Ткива и бојење – Textile Fibres & Traditional Dyeing

My interest in costume comes from a variety of angles. One of those is the physical origin of the threads, yarns and fabrics from which they’re made. There are historic, cultural and even biogeographical reasons for the various raw materials any culture uses, and the Serbs have their own story, too.


Part of this has very ancient, pre-Slavic origins. It is no coincidence that wool and flax are widely represented in Slavic cultures; these two came into human use with the advent of agriculture, over 15,000 years ago. The South Slavs, arriving in the Balkans, brought domesticated sheep with them and there likely encountered flax, originally a mediterranean plant, for the first time. The plant they brought with them was tough, fibrous and able to grow in very tough conditions. This was central Asia’s hemp.




Some Common Fibre Plants, 1. Flax 2. Hemp 3. Cotton From a Soviet-era postcard, Artist Z.V. Vorontsov, Moscow 1989

The plant fibres grown by the southern Slavs since time immemorial were flax (lan, ćeten) and hemp (konoplja, kudelja). The former was preferred in more fertile areas, for both commercial and personal use, while the latter was generally intended for personal use, except for large commercial plantations of it in Vojvodina and Danubian Serbia. The best hemp was considered to be that grown and processed in the southern Morava valley, in the vicinities of Leskovac, Vranje, Bujanovac and Preševo. Regional variations abounded. For example, in Lužnica and Nišava river valleys, hemp cloth was the overwhelming favourite. In Homolje region, flax was only sown by households that had young girls in the household. The finer linen cloth would be used to make festive clothing and to prepare their dowries. Besides cloth, both plants were used for rope and cord, oils, and medicinal use.



A villager from near Zaječar drawing out flax fibres (sukanje lana), 1930s
A villager from near Zaječar drawing out flax fibres by hand (sukanje lana), 1930s. From Marković, 1978.

Two main varieties of flax were cultivated. Spring flax, called jarik, was sown in the spring. Winter Flax  or ozimac was sowed in late summer, in rich moist soil It was done on a friday, preferably in the period known as Medjudnevnice (“the in-between days”) between the feasts of the Assumption and Nativity of Mary  (Velika i Mala Gospojina) In days after sowing, children were tasked with guarding the fields to keep birds away. It overwintered and sprouted the following spring. Flax fields became seas of beautiful blue flowers on slender green stalks. It was harvested when the stalks began to yellow, generally at the end of June (Vidovdan). Stalks were pulled, not cut, and gathered in sheafs which were tied at two ends. Roots were cut off and discarded, seed heads cut off and dried. Sometimes seed heads removed using a wooden comb-like implement. The manner of flax cultivation varied according to its intended use. If the goal was fibre, it was densely sown from a sieve. If the goal is seed, it was sown more sparsely, using a hoe, often in between rows of corn or potatoes.


A woman carding or combing hemp fibres, Pirot district, c. 1950s.

Hemp was grown in a field known as a konopljište, konopljak.  Several varieties were cultivated across the Balkans. Early hemp, called mala Konoplja, bela or cvetna konoplja gives a finer fibre and is harvested in early summer. Late hemp, known as velika Konoplja, kašnja konoplja crnojka or semenjača, gives a tougher, more crude fibre and is harvested later. With the exception of preparation of the land, sowing, and preparation of soaking ponds (močila) the processing of both hemp and flax was the purview of women. In zadruge extended families, the harvested hemp (as well as flax) was divided among all of the women of the household, according to number of immediate family members, for processing and personal use. They each made cloth for their own immediate families, and produced what they could for the household to use or sell. Cotton slowly replaced hemp, particularly after fall of zadruga life because processing of linen and hemp is work intensive. Fewer hands made it all the more difficult.

Spanish broom, žukva or brnistra, from a 19th century German herbarium
Spanish broom, žukva or brnistra, from a 19th century German herbarium

Spanish Broom, called žukva or žuka in Boka Kotorska, brnistra on the Adriatic coast, or žuka, brnika in Hercegovina, was never sown. Rather, it was gathered in the wild or allowed to grow in patches on farmland. Often this was along land boundaries, stone walls, or in orchards and olive groves.  It is a mediterranean plant, and thrived in the heat, limestone karst and poor soils of the Dinaric and Adriatic regions. Seeds could be gathered, and sometimes it was planted in gardens for its attractive yellow flowers. These garden plants were often harvested in order to make brooms. Like hemp and flax, its stems yielded a strong and flexible fibre that could be spun and woven.



Once harvested, the processing of all three of these plants for their fibres is an intensive and long process, and follows the same general pattern for all three:

  • Drying in sheafs or bundles which stand upright like tents.
  • Soaking in water (In Serbian, expressed by the verbs kiseliti, topiti, rosati, mocati, likati) in prepared soaking pools or ponds (močila) created by diverting part of a stream’s flow, or by staking off a section of a pond or creek. For broom, this is often done in seawater. This loosens both the outer epidermis and inner pith of the stem from the desired fibre, which is the stem’s middle layer. When a layer of algae forms and bubbles begin to appear in the water (a sign of fermentation) soaking is done. Bundles are removed and washed in clean water.
  • Second Drying, where one end of the sheaf is untied so that the bundles can be spread out or placed upright again
  • Beating the stems (nabijanje, trlanje, čukanje) is done next. This is often done fireside in the fall and winter, so that the stems can be gently warmed to speed up the process. This can be done by hand using a mallet (maljica, bijač), against a rock (for spanish broom only), or most often using an apparatus called a stupa; depending on regional dialects also known as melica, trlica, kobila or procap. These can often be very large, and are operated by hand or by way of a foot pedal system.
  • Carding the fibre (Grebenje, vlačenje, glađanje, glaćanje) was done at work bees (prela, sedenke, sedeljće). Women who did this task were known as grebenajle or vlačuljke, and would take turns hosting these bees which always ended in a meal and some rakija. The work was accompanied by work songs called pobaktuše (see below)
  • Winding the fibre after carding into bundles (povesma, kudelje)
  • Spinning the fibre using distaff and spindle (preslica i vreteno)
  • Weaving the thread or yarn into cloth

It is easy to see how this process would occupy the women in a household or zadruga until the next spring. In villages surrounding Leskovac, the say “nema biljke na svetu koja veće muke pretrpi”. (there is no plant in the world that suffers such torture as flax!)

Villagers in the Leskovac region processing dried hemp stalks by beating. Postcard c. 1914.


Examples of two of the work songs, pobaktuše: From Otok, in Srem region, sung during work:

Ninkovica l’n sejala, em sejala, em obrala, em obrala, potopila, Potopila, izvalila

Izvalila i ga stukla, pa ga stukla, i otrla, otrla ga, ovlači ga, ovlačila i isprela

Isprela i svarila, i svarila i smotala, smotala te osnovala,

Osnovala izatkala, Izatkala obelila

Mrs. Ninković sowed some flax, as she sowed it so she plucked it, having plucked it then she soaked it, having soaked it she then dried it, having dried it then she beat it, beat it rubbed it pulled the fibres, carded them and spun them, spun them and washed them, washed them and wound them, wound them and set her warp, wove the weft upon her warp, wove the cloth and whitened it


From Temnić, Central Serbia, sung at the completion of work:

Pobaktuša gospo naša, Pobakti de po avanu, Po avanu, po tavanu

Pa sanesi pladanj sira, i rešeto suvih sljiva, i oraha, i lešnika, Da ne bude na te vika!

Oh, dear hostess, our dear mistress, take a look inside your mortar, in your mortar and your attic, bring us down a wheel of cheese, and a sieve of sweetest prunes, walnuts and some hazelnuts, lest there be an uproar here!

The prolonged and difficult process is also preserved in a children’s folk song and dance called Ja posejah lan (I planted some flax) and in a folk poem called The Peasant Shirt.

The importance of both flax and hemp to Serbian villagers was so great that many customs and superstitions evolved surrounding it. The seeds of both hemp and flax are generally sown from a sieve. This is a practical and light tool to carry, but it is also used in other rituals (weddings, Christmas) for its role in protective magic. A sieve only allows good things to pass through (such as grains or flour), trapping and leaving behind the bad things (grit, pebbles, spoiled or infertile grains). Sieves are used in wedding rituals for this reason – to ensure good things for the newlyweds. Likewise, sowing from a sieve was meant to ensure success of the crop.

Placing of eggs among the seeds is widespread, from the Serbian enclave in Bela Krajina, Slovenia, to Southern Macedonia, indicating that this custom has very ancient roots and likely pre-christian meaning. Generally, the explanation is to ensure that the cloth made from the hemp or linen be as white as an egg, or that the seed heads be as large as eggs. Sometimes the eggs placed are cooked, in some regions, raw. The raw egg is a life source, and it is thought that by placing raw eggs, the seeds were imbued with this life force.

In Užice, the egg custom goes something like this:  A number of eggs are hard boiled and cooled. They are placed among the seeds to be sown, in a sieve which is carried out to the field. At the field, the eggs are removed and placed on the ground, in the first plowed furrow (leja), where they rest until the whole field is sown. At the end of their work, each worker eats an egg, scattering the eggshell over the field. This is similar to an easter custom where eggshells are scattered around anthills, to ensure that the family grows and is as numerous as ants. The scattering of the shells on the sown field similarly is meant to ensure that the flax or hemp be plentiful, too.

In Lika region, where raw duck and chicken eggs are used in this custom, the seed is sown from a cloth sack, and eggs remain in there the whole time. The sower is given the eggs, but is expected to eat them immediately afterwards in perhaps the most unusual cooking ritual. The sower is invited into the home’s kitchen, where he fries the eggs. As he cracks each egg open, he repeats “Cvrk, cvrk, zvrkuću ne zoblju!” (Cluck, cluck, they’re clucking, not eating) – to ensure that the chickens will not eat the freshly sown seed.

In Resava, raw eggs, or an egg reserved from Easter, are buried in the field. This is similar to the placing of an egg in a home’s cornerstone or foundation, remnants of ancient slavic sacrificial rites which persist in a much tamer context.



Merino sheep’s wool: Raw (left) right from shearing, and processed (right), after being washed, carded and combed

Of animal fibres, wool (vuna) was the major one used. In Dinaric regions particularly, it was the lifeblood of a typical zadruga, used for all manner of clothing and utilitarian objects. Goat hair, called kostret, was also used for certain pieces of clothing but mainly for utilitarian objects. Least present of animal fibres was silk.

Shearing was generally once a summer, but for a particular year’s lambs, it would be in the fall. Wool needs to be washed with copious amount of water, so most often this was done in streams or rivers. The wool is dried in the sun, which also has a bleaching effect, and is then plucked (raščupa se) to remove larger imperfections and impurities, then sorted according to quality or potential use. The sorted wool must be carded twice: first, a coarse carding to untangle and remove matting, then a fine carding to smooth the fibres and orient them into one direction (vuna se izgrebe ili izgargaša). The bundles of wool are called kudelje, and these are attached to spindles for spinning. Wool was woven on looms, and often rolled after weaving to produce the textiles known as sukno, šajak and klašnja, three major materials of many traditional outer garments.

Kostret was obtained from clipping and shearing of goats. Generally less oily than wool, it required less rigorous washing and carding, but it was more difficult to spin because of its shorter, coarser fibres. Kostret was mainly used for rugs and mats (ćilimi), bags (torbe, džakovi, bisage), but also straw mattresses (dušeci), divan cushions (minderluci), and a limited number of costume pieces, such as sashes (pojasi), leggings (navošte), caps (kape, ćule), etc. Kostret was preferred by many because of its durability and resistance to soiling and staining.

Silk Worms have been present in Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia since Byzantine times. The abundance of white mulberry trees (beli dud) made it feasible to raise them. Silk production was somewhat bolstered during the Ottoman period, but this was often for the economic benefit of local Turkish landowners.  In Bosnia, it remained relatively stable during and after Ottoman rule. This is partly because in that region, silk production was by law limited to Muslims. Christians could not produce silk. In Kosovo, urban Christians could pay for a permit to produce silk, so Prizren, Priština and Peć were centres of steady production. In the rest of Serbia, in the decades before its insurrection and after the liberation, silk production boomed – it was a way of rebelling against the Empire to produce silk or use it in your clothing. Lapovo, Požarevac and Svilajnac (literally, Silk Town) were leading centres of production. On the eve of the Second World War, it is estimated that more than 3 million silk cocoons were produced in Serbia annually.

Women extracting silk fibre silkworm cocoons (in a wooden tray, foreground) by dipping them in hot water. Užice, 1917

Silk production is finicky but not costly. Leaves to feed the caterpillars were free for the gathering, and much of the required equipment could be made or improvised from household objects and commonly available materials like willow switches (vrbovo pruće). As long as a household had a well-ventilated space that could be dedicated to raising silk moth caterpillars, it was actually much easier to obtain than many other fibres. An ounce of silk moth eggs could result in upwards of 100 kg of cocoons. Production was limited to the spring and summer, generally. A large rectangular wicker tray (lesa, ljesa), the type used for drying fruit in the summer and fall, would be set up on saw horses (nogare). This allowed air to circulate freely around the eggs, which would develop on a bed of mulberry leaves. The caterpillars were kept away from direct sunlight, and spent their days munching on fresh leaves until they pupated. Some of the pupae were left to develop into moths, which were kept in canvas “cages” to mature, reproduce and lay eggs that could be stored for next year. The bulk of the cocoons (called čaure or fineci in Serbian) was gathered and immersed in very warm water. This loosened the silk fibre, which was then carefully spooled onto a wooden dowel (motovilo) and then carefully unravelled and dried. It could be used as is, or could be spun into thicker threads. The cloths produced were either pure silk (Serbian svila, or Turkish herir) or interwoven with cotton fibre (called ipek).



Dyeing was referred to by many different terms across all Serbian regions:  Bojenje, bojiti, bojadisati, mastiti, moriti, činiti;  Those who made a trade of larger scale dyeing were called bojadžije

Regardless of fibre, the dyeing happened after spinning, in the form of yarns or threads. The yarn would be wound into loose bundles, using a tool called a rašak or a forked branch, račvast kolac.

There are many dye plants native to the Balkans: Dandelion (Maslačak, Mlečika), weld (katančica), Walnut (orah), oak (cer), alkanet (volovski jezik), millefoil (hajdučka trava), onion (luk), plum (šljiva) were readily available everywhere, while broom (žukva) and woad (sinjevica) only grew along the Adriatic coast, Bay of Kotor, and the Dinaric mountains.


Various shades of yellow, obtained when wool is dyed in weld (katančica), alkanet (volovski jezik), Queen Annes Lace (divlja mrkva)
Various shades of yellow, obtained when wool is dyed in weld (katančica), peach leaf (breskvin list), millefoil (hajdučka trava), elder flower (zova) Queen Annes Lace (divlja mrkva)


Colours obtained when wool is dyed using walnut hulls (orah) or oak bark (hrast, cer).
Colours obtained when wool is dyed using walnut hulls (orah) or oak bark (hrast, cer).

Purchased dyes included Indigo (čivit), brazilwood (varzilo), cochineal (krmez), and turmeric (zerdešapa). Most of these came from cities such as Thessaloniki, Zadar, Dubrovnik, or Istanbul and made their way to the čaršija (market streets) of many Serbian cities. Turmeric, foreign to Serbian cuisine but not to Turkish, came with the Ottomans. It is derived from a rhizome (an underground stem) of the curcuma plant, and could be cultivated in gardens easily. Varzilo was widely used for easter eggs, also.

Madder (broć) was gathered wild or cultivated in home gardens. The ideal dyestuff was the third year root, which was air dried and then crushed into a powder. It produced beautiful scarlet and crimson reds (aleno, alevo, višnjeređija), as well as pink. Another source of red dye was krmez – the dried bodies of cochineal beetles. The name of the beetle is derived from the Greek word kokkino, meaning red. It produced a beautiful bordeaux colour (đuvez) as well as scarlets and purples.

Colours obtained when wool is dyed in madder (broć) or brazilwood (varzilo).
Cochineal beetles (left) gave a variety of shades, depending on the quantity of dyestuff used and through the addition of vinegar, wood ash, or chalk.

Indigo dye (čivit) was generally prepared in clay pots, where the residue was referred to as maja, the same word used for the rennet used in cheesemaking. As indigo was expensive, having this residue as a ‘starter’ of sorts helped the dyeing process greatly. Indigo powder was tied into a small bundle in a scrap of cloth. This bundle was either soaked in water and kneaded by hand until the blue colour became evident on the skin; alternatively it was left to steep in human urine, collected in a specific clay vessel called a đugumar. It was then transferred to soak in water, in the clay dye vessel, for up to two days. The longer it sat, the deeper the blue. These shades were called modro, mavo, or zatvoreno plavo in Serbian.

Blues were difficult to obtain, but could be achieved using indigo (čivit), woad (sinjevica)
Blues were difficult to obtain, but could be achieved using indigo (čivit), woad (sinjevica) and alkanet (volovski jezik). The latter could give yellow in combination with an acid.

A little indigo residue was added to yellow dyestuffs to make shades of green. Despite there being many natural sources of green colour, few of them are durable, light-fast, or capable of producing a dark shade on their own. For green, as with blue, yarn was often removed, dried, and then dyed again over a number of days until a desired shade was obtained.

Bright, lighter shade blues (otvoreno plavo, sinje) were derived from woad, harvested from the wild or purchased through trade links to Adriatic coast cities as well as Trebinje in Hercegovina region.

Various shades of brown (kaveno, kaveređija) were derived from alder bark (jova), walnut fruit husks and shells (orah), as well as from henna (kna). Wool that was naturally dark was generally preferred.

Various colours obtained using onion (luk), henna (kna) and turmeric tubers or powder (zerdešap)
Various colours obtained using onion (luk), henna (kna) and turmeric tubers or powder (zerdešap)

Dyeing vessels were called čivitnjaci, morni lonci. Clay vessels were preferred because any unused dye could be left to evaporate, leaving behind a residue that was partially absorbed into the pottery, and which could be rehydrated. This also intensified dye colours with use. For home dyeing, straw, sawdust or paper was used to absorb leftover dye. This was air dried and stored for future use.

Where metal vessels were used, copper or tin pots were preferred “da se boja brže hvata” – so that the colours grab onto the fibres more quickly. Folk knowledge had inadvertently discovered two of the metals commonly used as dye mordants. Mordants, in fact, do enhance dye absorption by natural fibres and contribute to colour permanence. Other mordants included stipsa (alum, potassium aluminum nitrate) and salitra (salt peter, potassium nitrate), both of which had to be purchased.

Dyeing of textile fibres was not exclusively men’s or women’s work. In villages, dyeing for home use was generally done by women. Not every woman did her own dyeing. A skilled dyer (bojarka, bojarica) could have women from villages far afield bring their fibres for dyeing. Generally, they were paid in dyed yarn. In towns, where dyeing was a commercial trade, it was generally done by men called bojadžije.. A leading city for this was Pirot in eastern Serbia, where carpet weaving still defines the town.

With the advent of commercially made aniline dyes, which produced more stable, brighter and colour-fast results, much of the traditional practice of dyeing died out, and with it the wealth of knowledge generations of people had about the natural world around them.

If interested, you can download a list of sources-of-traditional-dyes or consult some of the resources listed below.

Vladislav Titelbah, “Women’s textile production in a village home”. From left to right, women are shown winding yarn on a motovilo, weaving on a loom, and embroidering. A distaff with wool or plant fibre leans against the left wall. Processed fibres and dyed yarns are hanging on the far wall. (The cat, like all cats, is supervising). From the Veliko Sveznanje Encyclopedia, Belgrade 1937.


Kazimirović, Rad. N. (1927) O starom narodnom bojenju. GEMB vol. 2

Jurišić, Jovan (1929) O starinskom narodnom bojenju u Mlavi. GEMB vol. 4

Marković, Zagorka (1978) Tekstilna radinost u selima Zaječarske opštine. GEMB vol. 42

Radović, Bosiljka (1956) Gajenje i obrada lana i konoplje u našem narodnu. GEMB vol. 19, 27 / 100.

Sadiković, Alija A. (1971) Gajenje Svilene Bube u Janji. Glasnik Zemaljskog Muzeja u Sarajevu.

Stojaković, Velibor. (2003) Narodna Kultura Srba U XIX I XX Veku: Vodič Kroz Stalnu Postavku. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej U Beogradu.