Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Vilma Niškanović
SHEEPSKIN CLOAKS OF ST. ELIAS
He wears his sheepskin coat turned inside out.
“Kozuhari” or “curcije” (furriers) made winter garments from leather and fur, such as sheepskin and lambskin coats or jerkins. They also processed skins for fur hats, full length sheepskin cloaks and fur coats.
A sheepskin or lambskin coat belongs to a group of winter clothes. It is made from lamb or sheep skin with the fleece, which covers the inside of the coat. It is one of the oldest garments, and its originally simple production and accessible materials have made it widely used by many peoples.
The term “kozuh” is derived from the word “koћa” (skin), which is a Proto-Slavic derivative formed of the word “koza” (goat) and it is a pure Slavic creation. The Old Slavonic word “kozuh” exists in the modern language of many Slavic nations, including the Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Bulgarians. And, of course, the Serbs.
One type of simple sheepskin coats was used in medieval Serbia. According to the Studenica Typikon, it was worn by monks, and the Munich Psalter shows a plowman wearing a huge sheepskin coat. The Chrysobull of the Monastery of St. Stephen in Banjska, the endowment of King Milutin, mentions “savci kozusni i skornjani” in the first decades of the 14th century. Several decades later, Tsar Dusan wrote to the cell of St. Sava in Kareya and mentioned “gunj” (long jacket) and “kozuh” (sheepskin coat). In the early 15th century, Despot Stefan Lazarevic issued the Code on Mines, wherein Article 15 mentions “kozuhareh”. Some craftsmen, furriers among them, were mentioned in Banat in the 13th century already, and in the 17th century, except in the Banat, furriers were mentioned in Lower Backa and Srem. The oldest types of sheepskin coats from the Serbian territory were white, simply tailored, and without ornaments, as originally they served only for protection from the cold. Dyed sheepskin coats came into use in the latter part of the 19th century, and especially at the very end of the century. The same period was characterized by rich decoration of the entire surface of the sheepskin coat, especially in Vojvodina, from where the same fashion was subsequently transferred into the regions south of the Sava and Danube.
Each furriery center in Serbia had a guild of the furriers that encompassed all the masters with their journeymen and apprentices. Guilds had their own flag and seal with the figure of St. Elias, the patron saint of furriers. Furrier’s guilds also celebrated St. Elias Day. It is believed that St. Elias was a furrier and his sheepskin coats were best tanned. He did not share his knowledge of the craft with anyone, but when he died, he left a legacy of one sheepskin coat to furriers. A legend says that the coat did not have a foul smell and that the furriers struggled to discover the tanning ooze and method to make their coats durable and without that foul smell so characteristic to all sheepskin coats. That was the reason why they chose St. Elias to be their protector and, why they celebrated St. Elias’ Day.
Urban and rural artisans, the furriers purchase hides for processing from the city and village butchers. They prepared it for tailoring in their shops. The procedure required that they scrape the hide to remove flesh, soak it in the tanning ooze (a mixture of water, salt, bran and corn flour) and leave it for two weeks immersed in a vat with the tanning ooze. Then, the skin was dried, stretched, whipped with a thin rod (“cukanje”) and dyed. The dye was prepared from dried morels grown near mulberry, walnut, elm and apple trees. After being crushed in a wooden mortar, morels were then cooked, and the length of cooking depended on a desired shade. Namely, morels required longer cooking for a dark brown, and shorter for a lighter color. The cooked dye was then filtered and applied by rags to the skin, affixed to a counter so that it would not be moved during operation. Wet skins were dried on a rope, while trying not to have them exposed to direct sunlight. At the end of the procedure, skins were cut, sewn and decorated using specific tools: knives, scissors, needles, thimble, cutting patterns and fur hat molds.
The decoration of this type of garments was known under the name “cifranje” and it was especially applied to beautify girls’ and young men’s sheepskin coats. Coats were primarily decorated with multicolored leather, oilcloth, thread, silk, wool, fine fur, faux fur, little mirrors, sequins, “gold” and “silver” threads, felt, plush, paper, and leather and metal buttons.
Using such diverse materials, masters made a variety of ornaments, mostly vegetative, less geometric and zoomorphic, and rarely heraldic and alphabetical. Flower was a widely used motif, either individually or as a detail in floral compositions, and was often combined with other elements, such as heart, small vine and circles. The arrangement of the composition and its position on the sheepskin coats led to a variety of terms for vegetative ornaments on sheepskin coats: black branch, girls’ and young men’s branch, wreath, heavenly garden, big heart, drawers, etc.
The territorial distribution of sheepskin coats can be followed throughout Vojvodina, Posavina, Macva, the Belgrade area, Sumadija, Valjevska Kolubara, Tamnava, Valjevski Podgor, Radjevina, Jadar, Eastern Serbia (from the Danube along the Morava and Timok all the way to Pirot and Vranje) and , although less frequently, around Bajina Basta, Uzice, Kosjeric and Trstenik.
The oldest dated sheepskin coats in collections of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade come from the late 19th century, and the more recent ones – from the 1980s. All sheepskin coats belonged to rural population and were equally worn by men, women and children. They are products of urban and rural artisans, the furriers, who made their goods to order or to stock, without measure, for the selling season at the markets and fairs.