Magyar Treasures: Written Embroidery/Írásos hímzés

Karolina Tima Szabó

Magyar Treasures: Written Embroidery/Írásos hímzés

Top: Illustrations for írásos stitch; pillow case with írásos embroidery; Center (photos by EPF):wall hanging in Bánffyhunyad church, commemorating a girl's Confirmation; Bánffyhunyad pulpit; Bottom: photo by Tima Irma.

The írásos style of embroidery originated from the area of Kalotaszeg, Transylvania, south of Kolozsvár, surrounded by the Gyalui and Vlegyasza Havasok (“snow covered mountains” or alps), and the Meszes Mountains.  Some 34 villages located near the joining of the the Kalota and the Kőrös Rivers comprise the Kalotaszeg area.  That is where you find the most beautiful embroidery.  The land is extremely rich in folk art – not only embroidery, but also woodcarving, ceramics and the art of making szűr (the “shepherd’s cloak”).

The embroidery is called irásos (“written”) because the women who designed the patterns used a pen made out of goose feathers, dipped in soot that had been dissolved in water or kékítő (“blue dye”), and “wrote” their designs on the fabrics, whether  on home-spun linen  or canvas made out of hemp.  They wrote the pattern on the fabric with one line, and left enough space for the stitches.

The techniques are similar to the mezőségi, torockói and udvarhelyi designs; similar but still different.  Some are even similar to techniques used in Asia.  The irásos stitches are like the chain stitch, where the thread is under the needle, not just at the bottom, but also on the top.  The drawn line is expanded to the left and right. Some stitches are called “nagy írásos” – large written – and others “kis írásos” – small written – depending on the width of the stitches.  In both, there is one drawn line, and with a chain stitch, the stitch goes to left and right, narrower or wider, as required by the design.  Width of the nagy írásos can spread to 6-9 mm.  This stitch looks like a flat “zsinór” – cord – the reason why it is also called the zsinóros or corded.  The stitches have to lie tightly next to each other so as to cover the fabric.  Kis írásos techniques are the same, only narrower, spreading 2-3 mm, and are rarely used now.  On the back, the stitches show as diagonal lines.

To make it easier for beginners,   the writer sometimes draws double lines.  The space between the top and bottom line is usually filled in with satin stitch first, then “written” around the design on both sides with chain stitch.  The small round forms are called tyúkszemek (“hen’s eyes”); they start at the middle and go around with a very tight irásos stitch until the space is filled in.

Motifs used are flowers (roses, tulips, lilies of the valley, ferns, acorns), objects (baskets, stars, coat of arms), or animals (birds, butterflies).

Shades of red, from orange to burgundy, are the favorite thread colors.  If using blue,   only the darker shade is used.  Secondary colors are black and white, but in modern times other colors have also been used, according to the décor of the home or room.  Colors are never mixed; only one color is used in one project.

In former times, home-made thread made from linen or hemp, or lamb’s or goat’s wool   was used.  Nowadays, commercially made cotton or synthetic fiber is used.

Originally, this type of embroidery adorned the girl’s confirmation blouses (vállfűs ingek).  After WW II, these blouses were no longer used, and the women started to use the embroidery for decorative pillows, tablecloths, sheets, bedspreads, wall hangings, and scarves.  In tablecloths and bedspreads, the design can spread to 40-50 cm, in some cases even larger.  But it is still used for decorating clothing.  The women made the prettiest clothing for themselves as well as for their husband and children.

The Kalotaszeg Calvinist noble ladies embroidered many altarcloths and wall hangings for their churches. These were on silk, and silver or gold color thread was used.  The selection of motifs was also wider.  This type of irásos embroidery is called úri himzés (“noble embroidery”).

In the 16th century, the women of Kalotaszeg usually embroidered their names and the year they completed it on their work piece.  With this they contributed to the cultural history of the Kalotaszeg area.  Discovery of the folk arts of Kalotaszeg led to discovery of the broader spectrum of the riches of Hungarian folk arts in the 1880s.

Karolina Tima Szabo is a retired Systems Analyst of the Connecticut Post newspaper and Webmaster of Magyar News Online.  She is the proud grandmother of two.