Књажевац – Knjaževac

The Timok region is one of mountains, rich forests, and abundant water, especially mountain springs and streams. It is these waters that in many ways define which hills and valleys belong to Timok. Settlements always arise where there is abundant water, and Knjaževac is one of these. It is located in the valley of the Beli Timok (White Timok), which together with the waters of the rivulets Svrljiški Timok and Trgoviški Timok join the Crni Timok (Black Timok) river at Zaječar, forming the Great Timok (Veliki Timok, or simply Timok).  The valley of the Beli Timok is conducive to agriculture and viticulture, while the surrounding mountains are ideal for the farming of sheep and goats, as well as for walnut groves. The mountains offered protection, but also created isolation.

Knjazevac District
Knjaževac district, in relation to surrounding regions of eastern Serbia. Villages mark origins of some of the costume pieces shown.

The region’s isolation through Medieval times continued through the Ottoman period. It is in 1455 that the first mention of the hamlet of Grgusovče, with a whopping ten houses, is found. This grew to become the town of Grgusovac. The origin of the town’s name is disputed. It can be linked to the name Grgur, equivalent to Gregory, but no concrete evidence for a real Grgur exists; perhaps the patriarch of a family in the region, or there may have been a church dedicated to the saint of this name nearby. The folk etymology links the town name to the abundance of wood pigeons (golubi grivaši) in the area, the name alluding to their cooing, grrrguuu, grguuuu….

Historically, events took far less charming turns for Grgusovac. The Turks built a prison tower there, where not only criminals but also rebels, national leaders, and agitators for Serbian independence were imprisoned. The prison was notorious for torture and inhumane conditions until the formation of the Principality of Serbia. The district became part of the newly emerging state in 1833, and when Prince (Knez, or Knjaz) Miloš Obrenović ordered the destruction of the tower, it marked the end of a harsh chapter in the region’s history. The townsfolk marked it by changing the name to Knjaževac, “the Prince’s town” (Princeton of the Balkans!) The end of the Ottoman era brought growth of the town, trade with cities in the Morava valley, and a flourishing of trades.


The location of Knjaževac is picturesque. It is situated in a valley, but with villages in a crescent of mountains surrounding it. It is wedged up against the Stara Planina mountains and the Zaglavak and Budžak districts found there. The name of the former comes from zaglaviti, to get stuck, and the latter from a Turkism meaning corner; both evoke just how inaccessible the two microregions are. The costumes of the Zaglavak and Timok districts share components and are generally similar, while those of Budžak are distinctly of the Šopluk type of costume. Discussions of the material culture of Knjaževac district are complicated by this proximity, but the regional folklore is most certainly enriched by it. In this article, the focus will be on the Timok type costumes from villages in the immediate vicinity of Knjaževac.


The importance of wool as a textile material cannot be overstated. The mountainous region lent itself to pastoralism, and the breeding of local sheep such as the Krivi Vir, Svrljig and Pirot breeds with the Merino sheep introduced in the late 19th century led to a very high quality of wool. Families typically kept flocks of 30 to 40 sheep, although records of flocks in the hundreds exist. Mountain villages often kept large herds of goats, which were a source of kozina, or coarser goat hair fibre. Sheep shearing happened generally in June, after which the laborious process of preparing the wool began. Washing in wood ash or lye extracted the lanolin, locally called sera, which could be used for making a kind of soap solution in which hemp or linen cloth were washed. Interestingly, the term sera is very likely taken from the Latin word for wax, cera, an ancient linguistic relic dating back to the time of the arrival of the Slavs. 


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Carved distaff showing seasonal cycle, village of Novo Korito. (from Vladić-Krstić, 1999)


Dried and carded, the wool was spun exclusively on hand distaffs, practical tools that had symbolic roles of defining womanhood.  For example, a woman was given a new distaff on her wedding day as a symbol of her new life; distaffs were held by women during labour in the belief that would ease the process, placed near the bed of mothers and their newborns for protection, and even stuck into the ground next to the cross on a woman’s grave. Some distaffs were carved into real works of art. One example documented by Bratislava Vladić-Krstić was carved in the village of Novo Korito by Ranko Živković for his wife, depicting the seasonal cycle. Starting with large drops of rain at the very top, representing autumn (jesen), Živković carved a snowflake for winter (zima), snowdrops – visibabe, for spring (proleće), flowers and a butterfly for summer (leto), a bird on a branch, contemplating migration, for another autumn. The work was completed with a large dahlia flower (georgina), his wife’s favourite, and her initials, С Ж. The Serbian villager imbued life with beauty, even in the most ordinary objects.




Spinning bees, sedeljke, were, as in all Serbian regions, common. Two women from the village of Vasilj described the custom:


”Седељка је била на раскрсници, на месечини. Ватра се ложила од кукурузовине и конопље. Сви насједају: момци, мајке, баке, младе жене и девојке. Момци прескачу огањ. Са седељке су и девојке крађене. Ставе је у чаршаф, увежу и носе га на чабрњак штап – кад мајка не да цуру. Крађа је била уобичајена … Седељке су се одржавале и на раскрсници да би и момци долазили. Најчешће се песма певала: ’Дођи, драги, вечерас на прело и донеси злаћено вретено, На вретену свила намотана ја ћу драги теби доћи сама!’”


“Sedeljka je bila na raskrsnici, na mesečini. Vatra se ložila od kukurozovine i konoplje. Sve nasedaju: momci, majke, babe, mlade žene i devojke. Momci preskaču oganj. Sa sedeljke su i devojke krađene. Stave je u čaršaf, uvežu i nose na čabrnjak [štap] – kada majka ne da curu. Krađa je bila česta… Sedenjke su se i održavale na raskrsnici da bi i momci došli. Najčešće se pevala pesma: ‘Dođi dragi večeras na prelo i ponesi zlaćeno vreteno, Na vretenu svila namotana ja ću dragi tebi doći sama!’”


“The sedeljka was held at a crossroads, under a full moon. A fire would be lit from corn and hemp stalks. Everyone would come to sit: young men, mothers, grandmothers, young married women and unmarried girls. The boys would jump over the fire. Girls were often abducted from a sedeljka. They’d wrap her up in a sheet, bind it and carry her off on a post – this was often when the mother didn’t allow the girl to marry. Such abductions were common… The sedenjke were held at crossroads in order to encourage boys to attend. The most popular song sung was ‘Come, my darling, to the sedeljka tonight and bring a golden spindle, on the spindle wrap some silk thread, and I will come to you of my own accord’” (from Vladić-Krstić, 1997)


This last line is very telling. Many of the “abductions” were often cases of young women with sympathetic mothers but stubborn or disapproving fathers. Mothers of the young man and girl would talk and agree to allow a staged abduction to happen from the sedeljke, which were generally held on summer nights – just in time to allow for an autumn wedding. Once this happened, the father really had little choice but to allow the marriage to happen. It is not for naught that we Serbs have the saying, “Čovek je glava kuće, ali žena je šija – šija glavu povija” “The man is the head of the household, but the woman is the neck – the neck makes the head bend to its will”.


Spun and dyed wool ended up in spectacular colourful rugs and blankets (ćilimi, čerge, pokrovice), but also in the commonly used cloth known as klašnja and šajak. The former was heavier, but both were processed after weaving by rolling (valjanje). This was carried out manually (the cloth being beaten with mallets) or mechanically, using human or water power. The cloth was dampened with increasingly hotter water as it passed between heavy cylindrical rollers. This is essentially a type of felting process, relying on the natural property of wool fibres to shift and entangle, creating a denser, warmer, and more durable fabric. This was the mainstay of most of the heavier outer garments in both men’s and women’s costume.


The changes that occurred in Timok style traditional dress from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries were radical, especially in women’s costume. This makes it challenging to present a list of costume elements that is clear. I will try my best to present an overview that is comprehensive, making note of particularities that relate to a specific time period.


Men’s costume was more conservative and this makes it easier to categorize. As in other regions, the changes seen in men’s traditional clothing is more in terms of form, style, and material. The particular garments may remain the same, for the most part. With this in mind, here are the most common elements of men’s costume:


Košulja – a linen or hemp cloth shirt, in its oldest variants reaching knee length and with wide open sleeves; later this became slightly shorter with defined cuffs (taslice) at the wrist. It was sewn virtually identically to the košulje worn by women – a slit opening, low collar, widened in the torso with triangular or rhomboid inserts (klinovi, rebrnje). It was embroidered at the collar, along the front opening, and along the hems or cuffs of the sleeves; the lattermost were in later variants very heavily embroidered, as this would have been one of the more obviously visible portions of a man’s košulja.


Gaće – These plain trousers were not universally worn. In the immediate vicinity of Knjaževac, it was rare to find them. Only occasionally did men in villages of the Zaglavak area wear them. They were sewn from hemp or linen cloth, worn as a winter undergarment or as summer work wear, of simple cut and kept in place with a drawstring. 


Čakšire, brevenici, benevreci – woollen trousers, in the oldest forms made using white sukno, or later of klašnja woven from naturally brown wool fibres, and later still in dark brown or black dyed šajak wool cloth. They were tailored to be of comfortably loose fit, broad in the seat and waist. Openings and slits (rkmači, cepke) located approximately over each thigh allowed for a drawstring to be tied. Later variants became baggier under influence of Levantine urban dress, and benevreci were sewn so that they were pleated or gathered at the waist and had a deeper crotch.


Podveze – decorative and somewhat functional embroidered straps that were tied just below the knee, helping narrow the pant leg somewhat.


Pantalone s bokovi – the last stage in development of men’s trousers, these were essentially a form of the britches worn in military uniform. As it had in Šumadija and Pomoravlje, the garment came into use after the Serbo-Turkish and Balkan wars.


Pojas, povas, tkanica – multicoloured woven sash, generally of wool fibre. Geometric designs and horizontal stripes were woven into its entire length, which was usually about two metres. These sashes were very wide, 15 cm, and bound firmly – even somewhat restrictively – at the waist.


Jelek – a simple wool-cloth vest which, as it happened with čakšire, saw a transition from white to brown over several decades. White garments were retained longest in Zaglavak area, while men in Timok area exclusively wore outer garments sewn of dark sukno by the mid twentieth century. Unlike the elaborately decorated vests of the lower Morava Valley, the men’s jelek here was a simple open, sleeveless vest with gajtan braid in clean, straight rows along all outer edges, seams, and openings. Occasionally, this was augmented by small patches of red čoja felt or red wool embroidery to fill small loops, especially at corners or at the nape of the neck, but this was not an elaborate or showy garment at all.


Gunj, gunjče – long-sleeved jacket sewn from the same type of cloth as the jelek, with similarly limited ornamentation, including down the length of the sleeve and along all edges of the low collar. The jacket could be worn closed, with a single knot and loop closing made of black braid.


Pamuklija, grudnjak – a quilted and padded vest that came into use in the late 19th and early 20th century, worn for warmth in the winter and retained the longest among shepherds. It had closures along one side and the shoulder on that same side, so it was entirely closed at the front. Worn under the gunjče and jelek, it would have provided excellent warmth and protection in cold weather.


Kožuh – virtually identical in design to the pamuklija, but made of untanned sheepskin with the fleece turned inwards. Unlike similar vests north of the Danube, not an ornamented garment. Stitching reinforced edges and openings to prevent the rawhide from cracking and wear. Only much later did somewhat more decorative kožusi (pl.) make an appearance, as craftsmen imitated more northern styles with leather applique.


Prosluk – the latest form of vest, directly influenced by western clothing and urban style. It reached to just below the waist, with tapered front panels pointing downward, closing with five to seven buttons down the front. (essentially, exactly like the vest in a western three-piece suit)


Gunja – a long winter coat, reaching to below the knees, worn overtop jelek, grudnjak and gunjče. Such layering is typical of Eastern Serbian men’s costumes and met the needs of a mountain environment with harsh winters. It was sewn with loose long sleeves – they needed to be wide to accommodate the layers beneath them. Around Knjaževac, the same term was also used for a woollen shepherd’s cape.


Kože – a shepherd’s cloak (kabanica style cape) made from untanned goatskins. It took six or seven hides to make one cloak.


Kaput – a western style suit jacket, directly borrowed from urban clothing. These garments signal the demise of folk costume.


Skornje – mostly worn by shepherds who spent much of their time in the mountains and forests, these were leggings that covered the entire leg of the wearer. They could be made from heavy wool cloth or, more often, from goatskins. Their primary role was to protect the trousers from snow, mud, thorns, etc. but they did provide additional warmth, too.


Čarape – woollen knit socks. These were worn under the trousers, so they were generally not embroidered, or if they were, only the upper portion of the foot was decorated as this would have been the only portion visible. Ornaments were geometric, stylized botanical motifs, or floral designs.


Obojci, obljala, navošte – long strips of woven wool cloth that were wrapped over the calves to the knees during winter, for warmth.


Opanci, op’nci – of the untanned vrncan type with long rawhide straps, generally made in the household using pigskin or bovine rawhide. Only rarely was the tanned style with short straps and buckles, made by craftsmen, purchased or worn for special occasions such as weddings.


Šubara – typical lambskin or sheepskin headgear, of various types: long fleece baretine, conical šilje, and professionally made astraganke.


Knjazevac Muska Nosnja
19th century dress from Knjaževac area as preserved in Ethnographic Museums in Belgrade (L) and as depicted in a drawing by Felix Kanitz (R).
Elements of men’s costume from Knjaževac district: 1. oldest style shirt – košulja 2. shirt with cuffs -košulja na taslice 3 trousers – čakšire, brevenici 4. čakšire, later style 5. vest – jelek 6. jacket – gunj  7. šubara  8. socks- čarape 9. sash- pojas  10. opanci       (A.S. 2020)


Describing women’s costume is more challenging. One of the biggest transformations happened in how women styled their hair and adorned their head. As in most regions where Serbs lived, the trend tended toward simpler head coverings, less lavish ornamentation and with this, the loss of visually obvious indicators of marital and social status. In the time period after the Balkan Wars and WWI, especially, there was a rapid influx of western style goods and cultural influences that hastened these changes. It makes for an interesting starting point, and a good illustration of how costume and traditional dress reflect social shifts over time.


The main characteristic of how women adorned their hair was the trvelj style of braid. These were paired long braids that were twisted back upon themselves, held in place with yarn and pins, framing the face on either side. False trvelji, made of wool or hemp fibre, were often worn to make the real trvelji (pl.) look fuller and more prominent, and to allow them the be adorned with heavy strings of coins, silver pins, etc. Hair was then covered with a headdress known as obradač. It consisted of a soft oval cap with a veil or “tail” (rep) that hung down the nape of the neck. The basic material was lightly woven wool cloth, usually in a multicoloured but subdued stripe pattern. It was held in place with a chin strap (podbradnik) which was sometimes ornamented with some embroidery. The obradač was decorated with silver coins, beads, and other silver niello jewellery and amulets. It was worn by brides and young women eligible for marriage. Young married women wore a rectangular kerchief, the peškir, over the obradač. This would be worn by placing one end over the top portion or cap, then letting the peškir hand down one side of the wearer’s face. This hanging end was then passed under the chin to the other side, and pinned to the cap on that side. With time, the decorative and light peškir would be replaced by a large, heavy cotton kerchief known as krpa or jašmak. This left little of the obradač visible, except any portion hanging down the back, but emphasized the trvelji; the kerchief could be pinned to the trvelji and ornamented with coins, also.  When these headdresses fell out of use, women began covering their heads with one or two kerchiefs: a light triangular one directly onto the hair, the uvijaljka or vrzoglavka, and a larger square one (folded in half), called krpa, marama, or šamija. The outer kerchiefs were sometimes trimmed with sequins or beads, or made from industrially produced floral prints.

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Changes in women’s head coverings in the Knjaževac district, from 19th century to mid twentieth century (A.S., 2020)


Over the course of a century, women’s garments consisted of the following:


Košulja – virtually identical in cut and style as that worn by men, but longer (mid-calf to ankle length), often with more inserts to provide a fuller skirt, and in later variants with an insert at the shoulders (poramka) that offered a more comfortable fit. Arrangement of the embroidery followed a similar pattern: collar, bodice opening, sleeve hem, but with additional embroidery down the length of the sleeve and along the skirt hem as well. Small crochet lace was sometimes sewn to sleeve and skirt hems, also.


Pojas, povas, tkanica, litar – various terms for woven sashes, the main difference being width. They are all woollen, multicoloured, and striped, generally narrower than men’s sashes. The litar (emphasis on the last syllable) was a very narrow sash, sometimes embroidered, used to holding in place the pafte or čapraz buckles worn in the region.


Suknja, zaprega, boča, vutarka – all of the different types of skirts worn in the region conformed to a similar design; they were invariably open, gathered, wrap around skirts sewn from two pieces of continuously woven cloth called pole. Skirts were shorter than the košulja, generally. Some of them much shorter, like the zaprega or boča, while others left only the hem of the košulja showing. The material used for making vutarke (pl.) varied according to season: linen and hemp for summer wear, wool and mixed wool/hemp for winter. The cloth was woven into patterns of repeating stripes whose number gave the skirts nicknames such as dvojančica (two stripes), trojančica (three stripes), etc. Interspersed between stripes, a skilled weaver might include minute waves (vrguljke), dots (bobice), and zig zags (žuberke), again giving rise to nicknames such as vuta vrguljanka (skirt with wave patterns) or šarenka (multicoloured, variegated). As aniline dyes came into use, the skirts became more colourful, and as cotton fibre entered into the weaver’s repertoire, the style of skirts changed. A type of skirt called suknja u kaner or suknja na krivu polu appears. It is made from two unequal long pieces, pole, the upper one is continuous and makes up about ⅔ of the skirt, with its stripes arranged vertically. The lower, narrower piece is cut in such a way as to make the stripes appear diagonal. Where they are joined, but sometimes also at the hem, velvet strips or ribbon are applied. All of these changes reflected not only the availability of industrial materials and the increase in trade and wealth, but also the ability of the women of the region to be creative with what they have on hand. Eventually, after the 1920s, skirts become shorter and are sewn from a single pola (s.) or single piece of cloth.


Pregača, pregljača – as with the skirts, a similar trend toward simplification and, sadly, less ornate decoration is seen in the aprons worn by women in Knjaževac district. The oldest type of apron, now found mainly in museums, was a wonder of weaving and embroidery, a riot of colour, but all with balance and rhythm. They are reminiscent of the oldest type of apron worn in Niš, or of the patterns seen in Kosovo or Skopska Blatija, with similar geometric designs of rhombs, hooks, zig-zags, stripes… all very reminiscent of those seen on rugs, giving them the name ćilimarske šarke (rug ornaments). These pregače (pl.) persisted longest in certain hillside villages of Zaglavak, but were common throughout Timok in the 19th century and up until the turn of the 20th century. After the first World War, the aprons tend to be made from dark striped woven cloth, wool or cotton, with floral embroidery along the bottom hem. The interwoven stripes are sometimes executed with metallic thread. Occasionally, the aprons were augmented with embroidery dispersed along the woven stripes


Kecelja, Kicelja – after 1930, a new type of apron appears, sewn from industrially produced cloth such as white cotton, black satin or velvet. They were embroidered with floral designs, often arranged in circular or semicircular wreaths (venci). The embroidery was white on white cotton, but done in multicoloured cotton embroidery floss on the dark fabrics. This change came as contact with Serbs living in north-central regions increased through trade, seasonal work, and internal migration.


Jelek, eleče –  the upper garment worn throughout warm weather seasons. The oldest jeleci (pl.) for daily wear were made by the women who wore them, rather than by craftsmen. This meant they were made of a variety of materials, often the same material as the vuta it was to be worn with. This was a sleeveless vest with a deep neckline, with two front panels. In the oldest variants these panels came to a point centrally, but later forms had panels that were even, horizontally. They were decorated along all edges with black or red braid (gajtan), sometimes with metallic wire (srma). Festive vests were made by craftsmen, using black woollen čoja  cloth, srma, and sequins (locally called laskavice). Later, these were made with industrial satin, often in pastel colours for young women and girls.


Zubun, ćurdija, ćurde, dreja – the classic Central Balkan and Slavic long vest made of un-dyed sukno, with red čoja applique trim, and elaborate embroidered designs which the women executed skillfully and with great patience. The rosettes and swirls were repeated to varying degrees, virtually covering the entire surface of the zubun. These were magnificent stylized flora and fauna – sometimes stylized roosters and eagles, sometimes stylized peonies and roses, with wing-like layers of petals and sepals flanking and surrounding them, their floral discs making secret unblinking eyes to protect the wearer from the evil eye. The zubuni (pl) of Timok and Zaglavak stand above many others in the startling modernity of their designs.


Curda Muzej Knjazevac
Ćurde, a type of zubun vest from Knjaževac. Woollen cloth, applique, and embroidery. From the collection of the Knjaževac Regional Museum.
zubun knjazevac
Photo of women circa 1914 in the oldest variant of Knjaževac costume, with a very similar patterened zubun in the collection of the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade. The latter was acquired by one of the museum’s founders, Sima Trojanović, in 1902.



Zubun KNJ 2
Zubun from vicinity of Knjaževac, possibly village of Bučje, late 19th century. Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade.


Gunjić, Anterija – a long sleeved jacket, made of dark sukno (gunjić) or of quilted, colourful cotton or hemp fabric (anterija). Both had a shallow heart-shaped opening just below the neck, and both flared slightly as they reached to the hips. For warmth, the anterija was padded with cotton, hemp fibre or wool, while the gunjić was not; it relied on the thickness of the material itself to be a warm garment.


Grudnjak, grudnjača – a later variant of the jelek, but longer, reaching to just below the waist where is flares and widens slightly. It was most often made of čoja and decorated with gajtan. This was a year-round garment of adult women. A leather variant of the garment was called kožuh.


Ćurče, Libade – a variant of the Levantine garment worn in urban dress, with long broad sleeves, made of velvet or satin, with discreet and delicate srma embroidery. This was generally a garment worn by women in wealthier families.


Rekla –  the cheap Austro-Hungarian blouse that made its way into Serbian clothing after WWI.


Čarape –  socks were knit from dark wool interspersed with multicoloured floral embroidery. They were knee high and held in place by a braided cord, the podvezanka.


Opanci – the same vrncan rawhide footwear as worn by men, with long straps. After WWI, građeni opanci, made from tanned leather by craftsmen, came into use, at first for festive occasions but later for everyday wear also.


Cipele, pondžuke –  tanned leather shoes that were tied with laces, and made by town craftsmen.


The costume pieces I have acquired are generally from the early to mid- 20th century, from a variety of villlages primarily in the Timok region villages near Knjaževac.


Knjazevac Vasilj
Costume of a young married woman from the village of Vasilj.
Knjazevac Bucje
Costume from Bučje, with ‘vuta na kaner’ style of skirt.
Knjazevac Krenta
Costume typical of the village of Krenta.
Knjazevac Oresac
Later style costume, village of Orešac


Some details from Knjaževac district costumes (click to enlarge).



For Further Reading:

Bjeladinović-Jergić, Jasna (1999) Narodna nošnja u Timoku i Zaglavku. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu 61: 351 – 420


Kanitz, Felix. Milorad Đurić, editor. (1991) Srbija: Zemlja i stanovništvo, vol. 2. Srpska Kniževna Zadruga, Beograd.


Menković, Mirjana (2009) Zubun: Kolekcija Etnografskog muzeja u Beogradu iz XIX i prve polovine XX veka.  Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.


Pantelić, Nikola (1988) Narodna Umetnost Jugoslavije. Jugoslovenska Revija, Beograd.


Stanojević, Marinko. (1940) Timok. Srpski Etnografski Zbornik, Naselja i Poreklo Stanovništva, vol. 55, book 29, Belgrade.


Vladić-Krstić, Bratislava (1999) Tekstilna radinost u Knjaževcu i okolini u prošlosti i danas. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu 61: 255 – 350


Živković, Dušica. (1997) Pod Senkom Midžora: Knjaževac i okolina. (Katalog izožbe) Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.