Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Shawl, an Asian invasion into European Costume

Hello all,

Many people have the idea that shawls are an ancient part of this or that costume. In fact, shawls became part of high fashion in the Victorian Age, and then filtered down into local folk costumes. 
Capes were very widespread before this, and coats in colder regions, and poor people had been known to wrap themselves in blankets [plaids, serapes, etc], but the large square shoulder shawl is a relatively recent innovation.

A. The 'Paisley' shawl.
The image above is of a Kashmir, or 'Paisley' shawl which was developed somewhere around 1860.
Kashmir has long been known for the fineness of its weaving and embroidery. They use a tapestry technique, with wool wound on bobbins called kanis. Today they use 80 to 100 kanis for the width of the loom, in the heyday of Kashmiri weaving they used many more. This tecnnique is combined with a twill weave.

 The weaving master sat at a desk with the master pattern, and would call out, 3 blue, 4 violet, etc. and the weavers would follow the instructions. This technique, and the fact that the Kashmiris had access to the world's finest wool from goats raised in Ladakh and Tibet caused their work to be extremely famous in India. The Mughal rulers did what they could to raise shawl weaving to a fine art. In fact, the word shal is Persian, and is almost the same in every European language, a sign that it is a recent borrowing.
The demand for this product was high, and obviously weaving of this fineness takes a lot of time, so technique developed, where a somewhat coarser design was woven, and then finished with embroidery.  Believe it or not, this was actually faster. The local embroiderers developed a technique where they could embroider the two sides of a shawl with different colors, by not piercing the fabric with the needle, but splitting the warp thread. Here is the front and back of one such piece, the outline having been woven in.

One thing I might mention is that the weavers and embroiderers of these products, which were never used locally, but always exported, are men. Women spin the thread, and produce textiles for home use. Here is a contemporary photo of a group of men doing crewel embroidery on rugs and upholstery material.

The basic motif of these shawls is called boteh, or in English, cone, pine, mango, flower, paisley, etc.

They were greatly valued in India, where they were worn by the aristocracy.

These shawls became known among British women of means starting around 1774. In 1810, Napoleon gave his empress Marie Louise several. Soon "Madame, who had abandoned her cloak, wished not to be described as 'well-dressed'; she must now be 'well-draped'. Shawls became all the rage.

Obviously this meant that demand far exceeded supply of the old high quality shawls. Soon improvements were invented for European looms and imitations started to be woven in Paisley, Scotland, Lyon, France, and later other locations. This is what lead this type of design to be called 'paisley' in English. 

Originally these shawls were long and rectangular, but at some point in the mid 1800's, they began to be made in large squares, and this became the standard. This required an advance in the jacquard loom, and meant that shawls imported from Kashmir had to be made in smaller pieces and then sewn together. The stitching on some of those shawls is extremely fine, and almost unbelievable.

As these cheaper imitation shawls became available, they began to trickle down into various folk costume traditions. They all look quite a bit alike. These are still being worn as part of various local folk costumes, although Fashion at large has now bypassed the shawl. Here are some examples of shawls which I have found in various of my books from different nations, I am sure that there are more.




The Netherlands



 Aosta Valley, Italy





B. The 'Manila' shawl.

This type of shawl had a far smaller area of expansion, being limited to the Mediterranean area, but had a similar history. 
China at some point became aware of the fashion in shawls and decided to enter the competition. Large square shawls with fringes were embroidered and sent into the foreign marketplace. These were often transshipped through Manila in the Philippines, and became known as 'Manila' shawls, although they were never produced in Manila. These shawls became especially popular in Spain. 

The embroidery on these shawls is very typically Chinese. They came to be imitated locally, of course, but still the Chinese style of embroidery was copied. They mostly feature floral designs, with the addition of butterflies, dragonflies, and birds which are not found in Europe.

These became incorporated into Flamenco.

Sometimes they were worn with the center point in front. 

 They are still worn as part of the gala version of the folk costume in some places, especially in the south. They are also worn with modern clothing. Here are just a couple of examples.




I admit to finding images like this annoying, because while the shawl is beautiful, it is an import and covers up most of the rest of the costume, making it harder to do research.
On the other hand, some areas which were too poor to be able to buy these shawls have come up with extremely imaginative local versions which only slightly resemble manila shawls, such as this example, de Plumaje. This is no longer a manila shawl, but an authentic local expression of folk art.

'Manila' shawls also  came to be used in the Middle East, where they are sometimes referred to as 'Ramallah' shawls.

 I guess this is proof that beauty is universally appreciated, and globalization is nothing new.

 Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this interesting and informative.

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.


The source material is too numerous to list. If anyone wishes to know the provenance of a particular image, please ask.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Basque costume of Erronkari [Roncal], Navarre, Spain

Hello all,

The Basques, of course, are the only remnant of the pre-Indo-European peoples and languages which remain. The Basque language, Euskera, and its relatives  were once much more widespread, and it has been in retreat before Latin and its descendants for over 2,000 years now. However, The Basque community and language is still very alive and vigorous today.

The Basques are a unique people who have kept very strongly many of their traditions: in language, food, music, ceremonies, dance, and even sports. They have not, as a whole, held on to a folk costume tradition any more than the French or Spanish have. There are several distinct costumes native to particular areas, however, and this is one of them.
The Basque region is politically divided  into three areas, the French Basque regions, the Spanish Basque regions, and Navarre. 

 Navarre is split by language, the south being Castillian Speaking, and the north being Basque Speaking, south to about the level of Pamplona. I should mention that Navarre has a long history as a separate political entity, and there are people who identify primarily as Navarese.
Today I am speaking about the costume tradition of northeast Navarre. If you look at the map above, this costume covers the three river valleys in the easternmost part of Navarre, which are, from west to east, Aezcoa - Aezkoa, Salazar - Zaraitzu, and Roncal - Erronkari. This area is currently linguistically mixed, with most people speaking Castillian, and about 5 % still speaking Basque. These three valleys  are more clearly seen in the following physical map of Navarre.

These three costume traditions are similar, but not identical. 

Aezcoa - Aezkoa

Salazar - Zaraitzu

 Roncal - Erronkari

For the remainder of this article, I will focus on the costume of Roncal - Erronkari, mostly because I have found much more information on this costume compared to the others.

For the woman's costume, the foundation garment is the chemise, camisa [i have only found the basque names of a few items of the costume]. As in most places, it was made of linen, later cotton, and was originally ankle length.

 The opening is in the center front, there are shoulder inset pieces, [I am not sure from these photos whether the inset is sewn to the side or the top of the body, but it looks like they are sewn to the side]. The body of the camisa is gathered into the neck, which is low, stands up, and has gathered lace on the edge. The sleeve is gathered into the end of the shoulder inset, and sewn perpendicular to the body of the chemise with gussets under the arms. The shoulder inset is ornamented with lace or embroidery [these are the best photos which I could find]. As in many places, the chemise was later sometimes separated into two garments, shirt and underskirt. This piece also has embroidery or lace on a front placket covering the opening.

The bodice, justillo or korputx, has a distinctive notch in front similar to the costume of Fana in Norway or Spisz in Slovakia. This notch is not found in the costumes of the neighboring valleys. The front edge is ornamented with a colored ribbon. My sources speak of it being laced, but in the photos which I have found it seems to be hooked closed.

In older photographs, this ribbon is of a plain color with embroidery and sequins sewn onto it. In more recent photographs it is more common to see the use of brocaded cloth.


Unmarried girls wear the bodice by itself. Married women wear a jacket over the bodice, which is identical except that it has sleeves and does not close all the way, but is laced shut so that the bodice is still visible in the opening. This garment is called jubon or korputx mangua. [I wonder what unmarried girls do when it's cold?]

Over the long camisa, or underskirt with a short camisa, a petticoat of linen is worn. Over this are worn two wool skirts which are blue or violet. The top skirt is normally worn pinned up around the waist, showing a wide red facing sewn inside the hem which is called aldar. It is held in place by a pin or brooch called amabitxi. 

The hair is normally worn in a long braid, with a ribbon tied at the top, called zintamuxko. Bead necklaces are worn, and spectacular earrings, with a matching pendant which is attached to a velvet ribbon around the neck, called bitxi.


For formal occasions, a small cape called mantilla is worn over the head. This is mandatory for church attendance. It is shaped to cover the head and leave a view just to the front. It is edged with a wide band of fancy material, edged with trim. There is a small tassel in the center of the head opening; this was to facilitate the centering of the mantilla in a time when household mirrors were rare. There are two small pieces attached to the corners which are used to hold the mantilla on the head. Today the mantilla is normally red. According to my sources, the topskirt is let down when attending church. This custom, while logical, is apparently no longer followed.

Similar head coverings are used in other parts of Spain, and parts of southwestern Sardinia. 
While the mantillas used in the 20th cent are red, there is evidence that they used to be made in all four of the Liturgical colors of the Roman Catholic Church, which were worn for the appropriate feast days.

Widows and women 'of a certain age' wear essentially the same outfit, except that the skirt is not pinned back, and the outer garments are all black.

This of course is a description of the dress clothing. Everyday and work clothes were of course simpler.

Single men wore black shoes, white stockings,  linen underpants, black knickers, a white linen shirt with full sleeves, a colorful brocade vest and wide purple sash. Over this may be worn a white double-breasted wool jacket with black trim and possibly topstitching. Also a round black hat with chinstrap is worn either on the head or hanging on the back. When the jacket is worn, the vest might be plain black or gray.


Upon his betrothal, a man changes the white jacket for a red or burgundy one.

This may be worn for the first few years of marriage. After that, the man wears black stockings, a black vest and a black jacket with red trim.

Formerly, a silk kerchief was often worn tied around the head under the hat, as in Aragon. This habit is now making a comeback.

There is also a more somber, all black outfit used by older men for churchgoing.


  One last costume has been preserved here, as in some other parts of Spain, and that is the uniform used by municipal officials.

Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this interesting and informative.
I will end with a few more pictures of this costume.

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:
Here is a website dedicated to the costume and other aspects of Roncal - Erronkari, all in Castillian. This is a very good resource.

Francisco Arraras Soto, 'Navarra - Temas de Cultura Popular; Indumentaria Valles de Roncal, Salazar y Aezcoa', Pamplona, 1991
Jose Ortiz Echague, 'Espana, Tipos y Trajes', Madrid, 1953
Isabel de Palencia, 'Regional Costumes of Spain', Madrid, 1926
Manuel Comba, 'Trajes Regionales Espanoles', Madrid, 1977
Cesar Justel, 'Espana, Trajes Regionales', Madrid, 1997
Lilla Fox, 'Folk Costumes of Southern Europe', Boston, 1972