I recently discovered this book about Transylvanian Saxon home and household textiles amidst my PhD book stack and finally took the time to take a look inside. And oh my, it’s gorgeous and inspiring!
The history of it all
King Géza II of Hungary started to settle German-speaking people in Transylvania in the 12th century to defend against invaders from the east, fortify the borders of the Hungarian kingdom and develop agriculture and mining. These so-called Transylvanian Saxons remained a distinct cultural, linguistical and legal group for centuries. To this day, they speak the Transylvanian Saxon dialect, conserving a type of German spoken in the Middle Ages and influenced by Romanian and Hungarian. After WWII and continuing during and after the communist era in Romania, most of the Transylvanian Saxons started to leave the country. The majority lives in Germany and Austria today.
Want to know more? I got you.
If you want to read more about my trip to Transylvania in 2018, you can read my travel diary here:
I’m going to revive something I wrote back in the old Livejournal days whenever I traveled somewhere: my Travel Diary. I always enjoy looking at other people’s travel pictures, so why not show mine? We went to Sibiu, Romania at the beginning of October. I’ve been to Romania a couple of times already and love…
Crafting Identity and Tradition
As you can imagine, this makes for a rich and fascinating history – right down to the traditional Transylvanian Saxon textiles, which are more than everyday objects. They express their cultural identity in a visual and haptic way so that they’re surrounded by physical markers of it and demonstrate their group affiliation to any visitor. I really loved that the women would embroider their name and the year of completion onto their work. That way they didn’t just connect to a shared past, but enscribed their name for future viewers to remember!
They didn’t just buy it?!
The book takes you on a journey that shows the making of these textiles right from the beginning to completion. The first chapter shows how the raw materials flax and hemp were grown and cultivated, then processed. As a crafter today, you often know little about the many steps it takes to create the material for your craft, as you can just buy it ready-as-is in a store. It was quite humbling to see the back-breaking work had to be done in a pre-mechanized world before you could even start the crafting itself.
After harvesting the flax and hemp, it was retted by subsuming bundles of stalks in water, then it was dried and broken. The next step in the process is scutching, in which the material was manually beaten with sticks to separate impurities from the raw material. Then the flax and hemp was pulled through so-called heckling combs to split and straighten the fibres. This three-step process (breaking, scutching and heckling) is necessary to make the material ready for spinning.
Motifs and techniques
The rest of the book shows the different type of Transylvanian Saxon textiles for home and household, like tablecloths, duvets, curtains, and many more. The examples used are mostly from the 19th and 20th century. The authors also explore which motifs the crafters used, their meaning and their history, and explain different techniques. The same motifs were used for hundred of years, which shows that the Transylvanian Saxons had a strong sense of identity and put a lot of importance on tradition.
At the same time, cultures never develop completely insulated, but draw ideas and inspirations from many places outside of themselves. The Romanian and Hungarian neighbours used many of the same motifs and techniques, demonstrating how the different groups influenced each other. Ideas from places that were farther away reached Transylvania as well. For example, the Transylvanian Saxon crafters started using the Italian technique of Assisi embroidery in the 19th century.
In conclusion, this book is very informative if you’re interested in textile history. It demonstrated that textiles can tell us a lot about people from the past. The book also is extremely gorgeous! I spent a lot of time just admiring the intricate weaving and embroidery works that are pictured in it. Maybe I’ll finally take up embroidery because of all the inspiration contained in the book (but I’m also sort of intimidated by the intricacy of many of those designs!).