Ellen Chester is always looking for interesting stories for her newsletter, With My Needle and Pen - if you don't subscribe to it, you should -- it's free for the asking! A few months ago I submitted an article about the I Sigh Not for Beauty sampler that I was working on. I thought I'd write something again and decided to share my story about the embroidery of Hövej. If you'd like to read the entire newsletter, you will find it here: With My Needle and Pen Volume 16, Issue 7
In writing the article, I discovered a new website dedicated to this beautiful white on white embroidery. It's a feast for the eyes and I encourage you to visit it:
Long story short, I started corresponding with the daughter of the woman who has done all of the beautiful embroidery featured on this website. We've exchanged quite a few emails and I've learned more things about this embroidery that at one time was a mystery to me! More on that in a future post, but today, I'd like to share with you the story I shared with Ellen for her newsletter.
The Embroidery of Hövej
My maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. Both came from tiny villages locates in what at the time was known as Austria-Hungary. After the monarchy collapsed in 1918, these villages became part of Austria.
Despite the long distance between them and the challenges with communicating during two world wars, the families kept in touch. After my grandparents passed away, the responsibility of maintaining contact with the relatives in Austria fell to their eldest daughter, my aunt; and after she passed away, that responsibility was passed on to my mother.
In 1977, my mother decided that it was time to take a trip to Europe to visit our relatives. A handful of the cousins from my grandfather’s side of the family had visited us in the U.S., but otherwise only written communication bound us together. We spent about 10 days visiting with cousins on both sides of the family; in fact, we even discovered that my mother still had a living uncle! I was in high school at the time and had no idea how profound an impact this trip would have on the rest of my life.
Now I realize you were anticipating an article about embroidery. However, please indulge me a bit further for it is through my search for ancestors that I discovered the beautiful embroidery of Hövej!
While in college, I returned to this place in Austria called Burgenland, the birthplace of my grandparents, and got to know our relatives there better. Life then got busy (job, marriage, children) and it was 15 years before I would return again. In 1997, when visiting with my grandmother’s side of the family, the cousins presented me with a gift – a beautiful white on white hand-embroidered tablecloth. It was stunning. I had no idea how significant this piece of embroidery was.
It was at about this time that I wanted to know more about my grandfather’s family. Some documents that I had obtained indicated that my great-grandfather and one of his brothers originally came from the village of Hövej, located across the border in Hungary. It became my mission to try to see what I could learn about the ancestors that once lived in Hövej.
My mother was actually the first to visit Hövej. She was visiting our cousins in 1998 and expressed interest in going there. The cousins (on her mother’s side) were more than happy to oblige. They told my mother that they could also visit the “lace ladies” in Hövej. One of our cousins had a connection to some ladies that made lace. The cousins bought lace for their homes and had special pieces embroidered for the altar at the church in their village. Visiting the lace ladies was a bit challenging; our cousins only spoke German and the lace ladies only spoke Hungarian. Arrangements were made for a translator who could assist with communications! During this first visit, my mother was invited into the home of one of these ladies to admire her work and the work of one of her sisters. Of course, it was possible to purchase whatever one wanted. The lace that these ladies made was the same lace that adorned the beautiful white hand-embroidered tablecloth that I had received a year earlier! When my mother returned a couple years later, she and her cousins once again visited the lace ladies.
As for me, another 15 years passed before I would be able to visit this part of the world again. Last summer my mother and I made another trip to Burgenland; it was important to me that we share this experience together at least one more time. This would also be my first opportunity to travel to Hövej and of course I wanted to visit the lace ladies!
The visit proved challenging. The woman that could speak both German and Hungarian had passed away a few months earlier. Fortunately, one of the lace ladies knew of a young girl, just 14 years old, who was in town visiting her grandmother. The young girl could speak German, Hungarian, and English and so she came and helped translate.
The embroidery was stunning; white on white, very similar to cutwork and yet very different. The fabric used was mostly cotton, but there were also some very fine pieces done on fabric like batiste or organza. The embroidered circles were filled with different patterns; the designs look like very fine knitting. The two ladies we visited with proudly displayed their pieces for sale – mostly doilies in a variety of sizes. Some were fairly simple, others were very detailed.
According to a Hungarian website, the Embroidery of Hövej became world-famous in 1962 at the Expo of Brussels. It describes the embroidery as being “full of holes” and made on “flimsy material.” The holes are then filled with different knitting patterns. This embroidery is used to adorn blouses, aprons, handkerchiefs, tablecloths, bed-covers, and altar-cloths.
I wanted to understand how the doilies were made and one of the women went inside her home and brought out a wood frame with her current work-in-progress. The cotton fabric was stretched tightly to the frame. The design had been drawn by hand with a pencil on the white fabric. The outer border of “holes” had been stitched in place; now she was working on the inner circles. I would imagine that the knitting stitches that fill the circles are worked last. I told the ladies (through my young translator) that I was going to come back next year so that they could show me how to do this. They laughed and said that I would have to learn Hungarian first. (They laughed because it is almost impossible to learn Hungarian!) I also wanted to know how this “art” was being preserved; they assured me that many in Hövej know how to do the embroidery and that it continues to be passed from one generation to the next.
My goal to visit the village of Hövej and see the place where my maternal grandfather’s ancestors came from was achieved. The added bonus was discovering its beautiful embroidery. Sometimes treasures are found in the most unexpected places! I hope you have enjoyed my story.