Saturday, November 12, 2016

Embroidery of the 'White' Kurpie, Mazowsze, Poland

Hello all, 
Today I will continue my series on the Kurpie people of Poland. To the south of the Green Wilderness, which I talked about in my last post, is a band of territory which is called the Drobnoszlachecki region. [This means 'Petty Aristocracy', so I don't see how it can be a region, but that is how it is marked on the maps.] To the south of this is the White Wilderness, which is inhabited by a different group who are also known as Kurpie, and for the same reason.  This area lies in the angle between the Bug and the Narew, between the cities of Pultusk and Ostrow Mazowiecka, somewhat northeast of Warsaw.

In Poland, unlike some of its neighbors, e. g. Slovakia and Ukraine, embroidery is strictly regional. Some regions have a well developed tradition of embroidery, while neighboring regions may have none at all. These local traditions vary widely. The one type of embroidery which is widespread is that on tulle, which is a 19th cent. phenomenon which moved from the towns to the countryside. In the White Kurpe region, they developed a type of embroidery which is very unusual. Take a close look at the shirt embroidery on the girl above. Here is another example; this is the corner of a tablecloth in my personal collection.

This looks at first sight to be unlike any other style of Polish embroidery, but compare it with this design from the 'old Polish' style from Lowicz, which has in that region been superceded by floral satin stitch embroidery.

The only other embroidery tradition which somewhat resembles this is that of Horodok in Western Ukraine, 450 kilometers to the southeast.

It is tempting to regard these as the remnants of some ancient Slavic type of embroidery,

In fact, my sources seem to indicate that White Kurpie embroidery is a recent elaboration of a simpler embroidery tradition like that seen among the Green Kurpie. If anyone knows the history better, please let me know. The stitches used in White Kurpie embroidery are simple, running stitch, chain stitch, flat stitch, etc. Here is a chart showing many of the basic motifs.This embroidery is always red with some black accents.

These many tiny elements are arranged in larger motifs and compositions. The two main large elements are called koło, wheel, and ziele, herb or plant. Some might expect them to be called suns and trees of life, or sheaves, or something of mystical significance, but they are not. I personally have always been skeptical of the inference of hidden meanings in embroidery. The major function of embroidery is embellishment, to satisfy our inner desire for beauty.

Here is a good example of these two elements. This a table runner. Here we see three wheels with two herbs in between.

While this embroidery is used on table linens, it first developed for use on girls' and womens shirts. The cut used is the ancient Slavic shoulder inset cut.

On the cuffs, the composition is that of wheels in a row between two linear elements, with smaller motifs filling in. The edges of the cuffs and collars are trimmed with bobbin or crocheted

The wheels often have herbs between them.

 Here are a couple more cuffs. You can see that the macro composition is the same, while varying greatly in the details.

 In these two, the herbs are the major elements, and the wheels have been relegated to a minor role.

You will note that the wheels and the herbs are constructed from smaller elements in many different ways.

As you can see from the above examples; in the villages, no two shirts were ever the same. I strongly encourage those of you who might be performing in such costumes to do likewise and vary the embroidery. These are not uniforms!

On the collars, which of course were wider, the embroidery generally consists of two corner designs.

 This one is mislabeled as a cuff.


Linear designs on collars are not unknown, but they are rarer.

The other location for embroidery is on the shoulders. Three edges of the inset, ustawka, are embroidered, as are the adjoining areas on the upper sleeves and the upper outside corners of the front and back body fields. Here is a relatively simple example.

Unfortunately it is necessary these days to point out that the shoulder seam does NOT fall on the peak of the shoulder, but on the upper arm, unlike the modern 'set in' sleeve.

Here is a larger image of a more complex composition. If you look carefully, you can see the seams. The inset is in the middle, the sleeve itself is at the bottom, and the front and back fields are to either side above the sleeve seam. The half circles on the bottom and either side abut the seams.

A couple more examples. Also take another look at the image at the head of the article.

Again you can see that no two shirts were ever the same.

There is another tradition in the area, perhaps more typical of the eastern parts, as the elaborate embroidery above is more typical of the western areas. This is embroidery on the shirts which is all, or mostly, in white. Following the Victorian fad of white being for weddings, these later came to be considered 'wedding shirts', especially in the western White Kurpie region. Here are a couple of examples. These have not  been much copied by performing groups.

Here are some sketches of white embroidery on various shirts. As with all of these images, click to enlarge.

This embroidery is also used on modern items. Here is an example of a modern blouse which has embroidery on the front instead of on the shoulders. This would never have been done with the traditional attire. This is either a boutique item or is meant to be a stage costume with a modern skirt and no bodice. The embroidery seems to be well done, though.

 Here are some more examples of house linens with this embroidery.

These two images give you an idea of how the koszula looks with the rest of the costume.

I strongly suggest that you take some of this embroidery and use it in some project in your life. 

I will close with plates from the book 'Hafy Kurpiowsie' by Seweryn Udziela, which was printed in 1936 in Krakow. These show a great range of White Kurpie embroidery, from the simple to the complex, including traditional elements for the shirt as well as other compositions for linens and other projects.

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

Roman K.


Source Material:
Maria Zywirska, 'Stroj Kurpiowski Puszczy Bialej' Poznan', 1952
Seweryn Udziela, 'Hafty Kurpiowskie', Krakow, 1936
Barbara Bazielich, 'Stroj Ludowy w Polsce, Opisy i Wykroje', Warsaw, 1997
Stanislaw Gadomski, 'Stroj Ludowe w Polsce', Warsaw, 1997
Kazimierz Pietkiewicz, 'Haft i Zdobienie Stroju Ludowego', Warsaw, 1955
Elzbieta Krolikowska, 'Polski Stroj Ludowy', Warsaw, 2000
Aleksander Jackowski, 'Sztuka Ludu Polskiego', Warsaw, 1967
Ewa Frys-Pietraszkowa, 'Folk Art in Poland', Warsaw, 1988
Aleksander Blachowski, 'Hafty Polskie Szycie', Lublin, 2004
Barbara Zagorna-Tezycka et al, 'Haft Ludowy', Torun', 1979


  1. Thank you for posting this wonderful piece of art.You are really amazing and the outcomes are just perfect.I admire your perfection and dedication.
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  2. Witam. właśnie uczę się haftu z regionu Kurpi Białych. Zapraszam do Pozdrawiam Monika

  3. WOW, Really love this series on the Kurpie people of Poland.. Awesome work. Thanks.

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