Our creative cluster

Ioana Popescu

Dr. Ioana Popescu is Director of Research at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in  Bucharest.
She is a contributor to the brochure of the exhibition "Weaving Cultural Heritage. Romanian Rugs from Oltenia, Maramures, and Moldavia Regions" at Down Jersey Folklife Center at WheatonArts (May 8 - September 20, 2009). Read below the full version of her contribution.

Weaving Stories and Beliefs
Margaret Mukherjee, who doesn’t speak Romanian, found a different way of communicating with Romania's villagers: the look. They looked together at the rugs and at the recently woven carpets. They together compared the images from the albums with the contemporary patterns made by the hands of the craftswomen and together they enjoyed the stories and the meanings of the decoration.  It is wonderful that things happened this way.  It is the sign that the Romanian carpets, not only those sheltered inside Museums, are actually seen[1], by the local people and by the Other[2] as well. In the ancient Romanian village, the hospitality ritual practice was meant to make human the Other, the Stranger at your doorstep. In order for one to become human, he had to be domesticated, to be turned into one of ours, this being accomplished by sharing the same food at the same table. In the case of Margaret Muckerjee, the act of ritual taming took place in front of the loom, the women invited her to reel together the threads of rugs stories. And again, it is wonderful that things happened this way, it is certain that Margaret became one of their own and that from now on she tries, by means of  this exhibition, to domesticate new worlds.

Thinking patterns

We may usually think of Romania as of a dressed country. All the composing elements of a place are symbolically dressed. The very use of language is a testimony of this collective mentality which imposes the dressing gesture as a ritual-magic protection: they say a house dressed in fabrics, a church dressed in icons, a wall dressed in a rug, a window dressed in a curtain, a bed dressed in blankets, an icon dressed in a veil etc. Having in mind the weather conditions, the interior textiles were needed in the old country houses heated during the winter by the only kitchen stove. But we must not pass over the ritual objects, all composed or dressed in textiles.

The embroidered or the woven signs over these pieces, nowadays perceived as simple decorative garments, meant in their time a codified manner of communication.  The wool carpets – which were never to be laid on the floor but hanged on the walls, leaned over the furniture or at the girder – were some sort of a cultural skin of the house. At the same time they were a status mark of the owners and a communication code (a social one, inside the community but also a symbolic one, related to the upper world). Romanian beliefs states that good things and bad thing came into the world given either by God or by the devil. There was no other way. The Almighty created the sheep, a good and kind animal which feeds the man and keeps the house warm. Instead, the devil created the goat, which jumps from here to there, gnaws the skin of the trees, has a rough fur and a tough meat. That is why the wall carpets and the girder rugs are woven of sheep wool.

Romanian beliefs abound of stories about spinning the wool thread, as most of the ancient legends talk about the life thread and Fairies of Destiny. In Romanian traditions, the three spirits responsible for man's destiny are feminine. The first one spins the life thread, the second one reels it and the third one, the oldest, cuts it. This is the reason why spinning wool was considered a solemn practice which was supposed to take place in certain periods of the year only[3]. This means that in the world of wool, the woman was dominant. She was the one who built an entire world out of wool. Washed in 9 waters, coloured with plants during certain days of the year only, spin and woven, the wool becomes a coating of the wall and ceiling girder, of the bed and table, a blanket for the baby, a top veil of the icon, a coat and bag, it covers the back of the horse and of the donkey and it is even a texture for church frescos.

Making patterns

Carpets were generally woven on a horizontal loom, in the Kelim technique. The ancient ones could be distributed into 4 formal categories, corresponding to certain areas of Romania.

1.      The oldest and most outspreaded type of wool weaving is the striped carpet. Deployed horizontally, sometimes the wall carpets become genuine calendars on which the days and the nights of the weak are inserted, the good days and the bad days, the working days and the days of fast or celebration[4]. This is why onto these weaved surfaces, parallel stripes of different breadths and colours are rhythmically aligned next to insertions of day or night stars as well as symbols of birth, of death and resurrection (the cross, the tree of life). In the same way the shepherds scratch time lapses on wooden sticks used also as counting tools. 

2.      Another type of design motifs on the ancient romanian carpets is a uniform composition of inscribed lozenges with straight or herring-bone margins. Their origin and meaning seem to be the adoration of the sun, as they are called sunwheels. They are to be found in Maramures and Muntenia.

3.      In Banat and Maramures regions, they used to weave wall carpets in panels; on the surface of those they used to represent either geometrical forms or vegetal, zoomorphic or even anthropomorphic motifs. The most wellknown are the Maramures carpets decorated with catane, a chain of hieratic women in an invocating position. In Banat, the carpets are made în a technique mixing the Kelim type with the Karamani way of weaving each form independently. 

4.      In Oltenia and Northern Moldavia, the wall carpets were bigger and woven in the technique of gobelins, on a vertical loom. Conceived as tapestry compositions, running in a vertical direction (Moldavia) or centered inside a multiple frame (Oltenia), those splendid creations are visibly marked – in Moldavia – by ancient French verdures, or – in Oltenia - by an exotic, oriental world.

The materials used for carpet weaving were cotton and wool. Few can realize the connection between the provenience of the wool and the texture of the rug; following the area of the sheep body where the wool was cut from – back wool or belly wool – the yarn is either long, shiny and uniform or short, thick and tough. Afterwards the wool was dyed with vegetal colouring. These coloured decoction of leafs, roots or tree skin, saturate the wool differently according to the quality of the yarn, the quantity of the once dyed wool or the moment of day when the plant was harvested. The result is a vibration of the colour which cannot be obtained by chemical dyeing. Looking at the old carpets, the colour speaks about the freedom of the craftswoman who, easily, continues in different tones when a certain tone is off.

Artistic patterns

Nowadays, the weaving is rarely preserved in the villages, used to make daily usage articles only (rolls of fabric, bags and bed covers) but instead it is used, by the artisans well known across Romania, as an artistic handicraft. The wool yarn is equally spin, its dyeing is perfectly uniform, the shades are well defined and the geometric symbols embodied on old rugs are now replaced by figurative elements, drawn in a naturalistic manner. And so, the codes are now metamorphosing into a more comprehending tale and the hesitations of yesterdays peasants are now substituted by proofs of artistic mastery.

Preservation patterns

The pieces collected by Margaret Muckerjee are a proof not only of the way the weaving was done last century but also of what is happening today with the handicraft in Romania. Besides the intelligence and the sensitivity of her way of seeing, Margaret has one great quality more: she understood better than any other specialist from Romania what has to be done to preserve the handicraft alive. Margaret[5] understood that the best way to accomplish this task is to encourage and promote the most beautiful pieces as they are, and not to give up to the models imposed by the aesthetic taste and so-called knowledge of refined town dwellers. The carpets which she displays as folk-art objects can be used in the most various habitation contexts and can match any interior design. All they need is some love...

[1] In many Romanian lullabies, the mother wishes for the baby to be seen, that is to get noticed and respected by others.
[2] Ethnologically speaking, the Other represents the cultural alterity.
[3] The collective mentality demanded that on Thursday before Easter young girls stop spinning. They believed that the disrespect of this norm led to punishment after death.
[4] The folk calendar take into account the good and the bad periods, specific to a certain culture, especially those moments connected to work. Sheep departure to the mountains, plow beginning, wheat harvesting but also doing laundry and garbage disposal are strictly connected to certain periods of time, following the collective mentality. There are good or bad moments for everything. Even in the life of nature the existence of good or bad moments is compulsory. There are ants wedding, nettle wedding, fire day, wolf day, bear day, Horses Easter etc. All of these calendars are overlaying and may create tensions.
[5] I dare to call her Margaret, as she has been domesticated in Romania by us all, villagers and museum specialists…