NeedleArts Volume XXVIII, Number 3 September 1997

A Needlework Tour of Hungary, Part One

By Beth Meree

In preparation for my needlework tour of Hungary, I signed up for the Individual Correspondence Course, “A Bouquet of Flowers” by Eniko Farkas. Not only does it contain a concise outline of Hungarian history and give the basics of Kalocsa design and color—both happy and sad—but it also has a fabulous bibliography (most of which I obtained through our interlibrary loan system). Thus, I had some idea of what to expect: types and numbers of different needlework techniques, their origins, and their development.

Originally, I was signed on with a folk tour to Hungary and Western Turkey. The Paprika Festival at Kalocsa was to be the highlight. But for some reason nobody else wanted to go, so, when it was offered, I quickly took the option of a car and private guide/driver who would put the emphasis on needlework as opposed to an overview of the cultural heritage.

My friends thought I had completely lost my mind. I was going off to an Eastern European country and could speak neither Hungarian nor German, and spending time with a man I didn’t know. I would be staying in three-star hotels (neither elevators nor air conditioning) and having dinners on my own.

However, when I went through the last airport doors in Vienna and found Adam Molnar waiting, I knew all would be well! “Welcome, Mrs. Beth Meree,” read the sign held by a smiling, tousle-haired, forty-year-old Hungarian with dancing eyes and an easy manner about him. He took my bag and led me rather stiffly to his car, a 10-year-old Russian-made fiat that I could tell had been strenuously polished. It was whistle-clean inside and sported brand new striped seat covers—plus a sign admonishing Adam to turn off the headlights. Thus began the most memorably unusual tour I have ever made.

Speaking beautiful English, Adam (who has owned and operated Custom Folk Tours of Hungary for 15 years) said his plan was to use back roads whenever possible, the better to show me the real Hungary and to enable him to recount history and other facts that would make my understanding and enjoyment more complete. His wonderful education and deep love of his homeland shone during my entire visit.

Within 30 minutes we crossed the Austria/Hungary borders with no delays of any kind. We were on the Little Plains, surrounded by field crops and occasional clusters of small peasant houses of white masonry, dark brown trim, and either thatched or terra cotta-tiled roofs. The larger ones were twice or thrice as long, with a multi-arched porch facing south—and a small fence or enclosure toward the street. And there were familiar flowers everywhere—in dooryard gardens, on window sills, or in plots between the path and the road.

It was quiet and clean. But soon I was taken with endless fields of rotted black sunflowers, their heads heavy with seeds, standing in a sea of water. I later learned that the entire crop (grown for internal consumption) had been lost to an overly cold wet season. The same applied in Kalocsa, the largest sweet paprika-growing area in the world, where we saw no harvesting and only small, molding peppers strung as decorations in town at the Paprika Museum. Besides tourism and embroidered souvenirs, paprika is the town’s life blood.

Our first stop was in Mosonmagyarovar at the dilapidated Russian-build community center where a friend of Adam’s, a folk dancer and her committee were setting up a regional folk art exhibit to be juried the next day. The best pieces would go on to the National Living Folk Arts Exhibit. Biannually, if not more frequently, such exhibits are held in each region; the nationals are held annually in Budapest.

The community room where the show was mounted was long and narrow—large windows with aged, gray-glass curtains were on one side, with battered and smudged walls. Using a series of nested white plywood squares and rectangles, they mounted a spectacular exhibit. One of the area’s foremost needlewomen was helping, and was only too willing to show me an especially fine piece and explain its significance, its town of origin, and something about its creator.

How different from our shows! On display were all types of needlework, weaving, and carvings in wood and bone, plus pottery and furniture—all done following century-old procedures.

In Kapuvar, we pulled into the parking lot of the Town Hall, a c. 1820 classical building with a symmetrical façade, its old moat now grassed over as a play area for local children. A very strong wind blew us almost halfway around the building until we came to the Little Plains Region Ethnographical Museum. As I was to find in each location, the exhibits were tastefully displayed. There was an elderly matron mannequin in her Sunday best—very dark, but with an iridescent quality that made her florescent—and a workday dress made of the blue-dyed and hand-printed Hungarian cloth.

One case showed the evolution of an art form: from growing flax to examples of young women in their finely embroidered kerchiefs begun in medieval times. I was to see so much white-on-white work in the following days. But never it be so fine—the ground looking more like fine imported organdy. This quality also evidenced itself in examples of the evolution of white work to include red and/or blue, either alone or together in satin or cross stitches. What a marvelous way to start my visit!

Look for a continuation of this tour in the next issue.


 NeedleArts Volume XXVIII, Number 4 December 1997

A Needlework Tour of Hungary, Part Two

 Although this trip had embroidery and folks arts as its primary focus, I also visited a variety of sites and areas. We drove through the little and great plains areas, the marshlands, Transdanubia, and the Danube bend. We visited at least one ethnographic museum/display in each locale. We did not overlook the world-famous Herend workshops and porcelain museum, while Lake Balaton and Tihany, a favorite resort, were a nice respire after a long day of driving and sightseeing.

We visited folk arts and naive painter museums, the living pottery museum of Margit Kovacs, the Paprika Museum, and the beautifully hand-decorated railroad station in Kalocsa. We were invited to the gala opening of the Paprika Festival, where topnotch ethic groups performed their unique cultural dances. The Kis Janko Bori Memorial Museum was opened especially for me by the matriarch of designers in the Mezokovesd (Matyo) area. She explained again the three rooms in the house—the clean room, the kitchen, and the family room. While I looked and touched the artifacts, she doodled three original designs for me.

We visited the home office of the Folk Arts Embroidery Guild and were given an in-depth tour of the cooperative guild, seeing both the actual working groups and the original antique patterns from which the certified reproductions are made. It was their Budapest showrooms that I finally found a pair of dolls for an avid collector, my granddaughter, Anne. We visited the highly prized and guarded collections of antique embroideries. I was given a free hand while viewing, turning pieces and asking technique questions along the way. We visited all manner and styles of churches, from the earliest Romanesque to late Baroque, plus ruins of medieval castles, palaces, and just plain homes of both farm and city folk. Best of all, perhaps, was the narrative given by Adam, my guide, which enabled me to see through his eyes. He is justly proud of his Hungarian heritage.

Adam was always alert to unexpected treats: in Eger, a newly opened Paloc exhibit of a type not yet included in the tour. I was introduced as an interested American needlewoman who is also a master needlework judge. As a thank you gift I carried a large supply of bright Caron Watercolours. These are uniquely American, and being a #8 pearl, would be familiar in weight to many of the recipients. The people I met in turn gave me hand-painted eggs (which actually survived their rigorous hand-carried trip home), photographs, and actual samples and patterns. They were always ready to give demonstrations. It all seemed like a dream.

One day early in the trip, in late morning, we arrived in Decs at the local cultural center, where the dapper director, Cecil Bognar, was expecting us. He showed me four area embroideries of white on black typical of the coifs in the area and made many photocopies of local patterns for me. With pride he showed off the building, pottery school, and library. As we talked, it became evident that he could play host while talented local folk artists could teach a group of interested needlewomen. Housing would be in local homes. The water everywhere is drinkable and the native dishes are very good. Hot spices are available in small dishes for adding to foods, great for the iron-mouthed!

My experience in Decs started my mind thinking, “What if I were to submit an article to Needle Arts suggesting a hands-on study tour? I would be the first to enroll!”

Back to reality: Cecil and Adam were fervently talking while I followed them through the quaint town to the home of folk artist Erzsebet Prohaszka. She showed us the famous white-on-black motifs, both antique and worked by herself, and the wedding coif under construction to be used in October by the director’s future daughter-in-law during her wedding to his son. After a long and friendly visit, Adam and I were off in his vehicle to an adjoining town. We visited another folk artist who demonstrated the background laces that today are made by machine for sale to tourists. Machine lace is juried by the folk arts commission, but in the folk arts competitions it must still be painstakingly handmade.

In Kalocsa we visited a man who makes the famous bead lace. This was a surprise, as Adam recognized him during our walk through the craft market. This is another artisan who could be tapped to teach a study group. This visit was followed by a home visit with Marta Kovacs, the folk artist and designer mentioned in Our Lonely Planet. She demonstrated both the stem and satin stitch. She said that the locals do not use hoops and that it is therefore easier to work even stitches at a more rapid pace. Eniko had diagrammed the Hungarian method of stem stitch, which on a subsequent stitch does not share a hole, but moves two or three threads to the right, resulting in a more angular, broader stem. It was so easy to understand when Marta demonstrated it. She had recently had her Singer treadle machine electrified, and she willingly demonstrated the Richelieu technique.

During the festival, besides the dances, we witnessed the start of a wedding parade with colorful costumes that we were later able to study in detail at the ethnographic museum. The stockings were decorated with either stripes or isolated designs worked in cross stitch.

We visited the large ethnographic house with its now-familiar clean room where the family fortune bed stands laden with embroidered and hand-woven pillows, never used but for show; the kitchen equipped with both metal pots and pottery items; and the family room. This house, like the railroad station, was decorated with the famous designs used in embroidery. They were done and signed by a local group in the early 20th century.

Finally, we drove on a very misty morning to visit Vera (Full name Romsics Laszlone Szarka Vera), a national treasure, at her home/farm which she shares with her husband, daughter, and family, which includes a young granddaughter. Vera is the best known certified designer in Kalocsa. To become certified, at least 50 handmade items must be juried as one or two.

It was she who showed me how she designs within the specified size. She folds the torn, washed cotton fabric in half and draws place-holder shapes to form her design on half the fabric, having first scribed a circle in the center. Next she places a piece of carbon under the still-folded fabric and actually sketches the flowers and leaves into the shapes which magically appear on the carbon end in mirror image. Opening the fabric out flat, she deftly completes the design.

By now it was routine for Adam to ask about the possibility of instructing a group. Vera was most enthusiastic, stating that she, her daughter, and her daughter-in-law could divide the group into three, with each instructing a group in some phase of design, color, and meaning along with actual stitching of the technique. What was more, we could do it all outside in garden areas and have a home-prepared meal at noon. The evening before, she and her husband were preparing soup in a huge kettle over an outside fire for 65 potters who were having an annual convention/party during the festival.


 NeedleArts Volume XXIX, Number 1 March 1998

A Needlework Tour of Hungary, Part Three

My next encounter was in Kecskemet. There we met with the only recognized folk artist who still does subahimzes, Varga Ferencne Ilonka. The suba has traditionally been worn by shepherds from the 18th century onward. It is a furrier-made garment, tanned on one side and densely decorated either with felt appliqué or embroidery on the smooth side. In more recent years the embroidery was done on cropped jackets, which are no longer used. This artist is now working the dense patterns on linens using the traditional colors, so that the art will not be completely lost. Sadly, however, show jurors are not impressed with her efforts. She and a friend visited with us for more than a hour, talking about their problems and showing me the gorgeous needle-woven whitework done by her friend. When we left, Ilonka Varga gave me several patterns she used in the past, hand drawn and pricked to be used with pouncing. That was truly a gift of love!

The highlight of my entire trip was the night we reached Gyor. We had had a lovely day driving through the Danube Bend area, visiting Szentendre, Visegrad, and Esztergom, with their interesting old buildings, museums, and medieval castle ruins. We diverted from our usual pattern to have venison, Hungarian style, in a state-owned park and game preserve. We ate a mid-day dinner outside, sheltered from the breeze by reddening grape vines in a warm bright sunlight that popped out just as we arrived.

Gyor is located on the Danube, where three other rivers join the flow. It is in a fertile, and therefore well-to-do, area not far from the Austrian border. It has always been a trade center, and is often called the Venice of Hungary.

Adam called the artist helper we had met my first day to see if she would be interested in teaching a future group of Americans. The quick response was, “Yes.” Then Adam called a master folk artist who does the very fine kerchief whitework I had seen at the Kapuvar ethnographic display. She had been raised in Hovej, which even early on had been the seat of the finest embroidery of that type.

Adam was quite concerned about the directions, there being so many dikes and canals he hoped he fully understood. I was ready for a walk, in spite of a steady drizzle, and so suggested we go on foot. Armed with a flashlight, we followed the concierge’s directions, traversing dikes and footbridges, finally arriving 15 minutes late. Hollos Laszlone is a woman about 55 years of age who learned the art from her mother and grandmother. She works as a medical practitioner and stitches for relaxation and joy. She showed me a chest full of museum pieces, each more beautiful than the last. Those of today are very fine; those of her grandmother are gossamer.

The area has a strong Catholic heritage, Pope John had been to Gyor on a Papal visit just three weeks previously, and had celebrated Mass at the largest cathedral in Hungary in the Gyor area. As a fitting gift, master folk artists were chosen to provide ethnic gifts on consignment; Hollos provided the organdy embroidered cover, and a woodcarver provided the crucifix to place on it. She showed me large color photos of the works; she is justly proud. I was speechless. I pointed to some of the needlewoven circular fillings, and she volunteered to demonstrate them. There are about 25 pattern designs from which she chooses. On the Pope’s masterpiece she had used all at least once.

She first demonstrated the outer buttonhole edge, then how she baste-stabilizes before cutting, and, lastly, how she whips the internal side of the scalloped edges. This was reasonably straightforward. Since I understood, she took out a work in progress and asked which filling I would like to see worked (from her memory, naturally). I pointed to one, and she deftly worked one arm of the pattern, and then had Adam ask me to point out how to work the next arm. It was a real challenge, accepted and completed.

Adam again approached the possibility of a class, and she said she would be interested if I were in the group. With a grin, she Added that I would also be welcome alone since I obviously had the background and would learn quickly. We would not need a spoken language to communicate. What a boast to my ego, and what choice for my last encounter!

This is truly the most fabulous trip I have ever had. It is due to the careful planning and professionalism that Adam displayed throughout the two weeks I was in his country. May a hands-on study tour be offered soon!

Beth Meree is an EGA master craftsman living in Chestertown, MD. We are indebted to her willingness to share her experience in Hungary