A photo diary by Scottish embroiderer Rosie Noon, who recently spent a month in the Slovakian town for Kezmarok learning traditional textiles skills and what it taught her.
I was first introduced to the exceptionally beautiful folk costumes of Czechoslovakia through an English fashion designer and writer I stayed with in Mexico in 2016. When I mentioned I had studied embroidery, Manda quickly whipped out this particular book which had essentially very little text information but these amazing, hugely saturated photos of women with vibrant embroidered dresses, lace head scarves, stiffly pleated printed skirts and layers of jewellery. I immediately fell in love with Eastern European folk costume, and so when this year the opportunity came along to actually go to Slovakia and actually learn some traditional techniques, I leapt at the opportunity.
Funded by Erasmus+, Grampus Heritage Trust is a non-profit foundation with the preservation of traditional skills in rural Europe as their core principle. From agriculture to stonemasonry to weaving, as times passes and new technologies are discovered, without proper documentation or archiving, techniques worked by hand are at constant risk of being lost. Grampus run immersive educational projects (referred to as PEATS) which aim to foster an understanding of the culture and mentality of host countries through skill and/or labour exchange. Working with eco-tourism guides and specialists, they want to empower rural communities with rich histories of traditional skills who wish to see these passed on to new generations whilst building sustainable tourism, educational and industrial connections for the future.
This particular project is based in the eastern Slovakian town of Kezmarok, a quiet town perched just below the famous Tatra’s mountains, and only a couple hours drive from Poland. Our guide for our stay is Miro Kzeno who acts not only as our project director but also as a translator, driver, language teacher, official timekeeper and all round general father figure. Over the next 28 days, myself and the seven other participants share an intimate but comfortable living space in the converted attic with local family Pivo and Teresa. Everyday we are treated to the delicious traditional Slovakian home cooking of Teresa, often using ingredients from Pivo’s impressive vegetable garden. I spend as much time as I can in this lush environment with every fruit growing you can think of. I try note every detail of our quirky accommodation: an eclectic mix of 1970’s furniture, kitsch wall art, quaint hand embroidery and questionable patterned carpets. The calmness of this suburban setting and disconnection from city life reflects the pace and concentration required in the techniques we work on in the classroom.
Zlatica Svitanova, the deputy head of the local art college, is our teacher. She is fast, concise but patient, and we are all blown away by her ability to teach highly complex techniques through a translator, with broken English and strong hand gestures. We work our way through a variety of complex and intricate techniques, starting with simple patterns and occasionally building pace to more substantial samples. First comes bobbin lace, which is a delicate construction worked out on a special cushion with threads wrapped around bobbin sticks. As you essentially weave your way through your design, it’s imperative you keep your eyes on your bobbins and remember which stand comes next. This is commonly used as a decorative art form, but on clothing could be seen really only as a delicate trim as it is a painstakingly slow process. I try my hand at creating a more abstract shape inspired by a loose drawing, but inevitably end up asking for Zlatica’s guidance every other minute to get to a finish point. We move on to needlepoint lace, which is just as intricate and challenging, and again I struggle to master the rhythm of it. Tenerife lace provides some welcomed relief, as the technique allows for much more freehand design work. Being limited to work your design within a punched circular card encourages us to be playful with colour and shape with decidedly less intense concentration required. Somehow, in the rest of our time we also fit in macrame, free-hand weaving, felting, and an overnight trip to the town of Michalovce to work with a local artist producing rugs from scrap materials.
The amount of new information we learn is almost overwhelming but as we work our way through the techniques, we find ourselves naturally gravitating towards certain styles and are allowed to follow these intuitions as we like. We take work home, sewing outside until the daylight fades, addicted to the instant gratification of making something new each day, even if it isn’t quite a masterpiece. And whilst I am often inevitably disappointed with my progress in comparison to the awe-inspiring examples of folk costume we find in the books of the school library, I find the experience of being completely immersed in this different culture as a whole fascinating and taking in as much inspiration as possible quickly becomes my main objective. I feel it blowing the dust away from my post-graduate creative slump and make lists of potential project ideas I can develop from even my amateur level skills. By the first week my phone is burgeoned with pictures of everyday details: house fronts, picked fruit, garden tools, Soviet era cars, Catholic motifs, fading building facades, wildflowers, hilltop shrines, signposts, sunsets and sunrises. A visit to the modest ethnographic museum of nearby town Poprad is also hugely inspiring, and encourages me to research more about other textile techniques, such as printing. In this well-curated exhibition, a timeline of eastern Slovakia is told through objects, with a particularly textile theme: hand-carved printing blocks, framed folk costumes, archival documentary photography, ending with a mini-exhibition documenting the fascinating history of a textile printing studio once based in the town. Here, textiles act as an important method of visually storytelling the development of ordinary people’s lives, somehow serendipitously summarising the principles of the PEATS project we are working on. On finishing the project, I find myself very sad to leave, and start to make arrangements with a fellow participants for a potential reverse exchange in 2019.
Styles and technologies will continue to change, but craft will always act as a method of communication, a currency exchange and a point of cultural contact. Whilst textile craft is often a somewhat prickly term in the UK, caught between high art and good design and bad taste, we have (and have had) for some time invested in funding bodies and organisations concerned and organised in the conservation of techniques, styles, historical examples and traditions. From the preserved costumes of the fishwives of Newhaven to the copyright protected fabrics of Harris Tweed, Scotland’s textile past, for example, is well documented and academically respected. This arguably helps maintain a strong contemporary cultural discourse for craft, and as such maintains interest in the continuation of these types of creative practices. But how do we ensure the same happens with our developing European counterparts without falling into the vacuum of tourist-led nostalgia practises, or micro industries for hobbyists? Campaigns to protect styles of historical value from botched cultural appropriation, such as ‘La Blouse Roumaine’, show us that there is a need for wider care and consideration of the value of historical craft techniques in our Western Europe, mass market design practices, and projects such as this encourage that. Or perhaps should the funding instead be directed to arts education Slovakia to encourage more innovative approaches to meeting craft with design? Whilst I can imagine many of the techniques we tried being used at couture houses in London and Paris, I can’t say for sure whether Slovakia’s input into the wider textile discourse is being properly credited, but this PEATs journey has encouraged me to question the ethics of the industry beyond the UK. In the post-Brexit fallout, I hope that the cross-cultural value in creative Erasmus+ projects is duly noted and remains intact, or we risk losing meaningful cultural exchanges on both sides of the border.