Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Irena Fileki
PRICK-AND-POUNCE AND WHITEWORK EMBROIDERY
“O housewife, speak less,
or your lunch will be a mess!”
Embroidery is a way of decorating textile or leather foundation with needle and most frequently textile or metal, or leather thread. The resulting motifs represented very important decorations on clothes and household textiles in the traditional culture of Serbia.
The history of embroidery goes back to ancient past and is mentioned as part of the heritage of the major world cultures, such as Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman. The art of embroidery was exceptionally developed and appreciated in Byzantium; embroidery with silk, gold and silver threads was especially raised to a high level. This method of work and these materials were related to higher layers of society and the clergy. In Medieval Europe, embroidery was the art practiced by professional embroideresses and craftsmen in the church, as well as at courts in the high-level feudal society. Over time, embroidery changed in accordance with the leading styles in art, and as of the mid-19th century, and in our country as well though later, it gradually died out.
Embroidery was very important among our people and it represented a common way of decorating clothes and household textiles. Going further into the past, it is thought that the Serbs were familiar with embroidery before the settlement of the Balkans. Embroidery was especially cherished in the medieval Serbian monasteries and it was used to decorate church vestments and miscellaneous silk items required for religious ceremonies. Both nuns an monks engaged in this type of embroidery. Apart from monasteries, embroidery was done by girls and ladies at the courts of Serbian rulers and nobles. It was an integral part of education of prominent women in the Middle Ages. Materials that embroideresses used at the time were the same as at the Byzantine courts and monasteries, including silk fabric, silk thread and silver or gold-plated threads. Embroidery themes were drawn from iconography.
Besides church embroidery and embroidery at courts, folk embroidery was done and cherished among the Serbian common people. Our oral folk creativity as well as many textile items, which are kept in the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade, speak of this particularly appreciated art. Our folk poems mention the beauty of embroidery, devices and materials for embroidery, tambour, needle, “ibrisim” (silk thread), gold, and great respect for a good embroideress and feelings she poured into her work. There is a very interesting legend saying that there was an endowment of embroideress Milja near Vezicevo in the vicinity of Pozarevac; she remained single until the end of her days as she did not want to marry the suitor of her father’s choice, so she made embroideries that she sold and used the money to build the church called Crkva Vezilja (Church Embroideress), which was destroyed during the Turkish rule.
Embroidery was considered primarily a women’s work in rural communities. During their childhood, girls were instructed in embroidery so to enable them to prepare their trousseau as one of the indispensable elements of wedding customs. In addition to clothing and household textiles needed in the future household, a girl had to provide the textile items – and gifts for her in-laws, towels to adorn wedding guests, horses and carriages at the wedding, all of that being part of a bride’s trousseau. In these activities, the girl had a help from her mother, grandmother, and sometimes friends, while wealthier families at times engaged a woman from the village known to be skilled in embroidery and she would prepare a bride’s trousseau.
Embroidery was primarily used for decoration of traditional clothes, especially women’s. Besides being a decoration on clothes, embroidery was an indicator of the social status, financial status, age, regional and national affiliation.
Embroidery varied from region to region, so that in some parts of Serbia it was richer and more diverse and therefore more renowned. Kosovo and Metohija stand out for their richly embroidered women’s shirts, while in regard to other regions, noteworthy are the 19th-century embroidered women’s shirts from the vicinity of Nis and Vlasine. All these embroideries were mostly made with wool thread in several colors, while metal threads, sequins and beads were also used in some regions. The foundation for this type of embroidery was oakum, flax, and, less frequently, cotton cloth from which the shirts were made. Ornaments were geometric and geometrized floral. In view of a method of work, these embroideries belong to the counted-thread embroidery type, where weft and warp threads of the fabric are counted before the actual embroidering starts.
Some types of embroidery were more often done in cities of Serbia and in Vojvodina, and the most popular was “slinga” or “slingeraj” -whitework. It was used to embellish clothing, table cloths, bedding, towels. As of the mid-19th century, whitework gradually spread from Central Europe into our regions. Motifs were most frequently floral, made based on designs; and this is the so-called free embroidery. Designs were mainly obtained from “trukeri”, craftsmen who were engaged in procurement or production of designs and who transferred those onto fabric, which is called “trukovanje” (prick-and-pounce method). Another way of making whitework was counted-thread embroidery because all precise embroidery techniques with holes obtained in various ways were carried out by counting threads.
Colored threads were also used for embroidery created based on designs transferred onto fabric by the prick-and-pounce method, and in the early part of the 20th century pieces of fabric were purchased and embroidered with designs for household textiles. These items had both practical and decorative functions, so in addition to indispensable objects such as bedding, curtains and tablecloths, items such as holders for combs and matches, decorative strips of embroidered fabric for shelves, samplers with embroidered texts and various scenes from daily life that protected the wall above the stove from spattering. These objects were most frequently made from ready-made cotton fabric and embroidered with red or blue cotton thread, or in different colors.
Another type of embroidery characteristic for cities in Serbia and for Vojvodina was goldwork. Embroidery was done with metal threads that could be of silver or gold on canvas and silk clothing and decorative parts of textile items, mostly towels and handkerchiefs. The most luxurious goldwork was done in Vojvodina, and it decorated women’s shirts, aprons, scarves and head towels, hats, as well as men’s shirts. It is believed that goldwork in Vojvodina is a result of the Central European Baroque influence, and that some elements of the work and decorations were introduced thanks to great migrations of people from southern regions in the late 17th and in the 18th century, which is shown by old techniques of goldwork and motifs. Tulip is a frequent motif, as well as other Oriental ornaments. Gold-coated and silver wires used for goldwork were obtained from metal strips formed into threads, and threads of yellow silk or cotton intertwined with metal ones were used as well. Two basic goldwork methods were direct embroidery with wire worked through the fabric as if it were thread, and underside couching, where threads are laid on the surface and fastened in place on the back. Goldwork was made by women for their own needs, but also semi-professionally or professionally. Some elements, such as applied metal cords, were made by professional artisans – men.
Female children of the late 19th century acquired knowledge and skills of embroidery first as a part of their primary education and later of the secondary and professional education. After World War Two, handwork and knowledge of embroidery were reduced to classes of home economics.
Today, women engaged in embroidery practice this art individually, and as of recently, non-governmental humanitarian associations or associations that produce and decorate textile items, are being established, trying to cherish the tradition within their means and in accordance with their goals.
Fashion trends periodically require peeking into chests and closets of our grandmothers and bringing out a diverse range of embroidered tablecloth, curtains, bedding, samplers and many other textiles that were inevitable decorations of every household. Parts of sheets were mercilessly cut off by scissors to decorate a dress or a shirt with embroidery. A bit of skill, some thread, and patterns from the old and new magazines will make our clothing unique and attractive, and sewing machines and pieces of linen can turn our home into a real showroom or muse