Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Folk Costume and Embroidery of the Schwalm, Hesse, Germany, part 1 Women

Hello all,

Today I will talk about one of the most iconic German costumes, that of die Schwalm. This lies in Hesse, in west central Germany. Here is the location of the state of Hesse within Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hesse

Hesse is divided into 3 administrative provinces and 21 districts. The district of Schwalm-Eder-Kreis lies within the regierungsbezirke of Kassel, in the north central part of Hesse.

The traditional region of Schwalm lies in the southern part of this district, lying along the river Schwalm, and centered on the city of Schwalmstadt. https://trachtenland-hessen.de/trachten/schwalmer-tracht

This costume is strongly identified with the traditional German Fairy Tale Rotkäppchen, or 'Little Red Cap'; often mistranslated in English as 'Little Red Riding Hood'. There is no hood or cape in the German original, that was added by some English translator. In fact, it seems that the story is older than this folk costume, but the connection lives on, as you can see in this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-j82eZSY_U

 You will note that this woman is wearing an older form of the cap from the 1800's that was passed down in her family. The newer form of the cap is smaller, as you can see in the image at the head of the article.

This folk costume was greatly elaborated in the early 1800s, and lasted well into the 20th cent. In 2000 there were still a few people who wore it on a regular basis, and It is also preserved by local tracht associations and dance groups.

Luzine Happel writes a blog about this costume, and goes into great detail about the various pieces and especially the embroidery used in this costume. I would recommend taking a look, especially if you are interested in the whitework. The blog is available in English and in German.

Chemise  - Unterhemd

The chemise is of plain white linen, without sleeves or ornamentation. When fully dressed, about a hand's width of the hem is visible, but nothing else. It is cut straight with triangular gussets on the sides. The only ornamentation on these were the maker's initials and the year they were made. These images were taken from an ad on Ebay.

 In winter, sleeves may be added for extra warmth. This image is from Happel. Older paintings show these white sleeves under the mieder.

Shirt or Bodice   -  Mieder.

I would call this a shirt, but the term in German is mieder, or bodice.

This is worn immediately over the chemise. It has a band collar and opens down the front. The center top of the sleeves is smocked over a small distance and has a bit of embroidery.

The sleeve ends are turned up and worn so that the elaborate embroidery is visible on the arms.

The embroidery is traditionally in three parts. A lace type edging on the hem, Schwalm whitework in the center, and a band of hemstitching on the bottom. These 3 images are from Happel, and you can learn in detail how to do this embroidery on her blog.

 A couple more.


In the past, this garment was sometimes dyed indigo and worn for more formal occasions, such as attending the Lord's Supper. Older women would sometimes dye it to black.

Blouse   -  Jacke or mieder

This is essentially the same garment, but it overlaps and buttons closed in front. This is worn when no overgarment is to be used. For everyday it is made of cotton, often a print. For semi-dress in warmer weather it may be made of a silk brocade. It also has a turned up hem on the sleeve, and is generally elbow length. Here are a couple of examples of the everyday version.

Here are a couple examples of summer going to Church outfits.

Harness  -  Geschirr

This is essentially a bolster with shoulder straps. This image is from Brunhilde Miehe 'Der Tracht Treu Geblieben' vol 3.

This is to add greater bulk around the hips and also to help keep the multitude of skirts from falling off. This image is from Happel. This is not generally worn for everyday, when one would only wear a couple of skirts, but for special occasions when more skirts were worn.

Vest  -  Weste, Knoppding or Kneppding.

This is a separate vest which is worn with the festive or stolze 'proud' outfit. It is worn over the 'bodice' or whitework embroidered shirt. It is made of black cloth, wool or velvet with a heart shaped overlap in front.

There is a wide ribbon sewn around the armholes and along the overlaps. The back is plain.

The tails of the vest are tucked under the harness, or in some cases, especially for young girls, the bolster is sewn directly to the vest.

Nineteen buttons are found on this garment. Only a small number actually button. There is piping along the edges that show.

The piping follows the color code of the entire costume. Red is for unmarried girls, green for young married women, blue or violet for older women, and black for mourning, widows and very old women.

These three images are from Happel.

The buttons are handmade, and are also color coded to the outfit.

Laced Bodice - Schnurrmieder

There is a more formal bodice which is boned on the edges, closed with lacing and has a plastron inserted into the front opening. This is clearly shown in old paintings.

In this first image, you can see the kneppding on the right and the schnurmieder on the left.

Today this is rarely seen, except at weddings, when it is worn by the bride;

Maids of Honor, of which there are commonly 2;

and also by some wedding guests.

Old paintings show the kneppding worn like this.

In the mid 1800's, however, shoulder shawls were all the rage, and from then on, many folk costumes were obliged to include one. The Schwalm costume today uses silk shawls of many colors. Some of these same shawls were also worn as far as France or Norway. I personally think that many of these costumes would look better without, as they hide ornamentation on the bodices and upper sleeves.

Skirts  - Röcke

I say 'skirts' because one was never worn by itself except when working. Two is the absolute minimum for everyday going out clothing, 5 for more important occasions, 7 for grand feasts, and for getting married: 10 to 12, the highest number recorded was 16. The skirts were full, relatively short, and had silk edges. The first couple of skirts had relatively modest silk edges, and successive skirts had more elaborate ones. Of course, each skirt had to have a slightly longer waistband, and have the length adjusted, so each was embroidered with a number, so that it was easier to keep track of which one came next. Here is an example of an unmarried girl dressed for a festive occasion with 7 skirts.

The skirts were put on in a particular order. The first one or two had only a narrow band of color, the next couple had just a patterned ribbon. After that were a couple with a wider band of color and a single zigzag ribbon. Over that were some that had two zigzag ribbons. This might be followed by some with three, then three with a patterned ribbon, etc. The topmost skirt was dipped in a solution of animal glue, and rubbed with soapstone so as to have some stiffness and a sheen.  It did not have a colored edge, but only a facing, as you can see above.

Because the primary color of these skirt edges is red, they would be worn only by an unmarried girl, up to the day of her wedding.

Young married women would have green edges to their skirts, older women blue or violet, women in mourning, widows and very old women black.

Aprons  -  Schürzen

Dress aprons, as you can see from this image above, come in two kinds, white and black.
Everyday work aprons were of a printed cotton, often an indigo resist print.

 The white linen aprons are today only worn by unmarried girls, but Ingo Garbo cites historical records that say that young married women also once wore them.

These aprons were finely smock gathered except for a flat space in the center on which were embroidered the maker's initials and the year of construction. Above this was a band of whitework embroidery with white edgework above that. You can see other examples here.

 The black [or sometimes dark blue] aprons were simple. they were full and covered about half the skirt. They came in materials of varying quality suitable for the importance of the occasion. You can see more of how they were made here.

For special occasions apron squares were pinned onto the upper corners. These were embroidered with the same sorts of designs as were found on the tops of the caps, the ends of the cap ribbons, the garters and hanging waist ribbons, in the primary color of the costume, and also with metallic gold.

Topknot  -  Schnatz

For the present day costume the hair is pulled straight up and gathered into a single hank on top of the head. This is formed into two braids. A string or shoelace is braided into one of them, the other is wound around it up for a few inches and then down again. The second braid is then wound around the first and secured with the lace. For more detailed instructions see here.

 Cap  -  Die Käppchen or Betzel

Little caps are worn over the topknot for the festive costume.  These all had oval tops embroidered in the color of the costume, red, green, blue, or black. Caps for mourning were all black with just a minimum of white embroidery. The sides of the red caps are also red, for the others, the sides are always black. These caps are attached to ribbons with decorated ends. Here are caps and ribbons in the various colors. 

Here are dress caps in all the colors, red, green, blue, and black, worn by increasingly older women from left to right.

Here is a series of women in the different colors from left to right, note that the skirt borders match the costume color.

Here is a series of caps embroidered only in white, or white and black for periods of mourning. They would be worn in succession from left to right, as the depth of mourning gradually decreases. The one on the right would continue to be worn by a widow. She would not go back to the 'blue' costume.

Here is a women in mourning dress carrying an infant to be baptized. Note the barest bit of white embroidery on the cap, and some small white designs on the shoulder kerchief.

In the past, the ribbons were actually tied under the chin.

 This is no longer the case. The ribbons are left loose, since the topknot holds the cap in place, and the ornamented ends of the ribbons are pinned in place, either in front or in back.


 Necklaces of glass or amber are worn, but are relatively short, and do not hang low.

Stockings  - Die Strümpfe 

Long hand knitted stockings are worn with the costume. For everyday, they are black, for festive occasions they are white with designs knitted in. Linen or cotton for summer, wool for winter. https://www.luzine-happel.de/?p=3583&lang=en

Garters  -  Die Strumpfbänder

  The stockings were held up by garters tied around the upper leg. For lesser occasions they had ends with patterned ribbons sewn on. For more festive occasions the garter ends were embroidered. Again, they always matched the color of the outfit.

Women wore black leather shoes that buckled. Buckles could be exchanged, depending on the occasion. The buckles are either rectangular or oval.

Ribbons  - Schnurren

Colorful silk ribbons are used as accents and ornaments in several ways. Often one is tied around the waist over the black apron and forms both an ornamental bow in front and has short narrow embroidered ribbons similar to the garters hanging in back. A bow of ribbon may also be pinned to the back of the vest.

These ribbons, of course correspond to the color of the costume.

In this last image we can see that sometimes instead of a ribbon, a band is worn around the waist, the Schürzenbänd. This has a clasp which fastens in the back. It may be a solid color, as seen here, or it may have appliqued ribbon or even embroidery.

The ribbons are also used in making other ornaments. One of these is the Brett, literally meaning 'board'. This consists of a pair of fans made of ribbons which is pinned to the back of girls for some special occasions.

Here is one seen from front and back.

Similarly, ribbons are also used to make special headdresses for the bride and the bridesmaids, the "Schappel' and for the groom 'der Lust'. The Bride wears green, and the maids of honor wear red. Ribbon fans are likewise made for the wedding party, of a different shape, to be worn in front and back.

The bride likewise wears bands of ribbons and flowers around her arms, as does the groom sometimes. He also wears a bouttenier with a silk scarf attached.

Long knit gloves are worn for weddings and other special occasions.

For weddings, Church Feasts and other important occasions, women carry handkerchiets. Sometimes they may be colored, but for Weddings, Confirmation and the Lord's Supper they are linen, embroidered with Schwalm whitework and dyed indigo. See the scenes from the weddings above. Here are a couple of unmarried girls dressed as Wedding Guests.

For colder weather, jackets, Trolljacke, are worn. They are cut in a very similar manner to the vests, including the heart shaped overlap, except that they have long sleeves. Also they are waist length, and have a pleated peplum.

For formal occasions, especially in winter, a cape - mantel, may also be worn.

In the past, the most sober and formal outfit was worn to attend the Lord's Supper and other important services in the Church. A black trolljacke was usually worn, the hands and sometimes lower arms were covered with gloves. Also, an older form of the headress was worn just to Church.

This cap resembles that still worn in some other parts of Germany, being triangular, with ornament on top and ribbons hanging behind. This, of course, developed into the Betzel of today. An indigo veil was pinned to the front and covered this cap.

In the first part of the 20th cent. The Betzel began to be worn to Chuch, but it was also covered with a veil which was somewhat shaped to fit over it. Here you can see both.

Here are some Confirmation candidates from the early 20th cent.

There is one more headdress which was worn for funerals and the deepest part of mourning. This is called 'Trauermaentelchen'. This is of black wool, pleated all around and resembles a small cape.


This is one of the richest and most photographed costumes in all of Germany. It has been featured on many postcards and other items.

And the next time you read the story of 'Little Red Cap and the Big Bad Wolf', remember that she likely looked like this.

Just a few more images.


Thank you for reading.
I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative. Perhaps you would like to try some of the whitework yourself.

Here are a couple more videos which feature this costume.

This short video shows how to put it on.

This video shows a couple in Schwalm costume visiting the nearby Catholic Marburg region and learning about the costumes of that region.

This video shows the village of Loshausen in the Schwalm. It shows stills of the village and people, and starting at about the 230 mark shows dances from this region.

email: rkozakand@aol.com

Source Material:

These two websites are full of valuable material:



Brunhilde Miehe, 'Der Tracht Treu Geblieben' vol 1,  Bad Herschfeld, 1995
Gregor Hohenberg, 'Traditional Couture', Berlin, 2015
Erich Retzloff-Duesseldorf, 'Deutsche Trachten', Leipzig, 1937
Uwe Karsten, 'Deutsche Trachten', Vienna, 1980
Debionne/Meissner, 'Die Schoensten Deutschen Trachten', Munich, 1987
Ingo Gabor, 'Die Schwaelmer Tracht - Historische Entwicklung', Bad Endbach, 2008
Heinz Ruebeling et al, 'Die Schwaelmer Tracht', Ziegenhain, 1988