I have this piece of cloth. Simply described, it has colorful cross-stitch on woven linen with a cutwork border and could be used under hot pots to protect a table from heat or condensation. It could be used to cover a small bowl of bread or other food item as the rest of a meal is being prepared. I would like to tell you how these 50 square inches or so of cloth have provided insight into my ancestral needlework traditions.
As a child of immigrants, I learned bits and pieces about fiber arts—albeit limited—within my Hungarian ancestry. There was an emphasis on normalizing and adopting new Canadian traditions and objects, which were often prioritized over maintaining traditional cultural techniques in the fiber arts. And so, not surprisingly, I came to learn fiber arts a little later in life, even though my curiosity was established much earlier. What I think is important here is that no matter how many barriers I found while pursuing fiber arts, ceasing this exploration altogether never occurred to me. Waiting? Yes. Ceasing? No.
Exploring Needlework Heritage
While some speak of being surrounded by family and friends who sought to inspire and teach textile techniques, I don’t believe this is a requirement for learning about one’s ancestral needlework traditions. If this were a requirement, everyone who has lost traditional ties to family would inevitably lose all knowledge and the possibility of gaining knowledge about their ancestral textile techniques. Certainly, family and friends within the same ancestry can mediate this knowledge; however, not all of us have a living relative or community member who is able to pass on this knowledge. There are many reasons why this could be so—death, estrangement, geography, etc.—but the purpose of this article isn’t to explore why this isolation happens; rather, the purpose is to focus on what to do if we find ourselves seeking a deeper connection to our ancestral needlework traditions. I firmly believe that we can still find some of our culture and ancestral textile techniques, even if we have lost our family.
Oral transmission of knowledge and written transmission of knowledge can complement each other. I have started my journey with access to written information through a local museum, which I hope to augment with person-to-person learning and experiences over time. Wherever one is in the knowledge journey, it is important to seek out and draw on multiple sources of data. Your journey may begin with having a rich oral tradition. This starting point can be enriched even more through further exploration. Even if we have access to living friends and family to teach us about the history behind our textile traditions, there are many craft regions and nuances to explore that will extend the textile-technique possibilities. Each of our journeys exploring ancestral needlework traditions will be deeply personal and unique; we have so much to learn from one another.
A full-sized photo of Helen’s lovely piece of cloth that connects her to her needlework origins.
When I look at various images of Hungarian embroidery, two distinct styles seem to be uniquely expressed over a dozen craft or folkloric regions. One style features rather free-form stitches over a ground fabric, while another style is highly informed by the stitch count and weave of the ground fabric. Either style can use a range of colors, and each region has preferred or popular motifs. Adding to the richness of Hungarian embroidery is the very common practice of combining motifs from different regions in a piece of embroidery. There can be other techniques incorporated, too, such as lacework to accent the embroidery design. Overall, floral emblems and geometric patterns dominate Hungarian embroidery, with avian and other animal motifs appearing from time to time.
In exploring why there is such a diversity in these motifs, I found that Hungarian embroidery was richly influenced by Turkish artisans from the Ottoman Empire. Correspondence from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries articulates the difficulties in finding Turkish embroideresses to work on Hungarian estates, which demonstrates the demand for their skill and expertise. Over time, Hungarian artisans incorporated needlework techniques and customs from Turkish artisans.
Gradually, these techniques shared among artisans found further nuances as they were reinterpreted with new hands traveling through the many craft regions and were further influenced by material availability. Different craft regions in Hungary spotlight different colors used in their techniques, and this may be linked to resource availability or the desire to represent an aspect of their region in their embroidery. For example, it is thought that the bold reds found in some Hungarian embroideries are intended to represent paprika, a staple spice in Hungarian cuisine.
Some customs shared among artisans influenced how specific artifacts were incorporated into life events, such as kerchiefs in wedding parties and offering embroideries as special gifts at births, anniversaries, and other important celebrations. It is not surprising that, even today, we still see evidence of these customs. A handmade gift continues to be a treasure, and many people continue to prepare or select exquisite textiles to be used in important life moments.
A close look at the careful stitching and linen ground of Helen’s treasured textile.
Stitching a Story
Back to my embroidered piece of cloth. I have two artifacts involving textiles linked to my ancestry: this piece of cloth and a worn and tattered book full of patterns given to me by my maternal grandmother. The book was printed in Budapest in 1976 and features 220 unique patterns over 87 pages. While my father came directly from Hungary to Canada just after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, my mother traveled through Norway before coming to Canada, where they would later meet. This book must have traveled separately, given the date of publication.
The embroidery patterns in the book are geared toward everyday textiles rather than embroidery patterns specific to a formal garment. Flipping through this book, I see some pages are worn more than others, and one of these worn pages has some strikingly similar motifs to the ones on my embroidered piece of cloth. It appears that several motifs were combined to make what is on this cloth, with a bit of variation to incorporate the multiple patterns.
I still don’t know—and it is unlikely that I will ever know—who made this piece of cloth. It could have been my grandmother, but I think that it was made by someone else and given to my grandmother. It shows signs of loving use, which makes me think that whoever made it (or received it) wanted their textile traditions to be a part of everyday life. There are many aspects of embroidery techniques to explore within this artifact. However, that last one, about making textile traditions a part of everyday life, is my favorite thing I’ve learned from this journey so far.
This article and its companion project from Helen can be found in the Spring 2022 issue of PieceWork.
Also, remember that if you are an active subscriber to PieceWork magazine, you have unlimited access to previous issues, including Spring 2022. See our help center for the step-by-step process on how to access them.
- Gervers, Veronika. The Influence of Ottoman Turkish Textiles and Costume in Eastern Europe with Particular Reference to Hungary. Toronto, ON, Canada: Royal Ontario Museum, 1982.
- Kocsisné Szirmai Fóris, Mária. Tiszavidéki keresztszemes himzésminták. Budapest, Hungary: Minerva, 1976.
- Szalavary, Anne. Hungarian Folk Designs for Embroiderers and Craftsmen. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1980.
Helen Barbara Mawdsley is a fiber artist and woodturner. She enjoys being curious and exploring history, traditions, and new forms of craft. Learn more at mawdsleyfibrearts.ca.