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My Moldovan Textile Heritage
Textile Tale Number 1 by Neonila Grecu

I’ve always had a keen interest in the history of arts from a utilitarian perspective. I would have loved to study it in depth, but our university’s arts faculty wasn’t the strongest. Though this didn’t diminish my enthusiasm, it did steer me in an unintended direction. 

I am honoured to share my knowledge of the various textile techniques and practices that Moldovans have woven into our national heritage. Moldovans have always valued utility in everyday life while ensuring that every object is aesthetically pleasing and brings joy to use. This appreciation for beauty is evident in our use of naturally derived colours, geometric shapes representing flora and fauna, and intricate weaving and knitting patterns. 

Our history of adapting to influences from various civilizations is also reflected in our textiles. For example, in southern Moldova, where I am from, Ottoman influence is evident in our cuisine and clothing. Women adapted patterns from Ottoman garments, such as a cropped top that provided good support and was worn over the traditional “ie,” known in Europe as the “blouse romaine.” 

The “ie” is typically made from rectangles of fabric like hemp or linen, a practical choice given the scarcity of resources. Despite using basic tools, people invested time and effort to decorate their “ie” with intricate embroidery, often inspired by nature and symbols of unity and renewal. 

Moldovan carpets are renowned for their vibrant colours, natural fibres, and beautiful designs featuring flora and fauna. These rugs, often used to insulate and decorate walls, are a testament to our rich textile tradition. I remember visiting relatives with my grandmother, watching the skilled craft of rug weaving with fascination. 

Wool preparation and dyeing were also integral parts of our culture. We would pick out dried vegetation from the wool, wash it, dye it with botanicals like onion skins, madder, and woad, and then card, spin, weave, or knit it. 

“Prosoape,” a type of traditional table runner, have long been a bridge between generations. Handcrafted and embroidered with symbolic tales, these runners were used for special occasions like births, christenings, and weddings. 

In Moldova, especially in villages, the art of making textiles is a cherished tradition. Even young children are taught to knit, sew, embroider, and weave, ensuring that these skills are passed down through generations.

 

Growing up, I wasn’t taught about our true folk heritage and traditions in school. Instead, we learned the Soviet versions of traditional crafts. My parents and grandparents, being modern intellectuals, didn’t make their own textiles. My mother, who was Russian, had a different heritage altogether—a story in itself. I was raised in the South of Moldova, where traditional clothes were still worn occasionally, and on special events. However, during communist times, the Soviet Union, through the Cultural Department, dictated how elements of culture such as language, music, dance and traditional clothing style must look, imposing other traditions with different colours and symbols. They provided a range of colours, plants, and styles, insisting, "This is your heritage." For example, the Soviet version of “traditional” clothes often included colourful plastic sequins, which were never used in our culture.

 

In Moldova, there was a Secretary of Culture, but as any head of department in the Soviet Union this “head of department for culture” was based in Russia. Historically, our region, known as Bessarabia, was often told how to adhere to the traditions of the ruling empires. Nevertheless, our culture survived. We preserved our own embroidery, and weaving symbols, and colour schemes. 

As a child, I recognized traditional costumes used for folk performances in the village or at school—costumes worn for public performances, not family events. I noticed these differed from the everyday traditional clothes our grandmothers wore in the villages. There, for “hora,” traditional dances held on Sundays, they wore different attire. Unlike the Soviet-imposed performances, I didn’t realize as a child that these performances represented an artificial tradition.

 

Traditionally, women made their own jewellery from shells, glass, and wooden beads; wealthier families used small gold coins, often passed down through dowries. In times of need, women would sell a gold coin. Some necklaces included silver. Women also made their own clothes and dowries. Winter was a time for crafting, a communal activity where women gathered to knit, weave, embroider, and sew by hand while sharing stories.  Very few owned sewing machines.

 

My grandmother took me to relatives who made long rugs from old rags, narrow but stretching 5 or 6 meters—the length of a room or corridor. Floors in village houses were covered in these rugs, which were taken out weekly to be shaken, beaten, and washed in the river. Some were hung on walls. My grandmother still has beautiful wool carpets on her walls, depicting tulips, doves, hearts, and intricate designs like roses and peonies, crafted by hand using a technique for more elaborate patterns. These carpets provided insulation and decoration, while simpler woven carpets adorned the floors.

 

Once, I visited a woman with my grandmother who used a massive treadle loom, passed down from her ancestors, to weave large carpets. Such looms were not available for purchase. My grandmother crocheted rugs, seat covers, and bed covers from recycled fabrics and yarns, creating beautifully made rag rugs without buying materials.

 

After the Soviet Union collapsed, markets overflowed with homemade textiles—rugs, tablecloths, and "prosoape" (traditional table runners used in rites like baptisms, weddings, and funerals). My mother had many but never used them. They sold for little in markets. Imported, cheap imitation Persian rugs began replacing traditional ones, leading to beautiful traditional rugs being used in henhouses—it was disheartening. 

 

In the early 2000s, people began to appreciate old textiles more. Collectors started traveling the country to buy them, forming private and museum collections. Some still cherish their old rugs.

 

Most wool was traditionally dyed within households—blue from indigo powder from India (the same used to lime-wash house walls), onion skins, madder, and woad. Every household had sheep and processed the fleece to the finished wool, also felting, knitting and weaving it. Hemp, grown for use in carpets due to its rough texture, was too coarse for clothing.

 

My grandmother, born in the 1920s, came from a family of intellectuals who didn’t practice traditional skills but protected those who did. My paternal grandparents were anti-Soviet Union. My father had two sets of mothers, both deported to a Siberian labour camp. One of the grandmothers was deported in her early childhood together with her sister, cousin, mother, and grandmother. Her mother did not survive the train journey to Siberia, leaving my grandmother in the care of her own grandmother, who died a year or two later. My grandmother, only five at the time, was left to fend for herself while her sister, aged 13, was forced to join the adult workers.

 

In the camp, children slept in villagers’ outside bathrooms, warmed by residual stove heat. My grandmother lived there for about five years, surviving on the charity of villagers who gave them food. Eventually, a charity rescued her—a man and his wife, operating illegally, who saved many children from Russian Siberian camps. It took a long journey by cart, foot, and train to return to her village in Moldova.

 

The Soviet Union sought to undermine and distort our cultural perception, aiming to erode our identity. My family resisted this. My grandfather, a headmaster and choir leader, composed music and songs about Moldovan traditions. My father’s maternal grandfather, a leading politician, was also deported for his political beliefs. His family had to change names to hide their affiliation thus avoiding deportation. 

 

Despite incessant repressions and constant seeking to undermine our origins and traditions Moldovans retained their heritage passing it from generation to generation and continue to do so. 

Moldovan handmade fabric for decorating a cupboard
Fragment of Moldovan carpet
Traditional Moldovan village interior
Moldovan Textiles
Moldovan _ie_ or blouse
Moldovan woven carpet
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