Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Vera Momčilović-Šarac
* Opanak (pl. opanci) Serbian traditional light footwear.
PRESNJACI PROTECTED BY LAW
“Upletoste li kailjcice u opancice”
(Tongue twister in Serbian)
The purpose of the opanak-making is production of simple leather footwear, primarily intended for the rural population. Roots of this craft date back to the medieval (Byzantine and European) cultural tradition. According to the socio-historical circumstances, continuing and inheriting ancient Balkan, Slavic, Oriental and European cultural tradition, its development started in the territory of the Republic of Serbia in the latter part of the 19th century and lasted until mid-20th century, when it gradually disappeared. Maintaining expressions of the traditional folk creativity, the craft of opanak-making is classified in the category of old crafts that are protected by law based on the Rules of the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Serbia as of 2005.
The complex historical and cultural situation in the Balkans in the field of handicrafts, including opanak-making, are manifested in the existence of cultural elements of the indigenous ancient Balkan, Slavic, Oriental and European origin that are recognized primarily in the process of work, names of tools, as well as in appearance and function of its main product – opanak.
The craft of opanak-making reached its peak in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century, when opanakmakers were, along with tailors, considered the most important artisans in the then Serbian bazaars. Records about the existence of numerous opanak-shops where several types of opanci and their numerous local variations were made, testify to this. The evidence about development of the craft of opanak-making can also be found in the opanak samples kept in museum collections, including many that represent masterpieces of folk art and the top level of craftsmanship skills.
In addition to the true urban artisan opanak-making, there were individuals throughout the countryside who engaged in the craft of opanak-making semiprofessionally, mainly self-taught, and considering such work as a supplementary activity.
The industrial (cheaper) production of footwear, which commenced in Serbia in the nineteen twenties, contributed to the gradual disappearance of the opanakmaking craft. The fact that opanak-makers included new materials in their work speaks of the adjustment to new conditions. First, they started using rubber, and later on, even nylon – polyvinyl – following the example of rubber factory-made opanci. Opanak-makers, masters of rubber opanci, made opanci from outer automobile tires. In the late nineteen forties, the nylon opanci were made, with the vamp of polyvinyl ribbons.
After World War Two and finally the nineteen fifties or sixties, this craft almost completely disappeared.
In our recent history, beginnings of the opanak-making craft date back to the latter part of the 19th century when first in Uzice (1850), Pozarevac (1862) and Sabac (1870), and then in Knjazevac (1876) and Leskovac (1880), local artisans started to produce opanci. The craft spread very quickly from these centers into other parts of Serbia – from Arandjelovac, Loznica, Obrenovac to Valjevo and Uzice. In 1920, there were fifty opanak-makers in Uzice. At the same time, there were 20 in Cacak, 25 in Kragujevac, 12 in Pozega, 20 in Kraljevo, 6 in Trstenik, 10 in Krusevac, 5 in Prokuplje, 3 in Kursumlija as well as in Aleksinac, and 9 in Raska. Numerous opanakmakers also had their shops in Krupanj, Bajina Basta, Kosjeric, Cajetina, Arilje, Ivanjica and Brus. The craft was launched in Vranje after World War Two. In the eastern parts of Serbia, Kladovo and Sokobanja each had one opanak-maker, while Negotin, Zajecar, Knjazevac and Bela Palanka each had three. There were seven artisans in Nis, five in Pirot, six in Paracin and Cuprija and Batocina each had four, and there were two in Petrovac. From 1887 until 1900, one master in Arandjelovac taught 30 future opanak-makers about secrets of this old craft. After 1910, Arandjelovac was the center that supplied the Kragujevac, Rudnik, Kosmaj, Lepenica, Gruza and partially Kolubara regions with opanci. Opanak-makers also worked in Kragujevac, Mladenovac and the village of Natalinci. The craft developed in Smederevo and Grocka as of 1915.
Most opanak-makers were located in the Sabac, Valjevo, Uzice, Kragujevac and Cacak regions.
Products of the opanak-making craft, which are rooted in the indigenous, ancient Balkan and Oriental environment, are the “vrncani” opanci (made of thin, specially treated leather straps) and “presni” opanci (made of raw, untanned hide). They were made and worn in the southern and southwestern parts of Serbia (regions of Raska and Metohija, southeastern and eastern Serbia), while, in accordance with European craft traditions, “djonovski” opanci (with outsoles) and opanci “kapicari” (with a vamp made of a single piece of leather) were made in central, eastern and northern Serbia.
Opanak-makers used first crude, then trade and factory-processed cowhide and calfskin as basic raw materials, and to a lesser extent, horsehide and pigskin. The simplest technological process for treatment of leather (salting, drying or using alum) provided the raw material for “presni” opanci. Leather processed with a technologically more complex treatment provided the raw material for “djonovski” opanci. Such footwear made from processed leather was preceded by the production of the so-called “crvenjasi”, the red opanci of half-tanned hide. The hide for the red opanci was prepared in a technologically simpler process. The hide was treated in the solution of lime, ash and water with the crushed dry alder and birch bark. The raw material for “djonovski” opanci was obtained through a more complex and lasting process using oak cones, smoke tree and spruce bark. Following World War Two, opanak-makers started using factory-tanned hide more frequently.
In Serbia, there were two basic types of opanci: “vrncani” and “presnjaci” – “presni” opanci. “Vrncani” opanci have a vamp made of a “vrncanice” – twisted narrow strips of soft lamb hide or kidskin, or of a thicker cotton thread or rope, which links the left and right sides of opanak from fingers to the opening of an opanak, running in parallel lines spaced out evenly. The middle of such strips is then interwoven with “preplet” (interlacement) in several rows. Opanak-makers produced those in wooden molds, using just several simple tools. “Presnjaci” are low-top footwear covering the whole foot and leg in part, with a leather belt or rope – “oputa” – to form leather into a desired shape.
Until World War Two, in addition to making opanci by hand, opanak-makers tanned leather by themselves, using boilers, barrels, molds, wooden grapples, poles and wooden boxes, and crushers for cones. In the process of making opanci, opanak-makers used two “counters” – a larger and a smaller board where tools were placed and where he tailored and sewed opanci. Opanak-makers used the board to prick opanci, awl, various types of gouges and punch. The process of making “djonovski” opanci is more complex and requires great endurance, dexterity, skill and craftsmanship. For the finest opanci, they used even dog skin, though sheepskin and goatskin most frequently, to make the uppers, while outsole was made of cowhide. The quality of opanci was evaluated based on the quality of leather and quality of workmanship. Opanci with uppers knitted from narrow leather strips were considered better, and the number and width of strips interwoven into the upper was taken into consideration. The finest young men’s opanci had up to a hundred strips in the interlacement, and they were called woven opanci.
Rubber opanci do not differ from the leather ones in terms of tailoring as much as in the method of manufacture. They were made by means of a small number of tools. Masters of rubber opanci used curved and straight knives, cleaver and a small wooden mallet, pliers and “natra” – a device for separating sheets of automobile tires.
Since the latter part of the 20th century, opanci have been primarily made for folk dance groups, as souvenirs and for the poorest rural population. Today, addresses of craft shops that sell various types of opanci via web portals can be found on the internet.
The secret of leather tanning, according to the popular legend, was revealed to opanak-makers by St. Sava. Opanak-makers believed him to be their patron and therefore, celebrated St. Sava’s Day on January 27. Their regular participation in international fairs, held in Paris, London, Vienna and Budapest in the late 19th and early 20th century, testifies to success of Serbian opanak-makers. They used to return to Serbia with silver and gold medals. The opanak-maker’s shop, owned by Drag. L. Milosavljevic from Knjazevac and founded in 1903, won the gold medal in London in 1907. Great Serbian merchant and endower Nikola Spasic began to acquire his capital as an opanakmaker. Opanci were also the principal type of footwear of the Serbian Army in World War One. Opanak-makers most certainly contributed to the fact that opanak became one of the symbols of the Serbian national identity.
The opanak-making trade will continue to survive because this type of footwear is always in demand. It is not only dancers in the cultural and artistic societies that purchase “opanci”, but many tourists gladly buy them as well. Modern means of communication has enabled people around the globe to learn more at the websites of craftsmen, such as www.starizanati.gov.rs, and place their orders by email, and the products will be delivered even to the most distant of destinations.