Folkwear Travels to Romania

I am just back from 10 days in Romania!  It was an incredible and intense trip, taken with my husband (William) and younger daughter (Evva) to Bucharest and Brasov county.  Most of our days were spent riding horses through the Transilvania Hills, but we took in a lot of traditional clothing, fabrics, and scenes in Bucharest, Viscri, and other small villages.  Perfect for a Folkwear trip!

Below I have written sections about Romania and our experience there, focused mostly on textiles and traditional clothing.  Feel free to email me about this trip (molly@folkwear.com). 

Romania

When William mentioned his aunt was planning a horseback riding trip to Romania, I jumped at the chance to see this country, partly because Folkwear has several patterns from the region and partly because I've heard of the beauty, romance, and wildness of Romania.  And partly because I love to ride horses and love adventure travel. 

Evva and I overlooking the medieval village of Viscri.

Romania was under Communist rule until 30 years ago, and before Communism, the country was a region that was constantly conquered and settled by many different groups - Dacians, Romans, Hungarians (Magyar), Saxons, Turks, and Tartars, to name a few.  Through all this migration and political change, and somewhat because of it, Romania has maintained its deep forests (some of the largest in Europe), wildlife (they still have a strong population of wolves and bear), shepherding tradition, and village life.  In the Transilvania Hills, I felt like we had stepped back in time - villages with few cars, but with horse and carts (and Gypsy population), small gravel roads, chickens and pigs in each household compound, herding cows (and water buffalo) back to the village at night (and back out the next morning).  Shepherds lived in the hills all summer, moving sheep around to graze and get water.  There were almost no fences or gates, which made riding horses perfect.  


Evva getting her trick horse to do a trick!

Clothing and Textiles

Romania is known for their iconic and beautiful, eponymous blouses.  They are typically made from linen, but sometimes hemp or cotton, and are heavily embroidered on the sleeves, with some embroidery usually on the front.  The embroidery patterns are made with a cross stitch or a needlepoint stitch, and the blouses are often pieced by hand with decorative stitching or faggoting.  The neckline is sometimes smocked and is closed with a drawstring.  The cuffs are also sometimes smocked, and sometimes closed with a drawstring (with and without cuffs), but also often left open and wide.  

We saw many beautiful Romanian blouses in stores, but the best ones I saw were at a folk market in Bucharest on one of our first days.  There were hundreds, some new, some old.  Some were being made as we watched.  The selection of Romanian blouses was a bit overwhelming.  I loved seeing the different embroidery designs, fabric types (from handkerchief linen to heavier hemp), and finishes (smocking, drawstrings, open cuffs).  


She was seaming a gusset to the front with a quick decorative whip stitch.  Many of the seams were finished with hem stitch or turned-under stitch before they were seamed.

Close up of the work.

Traditional Romanian clothing has also been influenced by those who have conquered/settled in different regions or are neighbors.  You can see the influence of the Magyar herdsmen (Hungarians), who invaded in the 9th and 10th centuries, in the decorated jackets and coats - similar to our 150 Hungarian Szur.  Ukrainian embroidery may be seen on vests.  I saw versions of what Folkwear calls the Croatian Shirt (though our original was found in Romania), in the foothills of the Carpathians (where I was while on this trip).  This shirt is typical of the region, though I found a similar style without the tucks that came from a northern region of Romania.  The traditional clothing was beautiful.  


Sheep skin coat - wool on the inside - decorated with embroidery and appliqued ribbons and felt.


"Croatian Shirt", Romanian shirt!  The details are so similar to our pattern. This one includes embroidery around the placket and a "quilted" front bottom tab.


Blouse from northern Romania (Maramures) - with embroidery, fine smocking/tucks at the cuffs, shoulders, and front, and heavy thread work on the edges and seams.

In the folk market, I also found rolls of hand woven linen and hemp (for $4 a meter!).  These would be used to make clothing, table clothes, and other items. 

But, one of the most interesting fabrics I saw was one called borangic.  It is a raw silk made in Romania from silk grown in Romania.  There is only one person who makes silk now left in Romania, but the borangic I saw was maybe 60 years old.  The borangic is used to make 4 meter long head shawls (marame) that would be worn by women in southern and eastern Romania.  These head shawls were worn so that they barely brushed the ground when worn.  I thought the fabric was beautiful, the woven designs unique, and women who was selling them was precious!


The borangic (silk) is very fine and soft, but with body to it.


More borangic - this design was woven into the fabric by wrapping and twisting the weft threads around the warp threads. 

In another small Saxon village, Viscri (home to a UNESCO World Heritage 12th century fortified church) in Brasov county, we saw many traditional textile crafts - felted wool slippers, knitted and crocheted sweaters, curtains, doilies, etc. (every woman I saw sitting down in the whole village was knitting), and woven table mats.

I could see the historical importance of handmade textiles in Romania.  They held an important place in the household, decorating windows, walls, tables, and beds.  They were used for everyday dress and for important occasions, for keeping warm and for keeping beautiful.  


Room in a house at the National Village Museum with a loom set up.

Other Crafts

We saw several other traditional crafts that are a part of Romanian culture and history.  I found the painted eggs very striking!  Normally, these eggs were painted with designs, not unlike those on the blouses, around Easter.  But, now they are available for the tourist market, and home market, year round and are often made of wood so they will not easily break. 

Icons are also an important art form.  The Orthodox churches are full of them (typical of an Orthodox church, I learned), but they are also important in the home and I saw many beautiful icons in each village, often painted by someone in that village.  

In Viscri, we saw exquisite painted ceramic tiles, which was a local craft/art form, as well as old floral paintings on wood (typical Saxon art). 

Beadwork also seemed to be a minor craft with small belts and bracelets made mainly for the tourist market as far as I could tell, though the belts were wron with the traditional clothing/dress.  

Bucharest

The capital of Romania was a mix of beautiful 19th century buildings (interestingly, the banks were the prettiest and most detailed) and Communist bloc buildings with a small layer of griminess and graffiti covering them.  In this city, we found some really incredible restaurants and one of the best museums I've ever been to.  The National Village Museum was truly impressive!  It was made of village houses, buildings, and churches brought from around the country and set up in a large park in Bucharest.  Each building was painstakingly moved from an area where it would have been destroyed for new construction in the 1950s, and rebuilt or set up in this large park in Bucharest.  The buildings were traditionally furnished and decorated.  They were set up so that you learned how they were used, when they were used, and why they were used.  There were tiny Orthodox village churches, wool fullers, wine presses, a dance hall, houses from the 1600s to the early 1900s, and everything in between.  You could see the influence of the region and type of agriculture that was in practice in the way the buildings were constructed and used.  It was incredible and beautiful!


At the Village Museum.

Transilvania

We only saw a small part of Brasov County, Transilvania - the hills - the foothills of the Carpathians, with the beautiful mountains in the background.  It was a region with Saxon and Hungarian influences, which people remember (and celebrate and fight over) to this day.  We saw many sheep, goats, cattle, and water buffalo, with shepherding being a legitimate and respected career and lifestyle.  The hills were covered in fairy-tale-like forests of oak and hornbeam, as well as extensive open pastures and oak savannas.  The pony and cart are a typical mode of transportation, and there is a significant Gypsy population.  We learned some blacksmithing from a Gypsy blacksmith, and saw a beautiful and growing Gypsy village.  Villages were simple, very small, very agricultural, and occasionally with fortified churches or castles (gotta try to protect themselves from all the invaders).  Homes in these villages were small compounds with a gated courtyard, pig sty and barn behind the house/courtyard, and garden/pasture behind the barn.  Many had their own working hand crank well that was still in use!


The well in use at Cobor Farm, where it was mainly used to keep our beer and apple juice cold when we were there!


Fortified church in Viscri



Food and Drink

We were pleasantly surprised by the food in Romania, but our expectations had been brought very low by a 2019 travel guide I read that described food such as "fermented wheat bran soup with souring agent" which could be made with tripe, "organ meat sausages", and "lamb haggis".  So, the delicious fresh sheep's milk cheese, tasty grilled sausages and meats, flavorful tomatoes, crispy vegetables, creamy eggplant spreads, and diverse charcuterie was really wonderful.  And, the wine was spectacular!  Nearly all regions of Romania are great for wine grape growing, and they have a diverse and delicious number of wines.  Romania is also known for its palinka, or schnapps, made with fruit.  We had shots of it nearly every night - sour cherry, pear, plum.  It was all quite good, but can quickly get the best of you (as I learned one night ;-)). 

To Conclude:

This was a fantastic trip, and I am so grateful I was able to go and share it with my daughter and husband and wonderful family and friends.  To see the land by horseback was incredible!  And to get a small glimpse and slight personal understanding of the textile and clothing traditions that are still alive and well in this region was quite a treat.

We rode with Equus Silvania who has a wonderful retreat house.  The owners, Barbara and Christoph Promberger, are also Wildlife Biologists who, ten years ago founded Carpathia Foundation with the mission to create the largest protected contiguous forest and conservation landscape in Europe.  The Foundation also owns Cobor Farm, a large, lovely organic farm where we stayed for two nights.  Their vision and track record of success to create the largest national park in Europe is astounding.