Szűr design from Pápa area, circa 1332. Embroidery done by Dr. Dora Józsefné Tima Irma
The cifraszűr – embroidered shepherd’s cloak – has been called the most Hungarian piece of clothing, since it was never adopted outside the Carpathian Basin. Material for the cifraszűr was furnished by the Hungarian long-haired sheep, and worked into fabric by a special group of artisans called the csapó, one of the oldest Hungarian trades.
This material was then cut by a specialized tailor called a szűrszabó, who laid out each section as a rectangle. Even the sleeves are straight, but are sewn shut at the wrist, serving merely as pockets. The large rectangular collar hanging over the back, the front and the sleeves are all covered with embroidery. The cloak is never buttoned, but may be held together by a strap made by a saddler, ending in a clasp.
Cifraszűr were differentiated by the type of embroidery on them, depending on the region. The basic fabric was mostly white, but the embroidery was multicolored. When the basic color of the cloak was black, the emboidery was done in a lighter shade of brown or beige. The colors of the woolen embroidery thread were derived from plants.
The szűrszabó did not first trace the patterns because one could not draw on the rough material. He merely indicated the main – mostly flower – motifs with a carpenter’s pencil. (Other designs were patriotic, such as the Hungarian coat of arms.) The chief elements were embroidered first, then the area between them was filled in with rosemary leaves lined up along one stem. All available space was filled.
This cloak was light, but served as a source protection against cold, rain, wind and snow. It also protected a rider’s horse, and was sometimes even used instead of a saddle. Researcher Győrffy István, whose grandfather was a szűrszabó mester (a master szűr tailor) described the szűr as being useful during a fight for buffeting a blow, and should it become necessary for its owner to run, it could immediately be unclasped. Providing shade against the heat of the summer sun, it could also serve as a mattress, pillow, blanket and seat.
In addition to being the essential piece of shepherds’ clothing, the cifraszűr became the formal dress of peasants, a sign of social rank. They would not consider getting married in anything else. It had its heyday from the 1860s to the end of the 19th century; then the difficulty of obtaining the right quality material and changing fashions caused it to decline in popularity everywhere except in Transylvania, where it remained popular for several decades longer.
Art historian Pap Gábor theorizes that the three elements of folk culture – buildings, folk costumes and accessories – served not only a practical but also a ritual function which could not be separated from each other. According to his theory, every peasant house could be considered an elementary sanctuary, every meal a sacrifical banquet, every fancy robe (cifraszűr) a ritual vestment.
Pap’s logic leads him to find a parallel of the cifraszűr’s shape with the layout of a basilica: closing with a square sanctuary, having three aisles and a rectangular apse (as replicated in the sewn sleeves of the cifraszűr). Like the priest, the owner has to ”vest” himself in the ”house of God”.
It is interesting to note that the cifraszűr of Debrecen (called the ”Calvinist Rome”) does not have a ”sanctuary”, since Calvinists do not use an altar in their worship services.
Recently, a cifraszűr was presented to the Pastor of the Catholic church of Egyek by the Parish Council on the occasion of Good Shepherd Sunday.