Thursday, June 2, 2011

Female Costume of Barkava and Bergzale, South Latgalia, Latvia

Hello all,

Today I am going to do a posting for a special friend of mine, Aelita. She was born in the city of Rezekne, in Latgalia. The Latgalians were one of the Baltic peoples, a group of related tribes that included the Lithuanians, Prussians Semigallians, Yotvingians and others. The Prussians became assimilated by Germans that settled on their territory, and lost their language in the middle ages. Others were assimilated by the Bielorussians and the Poles, and others coalesced to form the modern day Latvians and Lithuanians. Here is a map of the Baltic tribes around 1200 AD. For further historical information see these two articles.

Today, Latgalia [Latgale] is recognised as one of the provinces of Latvia. Their language is related to Latvian, and is recognised as one of the three native languages of the State of Latvia, along with Latvian proper and Livonian. Here is a map of the province of Latgale [Latgalia].

The province has two distinct costume areas, North Latgalia and South Latgalia, indicated on the map. Today i will be talking about the costume of South Latgale, specifically the region to the northwest of the city of Rezekne. I will show you the female costumes of the villages of Barkava and Bergzale. Let us start with the girl's costume of Bergzale. [traditionally the distinction between 'girl' and 'woman' is whether she is married, in most places this is indicated by her clothing].

The costume consists of the chemise, a striped or plaid woolen skirt, a sash or apron, the crown shaped headress which is found all over the Baltic area, and the wrap, or shawl. The chemise is closed with a button or small round pin, and the shawl is closed with a larger round brooch. The woman's costume is distinguished mostly by her headgear, it being a universal idea that married women should keep their hair covered. Some authorities believe that in the 19th century, the apron was part of the woman's costume. Here is a woman from Barkava, front and back view.

The basic piece of the costume here, as in most of east Europe is the chemise. In South Latgale, the chemise was made of plain woven linen. [in North Latgale, it is made of linen with a pattern woven into it] Here is one version of the cut from South Latgalia. Note that the dimensions are given in cm, and seam allowances are not indicated.

This diagram shows a wide collar, in our examples both of the collars are very narrow, possibly with some simple embroidery, the body is gathered into the neck and closed with a button. The slit is pinned shut, married women have a much longer front opening to facilitate breast feeding. Also, if there is embroidery on the collar, often it is not continued all the way around, as the married woman's headress coves the back of the collar.

 The shoulder piece, if present, is very narrow, as shown here with some simple embroidery in white or red. Both the strip and the embroidery are to strengthen the garment, as there is strain on the neckhole from the weight of the sleeves.

the triangular piece shown above between the collar and the underarm gusset is sometimes inserted into the neck slit so as to ease the opening into a round shape and make the construction more sturdy. The shoulder strip would then be sewn on top of it.

There may be a seperate cuff or the end of the sleeve may be cut at an angle to narrow it towards the wrist. Either way, there may be some simple embroidery in red or white.

The Striped skirts had a linen weft and colored wool warp, the stripes being woven across he loom, then the selvage was used as the bottom hem so that the stripes became vertical. Plaid material was first woven all from wool and had a symmetrical design, and later with a cottom warp, which gave an asymmetrical design. The plaid skirt was made from 4 loom widths, either way the skirt came to about 2.5 to 3 yards/meters, and was sewn onto a waistband.  See the photos above.

My sources tell me that aprons and sashes are not worn together, one wears one or  the other. This is in strong contrast to both Estonia and Lithuania, where an apron is an indispensable part of female costume, and sashes are conisedered a very important item of wear. Sashes in Latgale may be inkle woven, but are most commonly card woven. Card weaving is apparantly not found in other parts of Latvia. The sashes are narrow, woven in stripes or simple designs. Card woven strips were also used to trim clothing, the hems of skirts in North Latgale, and the shawls. Here is a closeup of the card woven sash being worn by the girl above.

In Latgale, as in Western Ukraine, the apron was sewn of two loom widths, about 45 cm each. Sometimes they were sewn together with white thread so as not to be seen, and sometimes the center seam was decorated in some way. The lower edge was decorated with red embroidery, cutwork in natural linen, and/or homemade bobbin lace. Here are two examples. This one is being worn by the woman above.

Herringbone, single faggot stitching, cutwork, hemstitching, counted satin stitch, bobbin lace on the edge. Note that the red embroidery has faded to pink. If you wish to replicate this, please use red, not pink. [i have actually seen this done]. Here is another example where home made bobbin lace is inserted between the two pieces. The design on the bottom edge of the linen was probably woven in. Again, the red has faded.

The headpiece of the unmarried girl is the Vainags, the open crown shaped headress so typical of the Baltic region. In Latgalia it is covered with red cloth and stitched with beads. Here are two examples.

Married women wore a headcloth, Galvasauts. This is similar to the long headcloth which used to be worn from the Baltic region as far south as Romania. In Latgale it came in two versions, long and short. The woman above is wearing the long version. This is one method of tying it. In colder weather it would also be wrapped under the chin, forming a 'wimple'.

One or both ends were often embroidered, sometimes with different designs. Here is a closeup of the one the woman above is wearing. The design is similar to the one on her apron.
Here is another example, less well preserved and more faded, but a nice piece of work.
Under this was worn a linen cap, none of which have been preserved, and an embroidered linen band which was worn over the forehead and was highly ornamented. See the photo above.

The wraps were of three types. The most important is called Villaine. This garment sets Latvian costumes apart. It was twill woven out of wool and highly ornamented with embroidery and sometimes card woven strips. A girl was expected to weave and make one for herself as a test of the womanly arts. She was not considered to be properly prepared for marriage untill she did. Thus the wearing of the Villaine was a public exhibition of her skill. These are still passed down as valued family heirlooms. In the easten part of Latvia, the embroidery on these was always done in dark blue, red, yellow and green. The prevalance of green is unusual in East European embroidery. This is considered to be the type of embroidery most representative of Latvia. Here are closeups of the Villaine being worn by the girl and the woman above, respectively.

When made of linen, the wrap is called Snatene. It is often woven with a patterned texture, It is trimmed in various ways, with a simple band of embroidery in red, or fringe, or home made bobbin lace. Somtimes it is woven in plaid. Here is one example.

The third kind of wrap was woven of wool in a plaid pattern with fringes on all sides. This was only worn for warmth and had no further significance. They are called Lielie Lakati [plural, singular would be "Lielais Lakats"].

. Here is the same woman wearing one.

You can see from the photos above that both the chemise and the wrap were pinned closed by the same kind of round silver pins and brooches found in other parts of Latvia.Many women could not afford the brooch.

Latgale is not close to the coast, so amber ornaments are not as common as in other parts of Latvia. Glass beads are more typical. Also crosses were very commonly worn, as Latgalians are mostly Catholic, while in other parts of Latvia, most people are Lutheran.

As in other parts of Latvia, linen or woolen footcloths were wrapped aorund the feet, sometimes the lower legs ended up seeming quite thick, which was good, because nobody wanted a skinny sickly woman, but one who was strong. These were held in place with laces. These were later replaced by white knit stockings. Over these were worn either vizes, [shoes woven from birch or linden bark, or in this region, often from home twisted cord].

Or, for more dressy occasions, Pastalas [home made moccasins] Both the girl and the woman above are wearing pastalas.

Women [and men] very often went barefoot, even to Church, their long skirts covering their feet. Actual shoes were rare in Latgale. If a woman was lucky enough to own a pair of shoes, she would often carry them in a bag and put them on when she got to her destination, so as to make them last as long as possible. I have heard my grandfather say the same thing about Ukraine. [Actually, he said there were three kinds of people, 1. those who went barefoot. 2. those who carried their boots on a stick untill they got to where they were going and then put them on. and 3. those who could afford to wear their boots all the time.]

Thank you for reading, as always, and i encourage you to try the Villaine embroidery on something, bring a piece of old Latvia or Latgalia to your life.

Feel free to contact me with requests for research. I hope to eventually cover all of Europe and the Former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. I also gratefully accept tips on source materials which i may not have. I also accept commissions to research/design, sew, and/or embroider costumes or other items for groups or individuals

Roman K.

Source Material:
Velta Rozenberga et al, 'Latviesu Tautas Terpi III Zemgale, Augszeme, Latgale' [Latvian National Costumes III Zemgale, Augszeme, Latgale], Riga, 2003
N. Kalashnikova, 'National Costumes of the Soviet Peoples', Moscow, 1990
Ilze Zingite, 'Latvian National Costumes', Riga, 2000
J. Sudmalis, 'Cimdu Rasti' [Mitten designs], Riga, 1961
Aija Jansone et al, 'Ieteikumi Latviesu Tautas Terpu Valkatajiem', Riga, 2002
T. Razina, 'Folk Art in the Soviet Union', Leningrad, 1990


  1. Roman K,
    I'm a student from The Netherlands and interested in Latvian folk art, can we have contact via

  2. Good evening, I have some questions on an UFO (unidentified found object) from my collection children's clothing. Could you tell me how I can send you a picture of this costume.

    1. certainly. You can email me the photo at
      I would be glad to take a look at it.