Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Costume of the Sarakatsani or Karakachani, Greece

Hello all, 
Today I will talk about the costume of a people called the Sarakatsani [in Greek] or Karakachani [in Bulgarian]. They are one of the peoples of the Balkans who were traditionally pastoral nomads. They traveled with their flocks from low winter pastures to high summer ones. They are found scattered over central and northern Greece, and also across the border into Macedonia,  and Turkish and Bulgarian Thrace. They consider themselves to be pure Greek. They speak an archaic dialect of northern Greek, and hold themselves to be very distinct from the Aromanians and other nomadic peoples of the Balkans. The competing theories seem to be politically motivated.
Here is a map showing the approximate location of these people.

The costume of the Sarakatsani has some common elements, but differs significantly by region. I will focus on the variant found in Thrace. The current border between Greece and Bulgaria separates some of the traditional summer pastures from the winter ones. These people are now settled, and live on both sides of the border.

The Sarakatsani costume forms a strong contrast to other Greek costumes as it is mainly black and white, and almost all of it was traditionally hand made from the wool of their flocks. The ornamentation is strongly geometric. Like other Balkan costumes, it is quite complicated.

The foundation of the costume is the chemise called Poukamiso, made in a cut which is typical of the Balkans. The hem has white hemstitch and crochet trim and the sleeves have black cross stitch embroidery with black braids sewn onto the end.

Openwork is also done between the seams of the front panel. The embroidery forms a band around the end of the sleeve, above the braid, and also is done up the center of the sleeve. Usually, as in this case, the motifs used are the same.

 Poukamiso for special occasions would have more extensive embroidery.

In older examples, we find red, blue and green also used in the embroidery.

  Over the chemise they wear a pleated wrap-around skirt called fustani. It has two hooks and overlaps and fastens on the side.

It is made of two loom widths of cloth sewn side by side. In Epiros white cross stitch is done on the hem, but in Thrace the decorations consist of sewn on ribbons and galloon. Here is a plain one as would be worn by somewhat older women.

 After the ornament is applied, the pleats are sewn in, then the skirt is soaked in hot water and laid out flat in the sun to dry. After the basting is removed, the pleats are permanant. Then a waistband is attached.

Both the waistband and the hem are often decorated with cord and braid applique.

 Younger women add  rows of colored ribbon and metallic galloon.

Around the hips over this is wrapped another garment called zonee, which means belt. This is enlarged towards the bottom, so as to have somewhat of a cone shape. It is fastened on the side. In the photo above it is ornamented with triangles and zigzags, and has zigzag braid attached to the edge. Here are a couple more examples.

The waist is made of woven cloth, but the 'skirt' of the zonee is made of split-ply cords sewn together side by side into the triangles and other shapes and then sewn together like patchwork. 

The apron, podia, is worn over the fustani but under the zonee. It is quadrangular in shape, being wider at the bottom. It does not wrap around the waist, but hangs lower, so that it is visible below the zonee. it has bands at the upper corners, the ends of which are attached to the waist.

The podia is ornamented with embroidery in the center, ribbons or galloons, and couched braid and cord around the edges. There is quite a variety of ornaments used. Darker more subtle designs are used by older women. Some of them need to be seen in bright daylight in order to be appreciated.

Podia for festivals were naturally more colorful.

A straight cut waist length vest called polkaki is worn over the chemise. The front hooks closed and is covered with the same kind of cording ornament as the zonee. Embroidery and galoons may also be added. The back is undecorated because it is usually covered with a second vest, the tzamandani, which hangs open. Here is a schematic and a few examples.

The Tzamandani is similar but longer, has gores set in on the sides and does not meet in front.

The woman in the center here is only wearing the polkaki.

Here you can clearly see the tzamandani over the polkaki.

 The manikia are separate wool sleeves which are worn on the forearms. They were made of woven cloth decorated with cording.

 Today they are sometimes knitted.

Colorful knitted stockings are worn. As in some other places in the Balkans, the stockings are made in two parts, Gabis, which cover the legs and may keep them warm when working barefoot, and Kaltsounia, which cover the feet and ankles.

 Leather shoes, opanci or tsaroukhia, the greek shoes with pompoms may be worn with this costume. 

The hair is usually braided, in different ways for women of different ages and life situations. A large kerchief, the Mantili is folded over and worn on the head. Much silver jewelry is worn, beginning with the large belt buckle, the Asmozunaro, which is the traditional gift of a groom to his bride.  A silver ornament is pinned to the Mantili over the forehead.

Originally the chemise was embroidered just under the neck. Now a dickey is worn. At first they were embroidered with a lace ruff at the neck. .

Now in Greece they are ornamented with ribbons and the collar has become enlarged.

On the Bulgarian side, this has become a large bib which is decorated with ribbons and glass baubles, and has become quite gaudy, apparently as a replacement for the silver jewelry.

The man's costume is rather typical for northern Greece. The foustanella is also worn.

Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative.
Just a few more images of this costume.

The following two images are from the blog "Coffee And Paint Drips" ©DoraSislianThemelisArt/The Greek American Folklore Society, Astoria, NY Greek Independence Day Parade, NYC. My thanks to Dora Themelis.



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. I also choreograph and teach folk dance.
Roman K.

Source material:
Joyce Ronald Smith et al, 'Female Costume of the Sarakatsani', Brown University, 1985
Ioanna Papantoniou, 'Greek Costumes', Nafplion, 1981
Angeliki Hatzimichali, 'Greek Folk Costumes', Greece, Melissa, 1979


  1. The informations are so lovely and so usefull so thank you very much. Be sure i will use all of them keeping in my mind.Have a goog luck.

  2. The map with the Sarakatsani regions is awfully misleading. There are more Greek regions populated with them.

    Also a whole Greek county at the Greek Turkish borders populated with Sarakatsani is not included in this map.I would imagine this is because you have ordered your map from the wrong country....! Turkey, maybe?

    I would have been very interested in knowing more about the various scientific theories you have come across regarding our origins...if there are any, of course....haha

    Photos with costumes are fine.
    I am only laughing in what I am reading...a part of it is: 'Most of these people are now settled, and live on both sides of the border. They identify primarily as Sarakatsani, consider themselves to be ethnically Greek, but Bulgarian by nationality if they live north of the border.'

    We ALL have been settled since the 1950's!
    We don't identify ourselves primarily Sarakatsanoi.We all primarily identify ourselves as Greek, even the ones living in Bulgaria or having the Bulgarian citizenship. Our mother tongue is Greek and has always been Greek for centuries.

    I am wondering what sort of misinformation and propaganda is this.......

  3. Thank you for your comments,
    My purpose is to present the artistic and historical value of the folk costume, and not to make political statements.
    I can only provide the maps which I have found in my library and online, I have noticed that these maps differ among themselves, and tried to present the best which I could find. I was not aware that Sarakatsani also lived on the Turkish side of the border, If you have more precise maps, I would appreciate it if you would send a copy to me.
    I have no interest in propaganda, but it is inevitable that some of the sources which I consult have propaganda in them. I am aware of this, and I try to sift it out, and present the information in as unbiased a manner as I can. I have heard it claimed that Sarakatsanoi in Bulgaria considered themselves to be Bulgarian by Nationality, by which I assume they actually mean Citizenship, but of course, this was said by Bulgarians.
    I am sorry if the wording I used has offended you.
    As to origin, all the reputable sources which I have read agree that Sarakatsanoi are Greek, and are very distinct from the Vlachs. I have not read anywhere an explanation as to how they became nomads.
    But in fact, the nomadic lifestyle was the most efficient use of the land. The territories which the Sarakatsanoi inhabited were not suitable for agriculture. The nomadic lifestyle is not more primitive than a settled lifestyle, but is in fact much more sustainable in mountainous or dry areas which are unsuited for agriculture.
    Once again, thank you for your comments, I always appreciate input and corrections.

  4. Roman K
    Thank you for your prompt reply.
    As I understand, the only sources you have looked into regarding the origins of Sarakatsani are the 3 books you have cited and the link of wikipedia which has been misleading in various occasions.

    Yes, indeed I have to suggest you some important material (based on scientific research) to read and understand why both this map and your reference to 'theories of their origins' are misleading. I can see that you have amended this sentence, after my comment, and I am glad about it.

    Here is the material
    1) Dr Aris Poulianos: Sarakatsani, the most ancient people in Europe
    (Sample links are these ones and
    Poulianos (PhD) is a greek anthropologist who has written several books about Sarakatsani.

    2)J.K.Campbell, anthropologist and historian who studied in Cambridge University and wrote the book ' Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community' (another link about who Campbell was .I am sure that there is a copy of this book in the Libraries of Cambridge University.Some years ago it was sold by Amazon,too.

    3)Aggeliki Xhatzimihali's book:Sarakatsani (2 volumes of 350-400 pages each of them).

    I would suggest these authors to start with.There are several other authors who wrote books about Sarakatsani after these pioneer people (you can google and find for yourself) , some of them politically motivated and some of them unsigned or under a nickname.For example, the administrator of website, a Bulgarian-pseudo Macedonian had written lot of inconsitencies and lies ,not only about the origins of Sarakatsani but also about the origins of other Greeks.Fortunately, he was arrested by the police for spreading (historical) lies and inconsistencies(this is a crime in Greece) and his website was banned for good!

    1. Anonymous, thank you for the bibliography ! and for your additional comments, otherwise some things would remain unclear.

  5. A Danish scholar,Carsten Hoeg wrote a book around 100 years ago about Sarakatsani with some inconsistencies too basically because he only visited Greece once and he only paid 2 visits in the Sarakatsani konakia (huts) mainly for collecting material about the Sarakatsani fairytales and legends.

    Another one, Pimpireva claims to be a Bulgarian ethnologist, has written that Sarakatsani lived in the Balkan peninsula without even ONE reliable evidence,except the fact that there are now Sarakatsani in Bulgaria. Besides the fact that Sarakatsani do not live in any other Balkan country, she ignores and deliberately omit the fact that the Sarakatsani of Bulgaria got trapped in Bulgaria when it became a communist country and its borders had to be closed firmly.
    The Sarakatsani during the Ottoman Empire were moving from what it is called today Greece to other nearby Ottoman territories with their flocks.
    They enjoyed privileges and non payment of taxes from the Ottoman Empire because they never had a permanent residence.There is a lot of information about them and their (only) Greek origins in the official Ottoman Archives in Ankara.They are now public and you can google them if you speak Turkish( I do).
    Around 2,000 Sarakatsani got trapped in the European peninsula of Turkey and in the northern parts of Asia Minor after the Lausanne Treaty.These people had to convert to Islam and eventually to loose their Sarakatsani identity therefore they mingled with the local Muslim populations.
    It is quaint and odd that in modern Turkey, Turkish people distinguish the breed of a certain dog and a certain donkey, by naming them the 'Karakachan dog (karakacan in Turkish) and the 'Karakachan donkey'. The dog is exactly the same one that the old people of Sarakatsani used as a guardian to their flocks! I have no information about the breed of the donkey.

    Regarding the map you cited, I would suggest to look for another map by contacting the Sarakatsani Federation in Greece, as I am sure they will provide you with many of them. Sarakatsani people were spread around continental Greece however current evidence shows them to live until the North of Peloponnese (mountainous Korinthos, Xylokastro, etc), and not only until Thessalia and Sterea Hellas.

    I am currently researching the possibility of their existence throughout Peloponnese with strong evidence based on Sarakatsani surnames, nomadic lifestyle, language, etc that indicates that Sarakatsani had moved there,too in the past. This is also supported by stories, tradition and reasearch of other Sarakatsani people of outside Athens who have talked and compared evidence. Nevertheless, the evidence is little, as yet.

    I could go on talking but I don't think this is the right place of doing that.
    I understand you are very interested in the Sarakatsani costumes, I appreciate it and I hope you continue to enrich your knowledge on our tribe. However,once more, I would suggest you to be alert and careful with any reference to unknown,misleading and not scientific resources out of respect for the Sarakatsani people.

    Good luck

  6. This is a lovely article about the Sarakatsani costume. However, I see myself in a couple of your photos and I would appreciate it if your would cite my own blog, name, and dance group as these photos are covered by Common Copyright Rules. If you had asked to use the photos we would have no problem agreeing, as long as we were cited. Please contact me as soon as possible

    1. I will gladly cite the information if you will indicate which images you are referring to and the appropriate information. email me at

  7. I sent you email about my photos. You still haven’t marked them with copyright info I provided. If you are not going to update the photos please remove them.

  8. I see you used one of my photos of two models wearing the man’s and woman’s Sarakatsani costumes. It is clearly marked “copyright with my name and website url: John S. Pappas, Please ask for permission to use my photos, and please acknowledge that this photo is mine. In the photo two friends modeled these costumes from my collection for a lecture I did on the folk costumes of Greece.
    John Pappas

  9. The main question is, why those "Sarakatsani" looks totally similar like albanians and aromuns? "Vlacho-Arvanitiko" ? As i know and understand its the same in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, the christian-orthodox albanian and aromun population had not a own state and so they assimilated all to the new nations and gave them also much of identity

    1. Had you searched a little more you'd have spotted the differences between all those people you have referred to.

  10. Saracacianii sunt aromâni ( vlahi ) care și au pierdut limba. Aveți exact în prima fotografie un băiat care ține în mână un băț sub formă de cruce cu un măr înfipt în fiecare lateral și cu un steag prins de băț. Singurii care folosesc așa ceva sunt aromânii ( vlahii ). Vă rog să mi spuneți de ce și saracacianii folosesc așa ceva dacă nu au legătură cu aromânii?

  11. Thank you for your very interesting work on the extraordinary traditional dress of the Sarakasni.