9 female & 2 male artisans
community organizer: ana florea
co/rizom partner since 3/2019
It took a French couture house
& a successful global campaign
to realize that local heritage
is part of people’s identity.
a team of weavers & embroiderers
have taken on a legacy
on the verge of extinction.
by recovering centuries-old patterns
at a time when local tastes
& needs have moved on
from traditional wear &
by applying this knowledge
to a range of products they ensure
the continued relevance & survival
of their craft.
andrei georgescu business development
chiara van praag creative wiener times creative cooperation jasmin jouhar texts nazef rerhuf photography
A small Romanian flag hangs on every lamppost in Cluj. One of the university buildings also bears a flag flying several storeys high. Our tour of Transylvania begins just before the national holiday on December 1, and many places, such as Cluj, are adorned in the national colors. Andrei, the Romanian in our small tour group, is visibly annoyed by so much nationalism on display. The Hungarian border is less than 200kms away and a large Hungarian minority, making up to a fifth of the population, lives in the region. Also most of the Transylvanian Saxons who shaped the area for hundreds of years have now emigrated. But their villages, and their churches that were fortified against Ottoman attacks, are still there. Picturesque cities such as Sibiu, formerly known as Hermannstadt, or Sighișoara, formerly Schäßburg, are highlights of tourist itineraries. Another minority, the Roma, is often marginalized and lives in poverty on the outskirts of villages. Some have also amassed wealth and built magnificent houses, palaces that are symbols of their success. It’s a scene typical of south-eastern Europe, where ethnic groups, cultures and religions have coexisted, more and less peacefully, for centuries. However, on their national holiday, Romanians have to show who is in the majority. Blue, yellow, red.
On the main street of Beiuș in the Bihor region there are cars everywhere. Today is market day. A man loads plastic bags full of textiles into a van. Right next to the market hall is a shop with a large storefront that reads ‘Bihor Couture Craft School’. We go to the back room. In the corner is a wooden loom. Women from Beiuș meet here to do handicrafts. Photos of lace blouses, floral scarves and embroidered skirts are pinned onto a partition wall. There’s also a picture of a young woman wearing a traditional waistcoat casually thrown over her shoulders with next to it the words, ‘Bihor Couture’. This seemingly effortless combination of local color and high fashion is actually an act of self-preservation. When the Dior fashion house sent a model down the catwalk in a lavishly embroidered Bihor-style sheepskin waistcoat, many locals were initially outraged. Then they started to realize the value of their regional textiles. In the 90s, many had simply thrown out old clothes, tapestries and blankets – dowry items laboriously crafted by hand over the years. Some local women decided that the rediscovery of their heritage shouldn’t be left to fashion people in Paris. Since then, they have immersed themselves in the history of their region and spent time weaving, crocheting and embroidering in the back room of the school. This journey into the past hasn’t only created a new awareness of their own identity, it is also the foundation and engine for the ‘Zestrea’ project (Romanian for dowry).
Ana is the heart of ‘Zestrea’ and where all threads lead. She finds the people who can still master old handicraft techniques. She found Gladiola, she found Zorin, she found Diana. And she firmly believes that people can make a living working with their hands. That's why she and others founded the meeting place in the school’s back room two years ago. After the Dior thing shook everyone up. “Until then traditional techniques, patterns and shapes had been pretty much forgotten,” says Ana. Traditional costumes were worn only by folklore ensembles and on special occasions. “But suddenly lots of people wanted to buy these vests, buy something traditional and local.” So craft became Ana's mission. On top of working in a kindergarten and, as an actress trained in Bucharest, offering acting courses. She’s a small person with a great talent for dedication. She checks fabric samples, researches old sample books and translates customers' wishes. A lot of the work produced is still a little rough, and the skills and products still have to be developed. Sometimes things don't work, the fabric is too smooth, the embroidery is placed incorrectly. But Ana senses how proud people are when their efforts are recognized and their work is exhibited internationally.
“If I'm stressed or have a problem, I crochet,” says Diana. “It relaxes me and I feel better straight away.” Diana is new to ‘Zestrea’ and an expert in – you guessed it - crochet. Dowry linens were often adorned with crocheted elements. They served as decorative way to connect several narrow pieces of cloth to create one larger item. Immediately after our first meeting in the back room in Beiuș we christened Diana the ‘Crochet Queen’, so impressed were we by the energy of this former personnel manager. Today she earns her living through crocheting alone, but those meeting the striking blonde for the first time shouldn’t expect balls of wool and knitting needles. With an enterprising sparkle in her eyes, she tells of how she crochets shoes in bulk for an Italian company. She gave up her office job, it was too stressful, too many ten-hour days. When asked how many hours a day she works now, she answers with a laugh: “Twelve! But crocheting is my passion!” She learned the craft from her mother, as used to be common. Her latest project: opening her own shop in Beiuș. So far, her hats, scarves and blankets have sold mostly via word of mouth. We have no doubt that this superwoman will succeed in this endeavor too.
While Gladiola is talking, gentle Ibi, with her long hair, stands quietly next to her and smiles. She exudes calm. We meet them both in Galdiola's shop, where Ibi works. She serves customers but most of the time she sits hunched over the table and makes jewelry out of glass beads. The jewelry sells well, but that's not all it’s about. Because making colorful bracelets or necklaces out of glass beads has a long tradition in the Bihor region. “Every girl used to learn how to do this,” says Ibi. 'The women sat at home in the evenings doing handicrafts.' The jewelry was worn on Sundays in the church or at weddings. Ibi has embraced this tradition, making new parts based on old models and repairing damaged originals. She has even developed her own technology. She searches for historical pieces on Facebook so people don't throw them away. She needs old pearls for the repairs as today's glass pearls are larger and come in different shapes. Quiet Ibi blossoms when she talks about her jewelry. She shows us the checkered sheets on which she draws the pearl patterns. And places old and new necklaces side by side to show us the differences. It is Gladiola who is quiet this time.
We saw a few shops of this kind during the trip. They sell a bit of everything, but mainly folkloristic clothing. And they are filled with embroidered shirts, blouses, skirts, dresses and scarves from floor to ceiling that are reminiscent of traditional costumes but clearly made in a textile factory. This shop belongs to Gladiola, the woman who taught herself how to make a typical Bihor waistcoat. The first one she made was a frustrating experience, she recalls. She obtained a raw sheepskin waistcoat and was supposed to decorate it with embroidery. The leather was hard and the process required a great deal of strength, nobody was able to help and it took a month and a half of work. But she liked the result and so she continued, the next one was easier to handle. For Zestrea she embroiders cushion covers featuring traditional waistcoat motifs, which is of course simpler. Nevertheless, Gladiola isn’t easy to please, she is a perfectionist. She is keen to do things well, out of respect for tradition. She does the needlework on the side. But she could also imagine doing this as her main job, eight hours a day. 'You have to do what you like doing,' she says. 'As long as it is paid well enough.' The factory-made costumes are selling well. But the hand-sewn pieces made in the style of her ancestors? 'People don't understand that sort of thing anymore.'
The floors are covered in beige patterned carpet, the ceilings in panels embossed with stars and the walls in lilac paint. In front of the windows there are curtains bearing a floral motif. There’s a multi-coloured wall tapestry, a print of the Last Supper, a sofa with a striped throw covered in a stack of blue and yellow pillows and the wall storage unit has marbled front panels. In the middle of this barely 10sqm room stands the loom. Workshop would be the wrong term for this space where Sorin works. It is, rather, his world. At night he is on shift in the local soda factory, during the day he looks after his father, cooks and does the housekeeping. And in between he sits here alone on his grandmother's 100-year-old loom and weaves in the manner learned from his late mother. She didn't want to teach him this woman’s craft but he insisted and practiced in secret. Today Sorin is producing enchantingly beautiful, brightly-patterned textiles for Zestrea using the jacquard technique. How long does it take to make a piece we ask. He shrugs his shoulders, looks sheepish. Neighbours come to visit, the chickens have to be fed and on Sundays after church he isn’t supposed to work. He also hasn’t set any prices as the villagers don't buy anything anyway, at most a bedspread. When we leave, he stands at the courtyard gate for a long time and waves.
There’s a scramble in front of us on the country road. A car is sticking close to the lorry in front. When it finally starts to overtake, suddenly, there’s oncoming traffic. We get off lightly. Andrei, who is at the wheel, rails. In the passenger seat, I almost don’t see the near-accident. Something else had caught my attention, a white dog. Limping along the side of the road, unkempt, one of his front legs is grotesquely deformed. A few years ago Romanian street dogs made international headlines when dogs killed a four-year-old in Bucharest. Today you no longer see strays in Bucharest, the administration has got rid of them using sometimes controversial methods. Many have been killed by dog catchers. But in the Transylvanian countryside, in the villages and small towns, they still exist. Dirty brown-grey mongrels and cross-breeds of uncertain provenance, they often have conspicuously large, dark eyes, into which one might even read a melancholic expression. They run across the fields, frolic on wasteland, and at night you can hear them barking. Romania has the biggest number of stray dogs in Europe. A legacy of the communist era when people had to move to newly-built apartment blocks and released their guard dogs as there was no space for them any longer. Their descendants still roam around today and mate with domestic dogs, which are rarely neutered. The strays in Transylvania won’t disappear anytime soon.
Another house in a long row of houses, another courtyard gate opens. Vasilică, a wood carver, welcomes us with a big hello, pats our shoulders and kisses our hands. In the passageway, antlers hang on the wall, each mounted on a wooden disc decorated with carvings. Opposite, an almost life-size wooden figure of Christ is leaning against the wall, arms spread out, without a cross. Next to it, an axe. Vasilică invites us into the courtyard and shoos two little dogs away. They growl and cower under a blue Opel, Vasilică's old car. We are here to look at chairs. He reproduces historical models found in the local museum. Low and rather crudely made, the charm of these pieces comes from the shape of the backrests. With their holes and incisions, they are reminiscent of human faces, both happy and fierce ones. There is a lot of back and forth in Romanian, Vasilică likes to use many words and gesticulate. The material doesn’t yet quite work as he has used different types of wood in one chair. Dimensions are also discussed. The two little dogs bark, one crawls up to us and is chased away again. Even when we’re back outside on the sloping street in front of the big gate, we can still hear them yapping.
Time and time again during the trip our conversations land on the same theme: how people no longer appreciate traditional craft, and young people prefer to learn other skills. 'Nobody wants to summon up the patience required to do this,' says Sorin, the weaver. In the past everyone in the village had a loom at home, and all textiles, whether clothing, blankets, table linens or carpets, were manufactured at home. In every household there was always a room filled with trousseau pieces. It was proof of the diligence and skill of the women of the house. Today, handmade textiles are of no value to most people. Everyone agrees that the end of communism was the big turning point, after this local craft lost its importance. As a source of income in any case, but also as lived history, as a means of conveying identity. Gladiola, the needleworker, didn’t use to be interested in tradition either - until the Dior thing opened her eyes. 'When I busy myself with craft work, things speak to me,' she says. Gladiola likes to explore the roots of a technique, a motif, to understand the simple, old forms. 'The essence!' The fact that people prefer to buy cheap goods in bulk doesn't bother her too much. She is convinced that “'future generations will appreciate it again'.
Text: Jasmin Jouhar
Photos: Nafez Rerhuf