Today in our EU themed Wovember Words tour, we’re in Poland where the word for sheep is owca, and the word for wool is wełna. The source of our words is an amazing report written by Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel PhD. Handicraft based on the products of the sheep was a Polish Research Project concluded in 2011, exploring connections between indigenous shepherding systems; traditional Polish dress; and the sheep flocks particular to the Tatra mountains landscape. It was conducted at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at Jagiellonian University, and was part of a larger International project – “CANEPAL” – the European heritage of sheep farming and pasture life. The purpose of this initiative was as follows:

To explore, interpret and present to different audiences the values of the cultural heritage of past and present sheep farming and pasture life in Europe in the framework of contemporary social and economic problems and the sustainable development of rural areas, including questions of social isolation; to create a proper environment for the exchange of know-how; to foster the collaboration between museums, research centers and educators. By summarizing a multidisciplinary approach, the project embraces various aspects of the heritage and economy of sheep-farming, crafts, architecture, art and landscape, as well as oral tradition, music, lifestyle, food processing and cooking.

International project "CANEPAL" - the European heritage of sheep farming and pasture life - image found on the website of the National History Museum of Bulgaria - one of the International partners for the project
International project “CANEPAL” – the European heritage of sheep farming and pasture life – image found on the website of the National History Museum of Bulgaria – one of the International partners for the project
International project "CANEPAL" - the European heritage of sheep farming and pasture life - image found on the website of the National History Museum of Bulgaria - one of the International partners for the project
International project “CANEPAL” – the European heritage of sheep farming and pasture life – image found on the website of the National History Museum of Bulgaria – one of the International partners for the project

Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel writes:

Łańcuski, spinecki to som stroje nase
owiecek kierdelek, pociesenie nase

[this is apparently quite old Polish written in the dialect of the Tatra mountains and loosely translates as “Necklaces, hair-bows are our national costume; a wee flock of sheep is our consolation”]

This simple highlanders’couplet depicts a distinctive feature of highlanders’ lively character which, since the 16th century, has been strictly interlocked with high mountain pasture. Pastoralism brought together with Vlach immigration found favourable conditions for its development in the Tatras region. Over the centuries it formed a specific context for communal existence, economic and social relations and later a particular ethos of the highlander’s life together with a set of customary, ritual and cultural behaviours. This pastoral heritage has become an important ingredient of the regional universe, a significant component of Podhale highlanders’ identity in modern culture: “Pastoralism is the foundation of the culture of Podhale”.

'Polana Jamy (Tatra Mountains)' - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Opioła Jerzy
‘Polana Jamy (Tatra Mountains)’ – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Opioła Jerzy

The importance of sheep breeding in the lives of inhabitants of this region was noticed in the beginning of the 19th century by Ludwik Kamiński the author of the oldest ethnographic monograph of Podhale:

“The most needed, the most useful for them [highlanders] creature is a sheep. A good farmer sometimes even has thirty of them. After shearing, two weeks later, they drive their sheep to the mountains, where they stay until the end of August or if the weather is favourable, until St. Michael’s day. They give them wool and cheese”.

In the period of the self-sufficient economy the sheep were the main source of support for local people. Besides food products they also supplied basic raw materials for production of highlanders’ outfit, footwear, textiles and festive clothes. Cloth was made from sheep fleece, from which clothes were sewn and the leather was used for warm outer items of clothing: jerkins, fur coats and hats. The sheep farming and co-related activities were a part of the highlanders’ world; they determined the rhythm of local people’s lives. When the spring came shepherds or juhases set off under the leadership of a baca with herds of sheep for seasonal pasture up the mountains, as they said “śli w hole na sałas”, where they stayed until the autumn. When they arrived the Tatras became vibrant with life.

Juhases’ singing and whistling, zbyrkanie of sheep bells, shepherd dog’s barking, lonely wails of shepherdesses pasturing cows woke up the pasture lands of Podhale from the winter lethargy. Groups of sheep grazing on clearings, smoke coming out of wooden huts, shepherds dressed in traditional clothes were naturally interlocked with the Tatras nature. This pastoral life is described in another highlanders’ couplet, which is nowadays hummed by older inhabitants:

Ej skoda tyz to skoda starodowyk casów,
kiedy sie na holi dymieło z sałasów.

[this loosely translates as “Oh it’s such a pity the old days are gone when the chimney smoke from the sheep farms would enter the meadows”]

During the Second World War, at the time of Hitler’s regime and terror the sheep saved local people from Hunger. They made it possible to survive the hard time of occupation. Journalist J. Antecka wrote about it:

“Germans took away cows and pigs but for long they could not come to like mutton. It is no wonder then that in the massacred farming economy the sheep became the main feeders.”

After the war, in connection with founding TPN (Tatra National Park), pastoralism was banned from the Tatras. For many highlanders this was the “end of the world”. This ill-considered realization of otherwise noble idea to protect the Tatras wildlife led to the breakdown of the hut economy. The process of compulsory expropriation of highlanders from their clearings started before the foundation of TPN. The highlanders had to leave their pasture lands, on which they had been farming for a few centuries and which were a part of their lives. The sheep were banned from the Tatras and directed to Bieszczady.

The highlanders tried to protest, some bacas drove their sheep to pasture lands despite the ban. This ended in arresting.

After banning sheep from the Tatras it turned out that clearings started to grow wild; the tall grass overgrew other plants, crocuses and gentians did not grow on the impoverished soil. More and more often the necessity to bring the sheep back to the Tatras was mentioned. In 1980 when the solidarity movement originated there was a hope to change the situation. Representatives of the regional elites of Podhale with the Association of Podhale Inhabitants as their leaders sent a memorandum about the economic policy for Podhale to the authorities. One of the items was the postulate to restore sheep pasturing to the Tatras pasture lands. This is how the above quoted journalist Jolanta Antecka commented on these attempts:

“A reasonable number of sheep in the Tatras, when preserving the natural economy, does not necessarily mean devastation: on the contrary – keeping the soil in such condition as it was used to for a few hundred years – and preserving the culture, which was cut off from its roots in the name of higher causes.”

In the effect of the above mentioned actions the sheep returned to the Tatras within the frames of the so-called agricultural pasture.

DCF 1.0
Západní Tatry, ovce – sheep in the forests in the Tatra Mountains, 2005 – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Dezidor

Wool processing

Farming activities connected with breeding and taking care of sheep were men’s duty. They were the ones who initially processed sheep fleece to obtain wool. After sheering and washing the fleece it was subject to cechranie – (cleaning the fleece by hand) and then to combing. Combing was done with special kręple. They were two square wooden boards with metal spikes.

[these photos were taken in 1969 and show a team of textile workers producing traditional garments; the festival is called “Międzynarodowy Festiwal Folkloru Ziem Górskich” which translates loosely as “The International Festival of Mountain Folklore”]

TEAM "MAŚNIAKI" - traditional textile production at The International Festival of Mountain Folklore, 1969 - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Andrzej Kuros
TEAM “MAŚNIAKI” – traditional textile production at The International Festival of Mountain Folklore, 1969 – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Andrzej Kuros
TEAM "MAŚNIAKI" - traditional textile production at The International Festival of Mountain Folklore, 1969 - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Andrzej Kuros
TEAM “MAŚNIAKI” – traditional textile production at The International Festival of Mountain Folklore, 1969 – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Andrzej Kuros

The combed wool was passed to women who proceeded to spinning. Usually in autumn, winter and spring evenings both young and old women gathered in a chosen house for the so-called prządki. L. Kamiński wrote about it:

“Women, when men are away for trade, govern households; they spin flaxes, wool, produce linen or cloth; they are considerate not to waste any of the acquired property”.

The spinning was accompanied by discussions, stories and singing. They were a kind of social meetings of women during which the village inhabitants’ lives were commented on. Sometimes “prządki” ended in partying at music. A spindle and a whorl were used for spinning. In the beginning of the 20th century warcule – spinning wheels – became common. The yarn obtained after spinning was coiled on reels and then formed into a skein and passed to weavers or woven at home on their own looms. A couplet from that time is still preserved:

Moja mieła nic ni miała, ale bedzie miała
co uprzędła, namotała i do knopki dała

[this loosely translates as: “My beloved had nothing, but she’ll have what she’s spun, wound and given to the weaver”]

Timothy Muśko, Spinner, oil on canvas - photo found on Wiki Commons, attributable to Pioloon
Timothy Muśko, Spinner, oil on canvas – photo found on Wiki Commons, attributable to Pioloon

In Podhale spinning was one of the basic and best developed handicrafts. In every village there were at least a dozen of weavers called knopki.

As emphasized by the authors of elaboration “Handicraft and rural industry” during research conducted just after the 2nd World War, only women were mentioned in villages. Woollen yarn was used to produce both uniform fabrics in natural colours of sheep wool: white, black or grey from old sheep fleece. From combination of light and dark young sheep mousy colour was obtained. They also produced white-black-mousy stripes for shepherds’ bags
and checked fabrics for the so-called derki. They were used as covers and blankets for winter. All fabrics were made in a simple, i.e. linen weave. The woollen fabrics prepared by knopki were passed to fullers, where they were fulled, woollen fabrics milling. In comparison to other regions in Podhale there were a lot of processing plants. They were mills, sawmills, distilleries, dye-works, oil mills, shingle-works and fullers.

Traditional outfit

Tatra Guides, photo taken approx. 1877., - From left Wojciech Roj, Jędrzej Wal younger, Jędrzej Wala, Simon Tatar and Maciej Sieczka - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Awit Szubert
Tatra Guides, photo taken approx. 1877., – From left Wojciech Roj, Jędrzej Wal younger, Jędrzej Wala, Simon Tatar and Maciej Sieczka – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Awit Szubert

The cloth was a basic material for production of many items of male clothing, which may prove the significance of the pastoral tradition in shaping it. It is confirmed by the oldest known historic documents and images of highlanders of the 18th c. They show that the old outfit of inhabitants of Podhale had a lot of common features with the outfit of other Carpathian groups, mainly those living in regions situated south from the Tatras.

Gunie or cuchy

In the old times the basic male outer coat was the so-called cucha previously called gunia. Its form was similar to a homespun coat, i.e. a kind of overcoat with long sleeves. The available resources show that even until the mid 19th century the knee-length gunias made of dark cloth were dominant among highlanders. Besides them, also shorter ones made of light cloth ones were worn.

'Cuha - Podhale men's overcoat, made in 1935. Collection of the Tatra Museum in Zakopane' - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Marta Malina Moraczewska
‘Cuha – Podhale men’s overcoat, made in 1935. Collection of the Tatra Museum in Zakopane’ – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Marta Malina Moraczewska

You can read about many other traditional garments worn and made in the Tatra mountains in the report linked at the top of this post, and you might also be interested in the book that Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel has written on the subject: Śladami podhalańskiej mody – which loosely translates as ‘In the Footsteps of Tatra fashion’.

Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel PhD, signing copies of her book, photo found here
Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel PhD, signing copies of her book, photo found here

Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel PhD works at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Jagiellonian University and her research interests include Polish folk culture and its connections to the Carpathian regions. She is especially interested in contemporary processes of the creation and renewal of local and regional communities and has published many articles on this topic for ethnographic and popular science journals.

Many thanks to Justyna Lorkowska, Anna Bednaříková and Jo Kelly for assistance with translating those beautiful old Polish couplets: the Internet can be a wonderful place.

2 thoughts on “Owce i wełny w Polsce – Sheep and wool in Poland

  1. That was very interesting and not the only place where they thought sheep grazing would ‘ruin’ the land!!
    Glad the sheep are back!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *