Historical Sew Fortnightly:Peasant blouse with Transylvanian smocking

The garment I planned for the first challenge of the Historical Sew Fortnightly has quickly become the garment I’m making for the second challenge – which: get a UFO (unfinished object) off your sewing list. Two birds with one stone, you could say! Yes, let’s just say that, shall we?

The challenge: make a garment from xx13. My interpretation: to make a blouse someone would actually have worn in the Hungarian regions of Transylvania (Kalotaszeg or Barcaság, mostly) based on this photograph of a peasant girl from 1913:

girl from Kalotaszeg, 1913

A simple peasant blouse with red embellishment, an everyday blouse rather than a fancy Sunday one, pretty but functional. Speaks exactly to my idea of everyday wear.

Then I encountered some problems. First, I could not find a close enough look at the typical gathering method and neckline construction for a blouse from this region. Then, I couldn’t find a close enough look at the shoulder embellishment to figure out how it was made. I tried several things but it never quite looked right. Also, I would have had to give myself a crash course in several different methods of embroidery based only on tiny pictures like this one:

Womenswear from Banffyhunyad, Kalotaszeg


I couldn’t find any descriptions of how the red embroidery-smocking was made. I did find a couple of descriptions of the colored smocking on the right side, which is typically used on the top portion of aprons worn for holidays, like this one:

apron from Kalotaszeg



I think the two methods are similar, based on the shoulder detail in this image:

Kalotaszeg blouse shoulder detail


But… this is the closest look I could get at the shoulder so I don’t quite know how the smocking and embroidery are actually done, and right now I have no way of finding more information.

So I tried the smocking method from the apron. I have a book from the 1970s that describes a pretty good selection of Hungarian embroidery styles, among them the kind of smocking on aprons from Kalotaszeg. First, you take the wet cloth that your apron will be made out of and lay it on a board with long, fine grooves, then take a needle and graze a line into each low groove. When the cloth dries, it will retain the tiny pleats this created. Then, with a thick cotton thread, you put two long stitches into each pleat lengthwise. Like this:

Kalotaszeg smocking preparations

You then divide the area covered with the cotton thread with horizontal stitches (I’m not entirely clear on how the divisions are organized though). Finally, you fill it all in with a thick wool thread, twisting the wool thread around the cotton ones to produce the pattern, which would look something like this:

kalotaszegi darazsolas

I tried this with extremely unsatisfactory results (though it was definitely interesting). So I gave up on the idea of this blouse for the time now. Unfortunately, this was the 11th hour before the challenge was due… I did, however, find a very pretty counted-thread-like method of smocking peasant blouses from a region of Transylvania to the East of the Kalotaszeg region (where my original blouse is from). It seemed more realistic that I could actually make it, not least because I could figure out a way to do it from this image:

girl's blouse from Barcaság, Romania



I don’t actually know when this specific blouse was made but I’m making an educated guess that it’s a style that would have been worn at about the same time as the one at the top of this post.

Once I’m done, I’ll talk a little bit about construction details. Right now, this is where I’m at with the smocking:

barcasag smocking

If you follow me on Instagram then you’ve seen this image before. Once I figured out the pattern, a good thread to use, and a workable method for shirring up the cloth, it turned out not to be very hard. Though still very time-consuming!

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2 Responses to Historical Sew Fortnightly:Peasant blouse with Transylvanian smocking

  1. Panth says:

    Hi – visiting from the Historical Sew Fortnightly facebook page. I love the photo of your smocking – so neat and beautiful!

    I wondered if you’d heard of “italian shirring” – a possibility for how the red embelishment is done on the blouse. You can see an example here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/claning/4497147929/in/photostream/

    I know very little about it – just that it is similar to smocking, but doesn’t permit the sewn section to stretch and appears to have that all-over-stitches look. It is supposed to be explained in “The Art of Manipulating Fabric” by Colette Wolff, Robbie Fanning and Rosalie Cooke. However, I’ve not yet got that book, so can’t confirm that.

    I look forward to seeing your finished UFO project.

    • kata says:

      The Italian shirring looks gorgeous! I bet it is similar, but it almost looks like it’s done from the other side of the fabric. I’ve been wondering whether to get that book so now I’ve a bit more motivation… Hmmm.

      Thank you for the information!

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