About Podlasie and China: What connects folk decorative towels from Podlasie with the secret script of Hunan province and why Katalog Ręczników Ludowych (Catalogue of Folk Decorative Towels) by A. Dębowska, K. Sołub & J. Sołub is much more than a catalogue.
Through China to Podlasie
Before I start telling you about folk decorative towels from Podlasie, first I’ll take you to Asia, to Hunan province of southern China, to be precise. (Sometimes you have to start with China to be able to understand Podlasie 🙂 ).
Once upon a time, when marriages in China were arranged and women were denied their right to education, Chinese women decided to rebel against male control and invented a secret way of communication that would allow them to express themselves more freely. Just imagine, you are forced to get married, taken far away from your home, and denied the right to education, so of course you can’t write, and what then? Apparently Chinese women found a way through it. They developed a secret script called nüshu. Unlike the standard written Chinese, that is logographic (let’s not go into details, and simply read: complicated 😉 ), nüshu is phonetic. Creating the script that is based on the principle “we write what we hear” was a huge advantage for illiterate Chinese women. For me, the most interesting about nüshu was that those secret letters were embroidered onto belts, scarves, fans, and clothing. And that is how everyday items became manifestos of Chinese women.
Folk decorative towels – nüshu from Podlasie
The same as in Hunan province, life was not easy for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers in Podlasie. Even if they somehow finished the 5th grade, their linguistics skills were, let’s call it, limited. Let’s stop kidding ourselves, the world of our foremothers was ruled by men and women were not necessarily perceived as potential Nobel Prize winners in literature. However, it’s difficult to imagine that all women during those times were fully fulfilled as housewives in a patriarchal society. But then again, how to communicate more freely, if you are a woman living in a 19th-20th century village in Podlasie? My great-grandmother and grandmother did not leave me their diaries, but instead – embroidered towels. As here in Podlasie a linen cloth became a parchment, a thread – a fountain pen, and embroidery – a secret nüshu from Podlasie.
The exhibition of the collection of folk decorative towels in the Museum in Bielsk Podlaski is called „Mysterious towel.” Till now this is the most accurate name for embroidered towels from Podlasie that I’ve heard. Although on many towels you can find some similarities in floral patterns or a type of embroidery stitches, still it is probably impossible to find two identical ones. The variety of ornaments, colors and compositions shows not only the creativity of designers, but as well the deep symbolism of embroidered motifs. The red color, for example, had a magical function and was supposed to protect against charms and evil spirits. And what about other symbols hidden in the mysterious towels? Well, about this you have to find out on your own from the book.
Katalog Ręczników Ludowych A. Dębowska, K. Sołub, and J. Sołub
Katalog Ręczników Ludowych is an extremely valuable collection of images of folk decorative towels and a kind of dictionary to read those linen diaries of our foremothers. In the introduction to the catalog we can read about the history and the role of a folk towel. The book helps us to realize the importance of traditional towels not only for our ancestors but as well for us. However, as in the case of Chinese nüshu script, not everything is clear. Women from villages immigrated to cities and gave up embroidering. Old traditions were fading and soon no one could actually remember why folk decorative towels were done in this particular way:
„…even older people cannot identify the symbolic meaning of folk decorative towels and the same rituals function only on principle – I do it because this is what my mother did. The questions “Why did she do that?” and „What did it mean?” are often left unanswered.”
We hope that over time, we will be able to reveal some more mysteries of folk decorative towels. Who knows, maybe it turns out, that like in China, signs of secret calligraphy are camouflaged in the mysterious towels from Podlasie.
Waiting for resurrection
Everyone who comes from Podlasie at least once in his/her life came into contact with a folk decorative towel. Unfortunately, until recently, only few people realized how valuable this “piece of cloth” really is. Folk decorative towels lost their magical status and became old-fashioned objects. They were stored in wooden chests, eaten by moths or ripped into rags. What a pity!
Fortunately, there are people who are not indifferent to what is going to happen with folk decorative towels. Among those people is one of the authors of Katalog Ręczników Ludowych and the boss 🙂 of the Museum in Bielsk Podlaski – Alina Dębowska, with whom we talked at the beginning of August during our trip to Podlasie. She is a person with an amazing energy, persistence in the conducted projects, and is passionate when it comes to folk decorative towels. This mixture of passion and professionalism is so important but unfortunately very rare today. We were very impressed after our talk and decided to get involved and write about the project.
The research is still going on and materials are still collected. So whenever you see a folk decorative towel, please, get in touch with the Museum in Bielsk Podlaski. The more towels are photographed, researched, and cataloged, the more we know about our nüshu from Podlasie.