handicrafts and decoration on clothing, as a worthy witness to the persistence and imagination of the anonymous creators of folk art.
In the area of the present-day Yugoslav province of Kosovo, the favourable geographical position, dense population and superb natural conditions, enabled a concentracion of several artistic influences, and rapidly led to the development of a strong social nexus and then of a state, one of the centres of medieval Serbia. The growth of material culture also went along with an ascent of spiritual culture, a great spread of creativity and intellectuality. This community was often the stage on which were welded together different artistic currents and socio-historical processes, a place where peoples, ethnic groups and cultures mingled. In these circumstances, which lasted for centuries, the skill of making marvellous folk embroidery developed, and on show at the Ethnographic Museum are items dating from the mid-19th century to just before the Second World War.
Metohija shirts were made of hemp, and Kosovo ones of hemp, flax, cotton mixture and cotton linen. Ordinary shirts, worn every day, were not decorated. Only those worn on formal occasions, when people went out for gatherings and fairs, were decorated with embroidery, using various, coloured threads in wool, cotton, silk and metal.
The shirts were named after the places from which the patterns originated. Thus we have lipljanka (from Lipljan) and skulanka (from Skulanovo). They were also often named after the patterns with which they were embroidered: e.g. lozana (vine-like), zmijana (snake-like), kolačana (cake-like), ’’three vipers’’... There is only one shirt named after the metal embroidered on it – zlatana (golden) – although silver wire was in fact used. In Kosovo there was also a shirt which was only donned on one’s wedding day, the so-called wedding shirt or djurdjevka.
All the shirts were worked with an embroidery needle, by counting the threads of the warp. It is not know whether any other aid was used. Whether the linen she was working on was stretched by hand or by some other means, depended on the skill of the needlewoman. There is a considerable difference between wedding shirts and others. On a wedding shirt, the embroidered area is larger, the whole of the upper part of the sleeve is worked, not just one. The patterns are smaller and repeat, and sewn into the embroidery are tassels and tinsel. Perhaps the origin of the names of these shirts should be sought in the texts of the songs which accompany the bridal dances at the Easter or St. George’s Day fairs because, in the first year of marriage (and only in that period), young married women wear their wedding costumes when they go out to fairs. Or perhaps one should look for the names of wedding shirts in the content of the wedding ritual itself.
The patterns are worked in cherry red or black wool on linen made of hemp. Right up to the 1920s, Metohija embroidery was made only with wool and only on that kind of linen. The last examples of this unusually beautiful embroidery, made after the First World War, used a small amount of colourful cotton thread in addition to wool. Sometimes hemp linen was replaced by cotton linen.
With regard to the patterns, the motifs are in all respects universal. There are crosses, rhombuses, hexagons, stylized flowers, hooks, triangles and other geometrical shapes appear not only on this embroidery but on almost all Balkan embroidery, in weaving, metal decoration, wood-carving, architecture, tombstones.
Today one can only assume what the symbolism of the patterns on shirts from Metohija and Kosovo means, because there is no possibility of interpreting the messages of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of women’s hands whose work on exhibition in Belgrade provides such a pleasant glimpse of an almost forgotten past.
Author Aleksandar Gaon
text was written in 1987