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Textile stories. Reflections on the Romanian Blouse as an element of social cohesion

Updated: May 6, 2020

IA - a majestic concept. A two letter word denominating an entire creative universe. A product of collective traditional design with an individual author, IA a.k.a the Romanian Blouse, is a textile narrator. The intricate embroidery on foam-white hemp tells a story.

And each story is unique and immortal.

A reflection of the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, in traditional Romanian design geometrical symbols depicting elements of fauna and flora are attributed spiritual character. The tree of life, the Aries horns, the running water or the Wolf’s teeth, as symbolic elements, are part of a universal language and are chosen with purpose. What makes a Romanian Blouse recognizable is the embroidering design and the combination of symbols and colors that trace it back to a specific region of provenance. In historical times, before the chronic urbanization of Romania, IA was created in the heart of the rural community.

Often women would organize specific gatherings “șezători”, where they would embroider, tell stories, sing, even mourn, they would talk about their husbands and children, their spiritual beliefs and their challenges and aspirations as women. Sometimes they would probably discuss techniques and designs but my feeling is that this happened only subsidiary. It was like a collective design hub focused on the individuals’ skill and artistic growth. The craft was taught from mother to daughter. The quality of the execution of the embroidery and the complexity of the chosen pattern was proof of the skill and talent of the author.

It was a silent competition. The constructive type. Learning by doing and by observing others do. Women with different stories, different skill-sets, and different visions of life, all part of a dynamic process of collective design focused on traditional clothing.

This is why every IA impresses the viewer, the feeler, the wearer. The embroidery speaks to you before you can read its meaning. It talks about life and finding its meaning, about love and trust, about origin and belonging, about community. Because it is at the heart and soul of the community that it was born.

So beyond aesthetics and craft, what were the less promoted functions of these gatherings and why would we need them back today?

Before anything else, “șezătoarea” was an official form of gathering for the women of the community. It took place at agreed times and places, mostly in late-autumn and winter when the agricultural works were finished. It was a platform for socializing combining work with pleasure.

Support system and trust network: it feels that the primary social function of these gatherings was to create bonds between the participants. In a space of respect and dedication to the creative process women were sharing personal stories, intimacies, experience. A sacredness of confession and a safe environment where advice could be found.

Learning and teaching environment: the learning-teaching process was multidisciplinary. Embroidery techniques and traditional design conception came as a bonus to the life lessons drawn from the experience of the elderly, the learning about the spiritual celebrations in the traditional calendar or learning about marital duties, life in partnership and love.

A space of active participation in the creation of cultural heritage: anthropologically speaking, these women were creators of cultural heritage and within their circle they were passing the traditional knowledge down to future generations. The young and the old was blending harmoniously both socially and in the artistic creations. The natural circle of life.

It is within this safe creative environment that valuable traditional cultural expressions were born. That is why when you look at a Romanian Blouse you see beyond the embroidery. You see the perseverance, the desire to be better than yesterday, the love and the joy, the support of the sisterhood. The spirit of the community.

A fundamental element in community building, these gatherings were a pylon of the rural society, promoting equality between participants and a co-sharing mentality. Everyone was gathering around the fire or the stove with an individual purpose in mind – to finish the work they had come there for. Together time was passing at a different speed and troubles were more easily overcome. It was the perfect setting for creative brainstorming and planning religious celebrations, weddings and funerals. Birth and death were attributed equal value and respect. Life had meaning.

If Romanian traditional design has potential to become a leading school of design in Europe in a desirable future it is due to this fascinating collective design exercise that occurred concomitantly in each community, in every region, generating richness and diversity. Patterns and colors would differ from one village to the other. The same with thread quality and richness of bead ornaments. Preference for certain symbols can be identified and different meanings and interpretations often occur. In a way, since ancestral times, women were leaders in traditional collective design. The birth of heritage fashion as a collective product.

These are timeless functions of women gatherings. They are as important for the sustainability of the contemporary society as they were for the rural communities. Today we are re-searching for values, absorbed by the aesthetics and fascinated by the unearthing of meanings and understanding of the creative process. We are meant to build together and function at our highest potential within a group. As social beings, balanced with our times spent in solitude, for reflection, gatherings are “vitamins” for a life led with purpose.

The conclusion is: we should sit together more often. With purpose. Textile traditional design can reshape and breathe new life in our communities. Deciphering meanings, discovering values of our ancestral community, understanding simplicity and authenticity, expressing our individuality. Knowing who we are and where we come from.

This piece was first published in The Fourwood Magazine, in August, 2017

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