How do you transform lamb fleece into golden thread, and the roots of a pine tree into fine designer items? Only a few folk masters of the artisanal craft possess this skill. The fruits of their work, from crocheted lace accessories, through beaded necklaces of the transnational South-Eastern Lemko ethnicity, to willow basketwork, have become the most desired, original, and exotic souvenirs from Poland. We present you with our guide to folk handicrafts.
The World in Talented Hands: Koniaków Crocheted Lace
Koniaków, a village in the Beskid mountain range in the South-West of Poland is the home of a regional speciality nowadays famous the world over. The items of crocheted lace incite the awe of ethnographers, who call them a "world represented through talented hands”. The skilled crochet hook operators apply their imagination and sense of beauty and choose from a series of some 2200 patterns to convey the world that surrounds them. Gąsiorki (duckies), strupki (crusties), skrzydełka (little wings), kaczeńce (buttercups), and niezapominajki (forget-me-nots) - these are all names of the various stiches that build up whole works of art, both big and small. There are delicate and ornate napkins, crocheted coifs, white and creamy little round roses, liturgical lace, and caps. There are also items dictated by fashion and the market’s needs - collars, gloves, cupboard covers, wedding gowns, as well as earrings, cuff links, lampshades and screens.
The Koniaków village is situated right by the meeting point of Poland’s borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The local artists, all of whom are women, reiterate that without crocheting, there would be no life. Their workshop is contained within a kiśnicka, a little wooden box which keeps the essential items passed on through generations of lace makers. Inside, there is a crochet hook, as well as thread, ready decorative motifs, and the one thing that is most important to the crocheters - eye glasses. All the remaining gear - that is, thousands of crochet patterns, traditional motifs and compositions are all contained in the artisan’s minds and imaginations.
The folk artists are constantly searching for ways in which to adapt traditional ornamentation to fashionable, contemporary forms. This search once resulted in the creation of crocheted lace g-strings, an item which proved controversial as it divided the community. In a talk with Culture.pl, Barbara Juroszek, from the Regional Cultural Centre, commented:
Some said that it’s a disgrace that the same lace that decorated altars and stoles would now decorate… well, something else. Others set themselves to work, creating a collection of women’s and men’s underwear, and the whole scandal basically won this local speciality some major publicity.
Another famous moment came with a 5-metre spread, which made it to the Guinness Book of Records. It took more than 5 months to make, weighed 5kg and used up 50 kilometres of thread. The thousands of elements which were joined together were later presented at the International Crochet Festival in Lepoglava, Croatia. Today's lace experts also shows no hesitation when pointing to the most talented and innovative crochet maker of modern times. It’s Beata Legierska, who has raised heklowanie to the height of high art, and has no equals when it comes to the meticulous precision of her work. She has been creating crochet laces from the age of 6, and has two generations of lacemakers behind her. Beata Legierska has also presented her work at a great many exhibitions in the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Romanaia and Switzerland.
The Łemko Glass Bead Collars
This jewellery is a unique product of the Łemko ethnic minority of the Hutzul region, in Poland’s south-eastern corner of the Carpathian mountain range. Krywulki is the name given to bead necklaces, which are made either on a tiny loom or with a needle, through meticulous and patient threading of 2 millimetre beads onto a strong piece of string. Before the war, rich young women would often wear versions up to 15 cm wide, which looked very much like collars. The less well-off were usually able to afford only one narrow piece, which they wore with an embroidered blouse and a corset. Ewelina Matusiak-Wyderska, a master of this Carpathian bijou, reveals that she was absolutely amazed when she first saw a traditional krywulka. "It turned out that this bead jewellery is a part of the history of the Carpathian and Bieszczady mountain range region. The discovery of the connections between the beads and the region’s history and tradition was a great inspiration for my work”, she comments. This fascination has endured to this day, and its effects can be seen on the Pracownia Miodosytnia website
To find out more about the happy nature of Polish folk fashion, read our article Polish Folk Fashion. Pure Joy!
Let It Weave!
Polish basket makers are in a league of their own. The masters of traditional Polish weaves are certified craftsmen of folk art, who continue the centuries-old tradition in the quiet of their village houses. The original works of folk craft are usually home-made: from bags made of woven old newspaper, through osier and plastic-tape baskets, wooden-stick thrones to wondrous shapes made of pine roots and willow branches.
The ethnographers of the Serfenta Association are devout followers of the wickerwork craft and the artisans behind it. The Serfenta Association is a leading institution in the field of basketry studies. It has won titles and awards such as the Eco-Active label, and the Folk Oscar award for their project entitled "On the Basketry Trail of Poland”. The association was founded as an NGO in 2006, and its main preoccupation is the documentation, protection and development of the traditional craft, as well as cultural, ecological and artistic education.
The Serfenta have travelled thousands of miles in search of old masters, and have documented their discoveries. They argue that this extraordinarily flexible skill gives one a fascinating sense of being independent in creating all kinds of different objects. In an album published by the association, we learn that basketry is also a craft within everyone's reach - literally, it’s enough to go for a stroll in the park, cut some willow, blackberry or rosehip branches, and get started. It’s a craft that requires no special machinery or investment.
This ethereal art is protected as a UNESCO world cultural heritage, and it seems to be springing back to life in new generations. It even seems to be undergoing a revival, making itself more and more frequently present at art galleries worldwide. Serfenta emphasise that basketry is no longer a rustic thing, and that woven items have gained the status of works of art, as each is unique and hand-made. There is one more thing - it is simply impossible for machine to replace man in this craft.
Serfenta continually travels across Poland, crossing over new territory along the Vistula river trail. They have stated:
We are searching for the answer whether this particular and beautiful domain of traditional craft has chances of surviving. And if so, for how long? We are unable to give an answer. We therefore try to show everything we ourselves experience during our expeditions. The variety of resources, techniques and types of weaves, but, first and foremost, the people who work and create in the quiet of the Polish countryside. We try to encounter them, talk, and finally… wonder at the things they create…
Sheep Curls Made of Felt
The origins of what is the oldest fabric known to man are shrouded in legend. Yet, all the trails seem to lead towards Turkey. It was there that, from 6500 BC to this date, carpets were made from felt, as well as hats and the sikke head-caps of the dervishes.
Agnieszka Jackowiak proses a new take on the old tradition, as she draws inspiration from Polish and Asian patterns and design. Jackowiak’s threshold to this sheep's wool art began… at the theatre. She was working with the Song of the Goat theatre company in Wrocław, which she co-created. She learned the craft in Hungary. On her website www.filc.art.pl, she comments, "In my work, I try to apply old felt-making techniques. But I do use contemporary materials as well as a contemporary imagination”
Encouraging others to experiment, and teaching the age-old technique, Jackowiak is one of the few people in Poland who manufacture hand-made felt items. She makes shawls, bags, jewellery, and cloth. Her works can be seen in various design galleries, as well as the annual Festival of Artistic Objects in Poznań.
The Art of Weaving Reactivated
The transformation of fleece into golden thread has something magical about it. And how else would we call the old manual technique whereby wool, linen, cotton and silk are turned into a piece of thread? The art of weaving the loom and spinning the yarn is one of civilisation’s oldest crafts, and, luckily, it is also one that has been preserved across continents. Only a few decades back, a majority of women were taught how to spin the yarn. Nowadays, this meticulous art seems to be coming back in the form of a hobby.
A growing number of blogs, forums and groups are created throughout the Internet for beginner weavers and spinners, who decipher the vanishing technical vocabulary bit by bit, and teach the craft to each other. Some Polish blogs devoted to the art are Tkackie Historie (Weavers’ Histories) and the Facebook group called Stare narzędzia tkackie (Old Weaving Tools)
There are many who sign up for workshops, wherein people weave on the loom and reel, and exchange instructions on how to use tools, as well as share their secret knowledge on how things were once made.
Teresa Pryzmont, a regular weaver, commented on the TVP Białystok channel that for her the whole craft is a thing of beauty, "in which you can come with images for yourself, stories, memories, and everything that surrounds us in nature - it can all be woven into these little threads of the warp and weft.”
We also recommend our review of traditional Polish folk dances, National Polish Dances Taught on YouTube
Author: Anna Legierska
Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser 8/04/2014
sources: "Koronki koniakowskie", Gminny Ośrodek Kultury w Istebnej, TVP Białystok, Stowarzyszenie Serfenta, Uniwersytet Ludowy Rzemiosła Artystycznego, www.filc. art.pl, Pracownia Miodosytnia