As a schoolchild, my first and much-hated needlework project was to handsew a dirndl skirt. I was on the tubby side (not much has changed) and the skirt was red with white spots. My mother probably thought it would look charming but I knew I would look like a fat ladybird so, like Penelope and her shroud, I put off finishing it and learned to sew very slowly. Dirndl skirts and I have not crossed paths again for over 50 years.
We have just been to Bavaria to attend a family event. Many guests wore traditional clothes which, for the women, meant a dirndl costume. Now I have seen what it ought to look like, I must admit that the full dirndl costume can look good on old and young – and even the tubby. It isn’t just a skirt. There is a bodice, a blouse, a full skirt and an apron. Contemporary and expensive dirndl costumes are superbly tailored and very expensive. They can be made from silks, cottons, linen, velvet or wool depending on the season, or the event at which they are worn.
A characteristic of the traditional dirndl is the printed cotton from which skirt and bodice are sometimes cut. The repeat patterns are small and delicate. At one time they would have been block-printed, and the blue and white fabrics would probably have been paste-resist-printed and indigo-dyed. This fabric is increasingly rare although there are still workshops in Hungary and Austria. Eastern Europe was a strong centre for these fabrics.
Last year the Devon Guild of Craftsmen held an exhibition called Tracing the Blueprint. The exhibition told the story of ‘Blauwdruk’ fabric from Eastern Europe which made its way to South Africa via trade, European settlers and Manchester printers. Blue and white 100% cotton fabric is now printed in South Africa, although not using a traditional process. It is known as shweshwe and the Three Cats trademark of Da Gama Textiles is famous. Shweshwe used to be transported by sea and was heavily starched to help it survive the long journey. Although this is no longer necessary, heavy starching is still used to denote its status as true shweshwe. I have a pack of shweshwe by me as I write and the smell is strong and ‘inky’, but not unpleasant.
Last year I visited the studio of Martina Gistl near Gmünd in Bavaria. Martina screenprints traditional patterns onto cotton and linen at her studio. She has a beautiful workspace and you can look down on the printing process as she passes the ink-loaded squeegee across the fabric, forcing the ink down onto the stretched fabric. After the fabric dries it is heat-fixed (but I don’t think it’s a steam process).
There is such fascination in the journeys these strongly related patterns and designs have made, their natural dye origins and their contemporary uses and interpretations.