Creating a Happy, Colorful, Handmade Home & life on the shores of lake superior

January 6, 2015

Hungarian Embroidery 101 - History

Looking back over my favorite projects from 2014, it's evident that I didn't do much crafting last year.  We were preoccupied with the move, unpacking, and settling in, and by the time things mellowed a bit, I had lost my crafting momentum.  I'm getting back on the horse, starting with a terrifically ambitious project: a densely embroidered bolster pillow, in different shades of teal, green, and turquoise (for the bedroom).  It's going to be way more intense than my turquoise embroidery project.


I promised an embroidery tutorial after I completed that pillow, but I didn't pick up my hoop again until now.  A few people even repeatedly asked me for a tutorial.  I'm so sorry!  Truthfully, I barely have a handle on embroidery, so I felt ill-equipped to provide any sort of tutelage.  I intended to practice a bit first.  For this second project, I decided to just chronicle it with a little series, charting the process and sharing what I know (and what I learn) as I progress.  If I wait and practice a bit before blogging about it, we'll all be 100 before an embroidery tutorial materializes.  Before I get into the nitty-gritty (designing/picking a pattern, transferring the design, choosing materials, "mastering" different stitches, and, hopefully, successfully completing another embroidery project), I wanted to share a bit about the history of Hungarian embroidery, because my first and current project are both modern adaptations.    


The history of Hungarian embroidery - like that of many other countries - stretches back thousands of years.  As early as the 11th century there were schools for weaving and embroidery in Hungary.  Historically, weaving/embroidery was gendered: men dominated the profession, but women created impressive textiles for the home.  Later, women created embroideries for sale to supplement the family's income.  Today, although the practice of the art is declining, Hungarian embroideries, and the traditional motifs they showcase, remain an important expression of culture and you can find embroidered items in every tourist gift shop - and probably every home - in the country.  Interestingly, Hungary boasts more than twenty different folkloric regions, each with their own motifs, which can vary widely.  The picture below showcases some of the more well-known motifs:

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My grandmother's family, for example, is from the Kalocsa region and I can usually identify Kalocsa designs.  Don't be impressed, because Kalocsa embroidery is very popular and often confused with being representative of the country in its entirety, so the odds are in my favor!  Some say that Kalocsa has the richest folk art (you didn't hear that from me).    

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Although it's known today for its bright and cheery colours, I recently learned that traditional Kalocsa embroidery was all white, like the beautiful embroidery my grandmother's cousin made for Hubby and I as a wedding gift (I had it professionally framed, and now it hangs in our hallway):


After the introduction of color-fast embroidery thread (mid-19th century, I read), colourful embroidery gained popularity in the region.  Certain colours were/are always used together, and many held meaning.  As a woman aged, the colour palette of embroidery she donned became more subdued, with certain colours - like purple - representing mourning.  The folk clothing was imbued with a great deal of meaning, this is just one example.

The motifs of the region, although varied, are recognizable once you start to compare different folk art within Hungary.  In Kalocsa designs, you'll spot various flowers, berries, plus wheat sheaf and parika themes.  These motifs have long been utilized: they decorate the well-known Kalocsa Porcelain, and long before wall stenciling was Pinterest-worthy, Hungarian women in Kalocsa painted intricate designs onto their walls (the photo below is from the 1930s; you can see more photos from the 1950s here):

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Don't tell my family, but I'm also partial to Matyo embroidery, which typically boasts more densely embroidered designs, often on a black background.  I just love the shape of the flowers and how luxe these richly embroidered textiles look (shhhh).  

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Across the country, you'll find Hungarian embroidery on everything, from clothing to tablecloths to decorative pillows to bed linens and more.  Some of these beautifully embroidered items were historically made for a young girl's dowry, which would consist of hundreds of items and were a source of pride.  These items - plus the marital bed and other furniture - would even be paraded through town for the post-wedding "bed dance," and wedding guests would judge the goods.  The nuptial bed consisted of two or three coverlets and nine pillows - I use this history to justify my throw pillow obsession to Hubby (I'm one pillow short).

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Few Hungarians don full, embroidered folk costumes today (although you could see it in some smaller villages - I have! - and, of course, all over the country during cultural celebrations), but the designs are still relevant.

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Some brides wear beautiful gowns with traditional embroidery.

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I even spotted cupcakes adorned with striking (yummy) Kalocsa flowers (created by Olison's cupcakes):

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When I was in Budapest during Design Week, I noticed that many contemporary artisans and designers re-interpret folk designs with a modern spin. 

My Own Photo
This vest is for sale on Etsy, but I actually own the exact same one!
I've always been fascinated by Hungarian history, particularly the folk art.  What I knew previously were just tidbits I learned at the kitchen table, but then I learned a bit more when I lived in Budapest for a semester.  In searching for a design for my newest project (photos soon!), I unearthed a little bit more history and lots of inspiration, which I wanted to share - but I still know so little.  I've stolen borrowed my Mom's book, Treasures of Kalocsa, which I've been pouring over, so upcoming posts will discuss the art of pattern making, how to transfer designs, and how to do the stitches.

I'm excited.  But I have to admit that I approach my renewed interest in embroidery with a slightly heavy heart.  I don't want to be too much of a Gloomy Gus, but my grandmother's cousin - the one who made us the beautiful white embroidery I showed above - passed away recently.  I had the pleasure of visiting her each of the three times I traveled to Hungary.  I think she was pleased to see me learning to embroider when I was in Hungary last, but I'm not sure because she was tough to read.  After returning to Canada and completing my project I kept meaning to print some photos of the finished piece and mail them to her, but I never did.  I have no excuse.  She was very dear to my grandmother, and of course to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren!  I feel for them, because she was a dynamic, strong, and thoughtful woman and I am certain that she is missed deeply.  Even though I barely knew her, when I think about her passing, my chest tightens and I feel waves of guilt wash over me.  My thoughts have turned to her many times, especially now.  I'm thankful that I had the chance to tell her in person how much I treasured her gift, and how she inspired me.  I'm grateful that I even had the chance to meet her!  She was such an interesting woman, and so kind to me.  I don't normally have regrets, but I regret not taking the two minutes to send her a little note and some photos.

Sources:
Hungarian Folklore Museum - Hungarian Embroidery
Kalocsa Embroidery
Folk Costume and Embroidery 
Hungarian Folk
Folk Fashion
Kalocsa Official Website 
Folk Art Hungary 
Smithsonian Folk Life Festival
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26 comments

  1. What a beautiful post and I don't just mean the embroidery. I loved learning about the history but even more what it means to you. I do cross stitching but I would love to expand to embroidery too. Thank you for the inspiration.

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    1. Thanks Julie. I'm happy you enjoyed the post! I know so little, but it made me happy to share what I've learned because it's such an interesting history. Cross stitching in so beautiful. Is it difficult? I've only tackled embroidery before.

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  2. Hi Tanya, this was a very interesting piece, thank you. When you mentioned the word 'Matyo', it reminded me of a line of jewellery I saw when I lived in Budapest, I bought some pieces as gifts -
    http://lokalwear.myshopify.com/collections/the-matyo-collection

    I especially love the white embroidery - I understand how you are kicking yourself at not sending a photo to your relative. It's a reminder to me to do something similar - I have friends in Germany, an elderly couple now, and the wife used to do Bauernmalerei, stylized flower paintings on all sorts of things. I have a few pieces that I use to this day (a pot I keep salt in on the counter top, a jar with pens ... she gave them to me over 30 years ago!) and, when we saw them on our trip there in October, I said I'd send photos ... and haven't yet. I should get going, her husband will be 90 this month and she is not much younger.

    By the way, Happy New Year!

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    1. I saw that jewellery too! That line is so stunning - really traditional motifs but a cool, modern material. I'm sure that your gift recipients were delighted (did you buy yourself any?).

      Definitely send those photos!! I'm so angry at myself for not doing it. In this day of email, I've gotten so used to just sending photos that way. Or making my family just read the blog, lol. It's my lazy way of staying connected. I'm guessing many of us owe photos to someone who is a bit older and not online...

      Happy new year to you too!

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  3. Nagyon tetszik a párnád! :)

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  4. What a lovely post. I really loved the photographs, especially of the little old ladies in their beautiful costumes. I went to Russia and witnessed similar images when I was young. There is just something about Slavic grandmothers that makes me wish I had a little more grasp of my roots (a tricky thing for adoptees)!

    My Grammy taught me to knit when I was probably ten or so, and I wish I could now muster the courage to brave a creation beyond scarves and squares. But there is something about the repetition and feel of the art that reminds me of her, and I miss her so so very much.

    Back in college, before Hubby was my Hubby, Andrew bought me a book called Crafting to Heal--a really lovely read about how crafting reduces stress and brings such pleasure to our lives. I was thinking on this snowy day how I really need to whip out my sewing machine and get some baby projects going for my girlfriends. It's the darn time and motivation!!

    So thanks for the reminder to challenge myself by crafting something soothing and simple to remember my special grandmother, too. So sorry for your loss, Tanya. Think of her while you embroider :) No doubt she will also be thinking of you.

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    1. I'm so happy you liked the post. I love the older photos of women in the 1930s!

      I can definitely imagine it's tricky to feel a connection to your roots, being adopted. In a way, though, I imagine it could also be liberating because these old world connections can sometimes way a person down, too. There is so much sadness that is passed down. My grandma says we're cursed as a family - it's in our blood. Nice. And when I went to Hungary, people didn't treat me like a foreigner - I was "home". Which was good and bad. As it is, I like to pick and choose how I connect to my roots and family. But then, I know absolutely nothing about being adopted so this is me totally rambling on like an idiot.

      It's so sweet your grandma taught you to knit! I could never learn - and both grandma's tried! I would love to be able to knit scarves and squares. I'd make the most mod afghan the world has seen. All aqua. And you sew? On top of being an awesome cook with an eye for decorating. That's amazing. Definitely get creating! You've got so much talent.

      I believe it that crafting soothes and calms - especially if you've got a handle on a certain craft and can do it without thinking.

      I'm so sorry you've lost your grandma! Grandmas are the best. I shouldn't even be complaining about the loss of my relative because we weren't super close. I just feel bad about it. I shouldn't complain, because the loss has been much more jarring for her immediate family. My relatives lost their mom, grandma and great-grandma.

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  5. What a fun post! I loved reading/seeing the pictoral history, and I can't wait to see your next project!

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! There is no shortage of beautiful photos depicting Hungarian motifs and folk art - it was a lot of fun doing some research.

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  6. What a great blogpost! I have a life long pen pal in Hungary whom I have met twice and I have a bit of an idea what you mean by those colourful embroideries. I love them too! As for the story with your grandmother's cousin, well, time flies and young people don't know how fast! But at least you met her and treasure her embroidery.AriadnefromGreece!

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    1. I love that you have a pen pal!! That is really, really cool - especially that you've met! You're right, time flies. SO fast! This has been a good lesson, though, to not put things off, especially when people are involved. I don't want to stack up any more regrets like this one.

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  7. Beautiful! Really enjoyed the old photos of traditional Hungarian embroidery. So lovely! Sorry to hear about grandma's cousin- it's hard but don't dwell too much on your regrets, instead relish the inspiration she provided. It's a beautiful way to honour her memory. Oh, almost forgot, I love her beautiful gift to you that you had framed- it is perfect way to protect and enjoy it at the same time. The all white design is stunning.

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    1. I love finding those old photos! So happy these bits and pieces of life in Hungary were preserved. That motivated me to frame my gift - to preserve it! I pictured it getting grape juice spilled all over it. Now it's safe :)

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  8. What a beautiful post! All of it! You make me want to get out the embroidery hoop and get busy. :)

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  9. And by the way, that gold pyrex bowl you have in the sidebar, "Clean and restore..." is part of our set we got as wedding gifts over 40 years ago. We still use them nearly daily.

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    1. That's Butterfly gold. It's such a pretty set. I have a set of the cinderella's that I hung on to because I just love the pattern so much - even though it's not turquoise, lol. You must have cared for them very well to still have them and use them.

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  10. I did a little embroidery back in high school but it was just simple outlines and writing. It's a bit slow going for my taste but I have come across some interesting techniques on Pinterest that I wouldn't mind trying on something one day. They are in my craft "to do" file lol. I look forward to seeing the pattern you choose and the progress you make on this project.

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    1. I don't know that I follow you on Pinterest - just IG. I'd love to see what you've got filed away over there because I've been searching for different techniques too. The stitch for Kalocsa feels like coloring - back and forth - it's time consuming but kind of relaxing. This project is going to take MONTHS to complete.

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    2. Oh, my bad, didn't mean saved to my craft "to do" file on Pinterest, but on my computer, though I do think it might be saved on Pinterest somewhere. When ever I see something that I like, want to try, inspires an idea or maybe I would like to try and merge with another idea, I save the pic in my "craft file" on my computer in all sorts of categories. I can reference them easier than trying to remember where I saw it, I have a horrible memory. My Pinterest was a mess when a first started so I don't know if I will be able to find it. Feel free to follow me on Pinterest if you want username brikhouse2, a lot is crochet but I do have a lot of other cool stuff too....like an "everything turquoise" board lol. I think the embroidery was more Indian inspired, I seem to recall one where they took something like a large sequins and applied it to the fabric with embroidery, it was pretty cool. I did forget to mention my mom and I do embroidery.....but we cheat.....she has 2 machines lol. That's what we sell at xmas time at the craft sales.

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    3. I found some of the ones, including the mirror one I was speaking of, on Pinterest and created an embroidery board if you were curious.

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    4. Awesome, I found you! Now I'm following. How jealous am I that you have embroidery machines!! I would go crazy with those. Embroider ALL the things! Your turquoise Pinterest board is excellent :) The embroidery one has some neat stitches. Thanks for letting me tag along!

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    5. np, I have been following you for a while now

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  11. Such memories tied up with regret. Move forward and remember your grandmother's cousin with happy thoughts. Every time you pick up your needle and make a stitch remember the fact that you got to meet her not just once but three times! That she is the inspiration that is moving you forward to try more embroidery is reason enough not to have regrets.

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    1. I know I'm being silly about it - there are worse things I could have done/not done and, indeed, it was very important that we even met! I think what hits me the hardest is the time she spent on that embroidery for me and Hubby. I feel I was very selfish with my time toward her. But I did travel a million miles so maybe that makes up for it! Thank you for the encouragement to move on. Everyone has been so positive about it and that has made me feel like it's not the huge worry I made it up to be in my head.

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