6. Embroidery – Decoration or Magic?

Bulg Emb

From Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine, 1990

“It is sometimes hard for us to realize that within living memory people inhabited – and indeed some still do – a world they believed controlled by supernatural beings both good and evil.  Every spinney, every copse, every crossroads, every stream, every stone held its own spirit: every culture had its own hobgoblins.  In Islamic belief there were not only men and angels, but also a third class of beings made of fire, jinns.  The Indians believed in witches and liver-eaters – jiggerkhars – who just by looking at a person could steal their liver and kill them.

Magical powers were not confined to supernatural beings, but were held also by women.  Human conception was not understood and when in the eighteenth century it was first established that it was the result of sexual intercourse the claim was greeted with derision.  Women’s ability to produce children was therefore regarded as miraculous and their fertility was protected by decoration…

Women could also house the evil eye – the most feared of all spirits, for the eye is the mirror of the soul…  In the late 1980’s Reuters reported that a synagogue in Israel had stopped admitting women because of a series of disasters in the area for which it was believed women with the evil eye were responsible.


The evil eye is malicious and wishes to destroy perfection: brides and babies are particularly vulnerable.  It, and evil spirits in general, can attack the body and cause illness or even death.  Against them three aspects of embroidery are considered effective – the position in which the embroidery is placed, patterns that hold a mystic power, and assertive materials.  The evil eye especially can be overpowered by anything that dazzles and makes it blink, such as shiny objects, pieces of metal, coins, buttons, mirror that reflects and holds its image: by anything that tinkles and distracts it; by objects that can pierce it, particularly triangular ones holding the power of the trinity and the feminine mystique; by gaudy bright colours, by alternating colors along edges; and by anything that confuses it through asymmetrical pattern where it loses its way.

The evil eye and jinns are still greatly feared in the Islamic world and there the protective devices of embroidery are usually consciously employed.   Often, however, the choice of pieces of mirror, alternating colours and the like have become almost subconscious, as has superstition in the West…


Costume in general and embroidery in particular play a protective role both physical and spiritual.  Those evil spirits likely to attack the body are kept out by decorative devices at every edge and opening.  From Asia to Western Europe, embroidery is commonly placed encircling the neck, along the hem and cuff, around pockets and also at buttonholes.  Seams are closed with decorative stitchery and certain vulnerable places carry heavy embroidery.  Those are the front bodice, the shoulders and sleeves and often the sexual area and the centre back.  Even when they cover much of the garment these areas of embroidery  never intermingle but are always clearly defined.  In each case such embroidery was destined to protect these specific and significant parts of the body.  Most heavily embroidered – and the last item of Western European costume to disappear – was the coif: as can be seen in any village of Eastern Europe the headscarf and apron still linger as everyday wear, though they serve no practical purpose…

The purpose of the ubiquitous apron of most European peasant costume, and particularly that of Eastern Europe, is symbolically protective and not practical.  Varying in style with each village but normally heavily embroidered, intricately pleated or finely woven in striped patterning, it covered a dress or petticoat that almost always was deliberately left plain where the apron would be worn. It is the antithesis of an apron worn to protect precious clothing.  Instead it protects the body.

The ritual associations of the apron are many.  In Transylvania it was worn inside-out for mourning; In Hungary it formed part of the costume of unmarried men and the bridegroom; an illegitimate child in Romania was said to be ‘from the apron’; but mainly it was everywhere associated with marriage.  This was the moment at which the bride, as well as taking a new hairstyle and headdress, changed the type of apron she had worn as a young girl to another that declared her status as a married woman.  Sometimes, as in Romania, the materials used to decorate it were a gift from the bridegroom and the apron, often of red fabric, would be used in the marriage ritual or carried through the streets in the wedding procession, hung from a pole like a flag for all to see.

Women of the nomadic Sarakatsani, now living mainly in Greece, embroidered 20 to 40 aprons (panoules) during their youth, each with different symbolism – such as the cross, the serpent, or the moon – that showed the woman’s social status or was thought suitable for various occasions or moods.  She would then choose each day the appropriate one to wear.  the apron the podia – of all Greek costume was imbued with magical properties – In Thrace, for example, it is thrown over the stomach of a woman in labour to facilitate birth…


Embroidered patterns deemed effective against evil spirits are those also chosen for amulets or jewelry, for tattooing, for felts, and as decorative devices on buildings, particularly at thresholds.  Many are geometric whose origin lies in ancient mythology: the triangle, zigzag, rhomb, labyrinth, crescent, circle, 8-pointed star and cross.  From the animal world fish, hands, eyes and horns have tremendous power.  Birds, especially cocks, are often associated with horns as protective clan symbols.  They are usually paired – in Bulgaria they are placed across the front neck in order to form the pattern of a cross.

The force of a patten is strengthened by doubling or repeating it, by positioning it strategically and by adding protective materials such as tassels or shells.  On shifts of Eastern European countries formerly under Ottoman rule a small single unfinished pattern, set asymmetrically or alone, is especially powerful.  Symbolizing the continuity of life, it is of more ancient origin than the Islamic desire to leave something imperfect.  Patterns forming a border are also frequently left with a gap…..”

Rom Symbs





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