Romanians who inspire: Ioana Corduneanu, founder of Semne Cusute and passionate about the Romanian Blouse IE

Guest writer Yvette Larsson interviewed Ioana Corduneanu, the founder of Semne Cusute (translated as Stitched Icons), who wants to create an Encyclopedia of the Romanian Blouse, the IE, in a time when Romanians are in an identity crisis and are looking to their past to root themselves. Ioana talks about her project and about the traditional blouse the IE.
Who is Ioana Corduneanu?
Driven by passion, tempered by method, I have the ambition to create an Encyclopedia of the Romanian Blouse, called IE. Because I like it and I’m like a sewing-machine: precise and fast. Architect by trade, I worked in retail design and I created hundreds of shops. Those who can design hundreds of shops can also handle designing hundreds of blouse models, no matter how intricate. It takes no special talent, except discipline. So, who am I? I am the great-granddaughter of Maria from Bucovina. She was the wife of a mayor and very talented, especially in mixing colors. She designed IE models for all the women around. She taught my grandmother how to make them too. My grandmother was Eugenia and she passed away when I was only 9, but not before teaching me a lot.
I am also the great-granddaughter of Ana and of Alexandrina, from Gorj. They had a life of plenty, that many would envy (well, before the Communist nightmare). They taught my mother the art of embroidery: “You will never have to use a needle. Some other women will work for you. But you need to learn, because you must know the effort they make and understand how much you should pay”. It is their merit – educating me to value tradition and stand for it.
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IE in the family. Model from north Oltenia – Gorj.
Why did you start Semne Cusute ?
I did it because I needed something like that: I waited for somebody else to do it and then I realized that nobody is crazy enough – and if I want it, I have to do it myself. And I knew it would be needed, I saw it coming.
There are moments when people don’t have a clear vision of what the future might bring, the present is depressing and so they look back in the past, an idealized past, trying to find something reliable, solid and certain. Inspiration and ideas to recycle. Romanians had such crucial moments after 1856 and especially after 1918 – and now is the time that we do this again. I knew the young would try to find answers on Google and I couldn’t let “no results were found” happen to them.
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Ioana’s daughter Ana in 2007, wearing clothes from 1907.
There are meaningful and powerful icons everywhere – on wood, ceramic, metal, stone, even on skin (tattoos) and there are also woven signs – created and incorporated in the fabric / carpets. Far from being just ornament, they are a visual alphabet. Before writing, people communicated with drawings. Writing reproduces sounds, icons reproduce ideas: fears, hopes, wishes – messages that people used to communicate with other people and with gods. Many nations use the same signs, but in a different manner.
And why the icons on the IE, the Romanian blouse , you could ask? I could have chosen any other textile or object. As I said, we as a people have identity issues and the IE is talking just about that: identity! Nobody else from west or east can teach us to be what we are best: Romanians!
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Workshop in collaboration with Tara Fagarasului, April, 2013.
If somebody thinks the idea of making your own IE sounds stupid and useless, they should take a minute, remember Ghandi and how he rebuilt people’s dignity, especially involving women, encouraging people to produce their own clothes and wearing his ‘homespun’ with pride.
The IE is perfect for the mission, especially because of the way it carries the icons, in order to express identity, to the last detail, even more detailed than a passport. In various cultures, people used symbols hoping that somehow, they can trick the faith, fight fears and superstition, attract good luck or the generosity of gods. Think of the nomadic shepherds of Central Asia, Central Anatolia, North Africa: harsh life, lack of water, always on the move, trying to find pastures for their herds – living in tents, no walls to protect them from real or imagined dangers. The carpets they made could not fight any danger alone – the symbols were woven in to add powers, magic, and hope; or depicted wonderful green gardens they could never have in real life – but only in heaven. Others used the signs as talismans, for good luck; as it wasn’t really in their power to change their life for the better.
But a IE is so very different, despite being enriched with similar symbols. The IE tells who you are.
The main elements of an IE are described below.:
ALTITA – the intricate and dense pattern on the shoulder, must have a structure based on repetitive levels, identical – only the last one is a bit distanced. It is used to tell where you belong, what community, as precise as you could name the village.
INCRET – with functional role of elastic, is a stripe speaking of women’s powers and attributes: seduction, fertility, keeping balance and harmony in a couple. Sometimes it’s white on white, but can also be vary from pale yellows, gold, bronze, brownish.
RAURII – “rivers” is the part where a woman expresses her personality, her life. Usually natural motifs, flowing like rivers, like life, with ups and downs, but one direction only. The elements are often called “calea ocolita/ratacita” = the lost path. Lost – not as if you don’t know where you’re heading to; lost because you can’t return, can’t turn back time. As a concept, it reminds of the labyrinth motif.
The colors were used according to the age: vivid reds for young, married or not; getting to darker shades, when women were around 35, transforming into brown and black for mature. When feeling old, a woman knew it’s the moment to return to rather simple and white, getting prepared to welcome the peace, finally. There were rules about using these icons and it’s wasn’t considered as limiting creativity. Even the most talented writer has to respect the grammar rules. So, despite of these rules, women had plenty of room to express their personality: combining icons and mixing colors. The IE was as unique as a fingerprint. You couldn’t find two identical examples.
Tradition techniques, the icons and their meaning were transmitted from a generation to another smoothly, yet using an efficient method. Repetition is the mother of learning. Well, imagine that all women / girls of a family were working on the same item, like a team, when their schedule allowed. The young girl would have to continue what the mother had started, so she would learn the models. And girls had a lot to learn, considering that – in order to be prepared for marriage – they were supposed to be able to take care of all textiles needed to dress her future family and home. It was unthinkable to buy textiles and let somebody else ‘dress’ the people you love. When weaving the fabric, when tailoring, when preparing the natural colors, when stitching the symbols, women practiced rituals, convinced that their love, expressed in the clothes, matters.
Romanian soldiers fighting in the World War were wearing their shirt from home right under the uniform – and it wasn’t only in winter. It was to keep them safe: made by a mother, a sister or a wife, with all the love. Or – if they were to die, to be ready for the passing over. The icons will speak for you beyond death, as immortal as the soul. Some people still stick to this old custom, being buried with their traditional clothes, especially with the shirt they wore at their wedding.
The upper part of the IE, Altita (Alto = up, from Latin) was placed up, on the roof of the house, when somebody died. The soul, after leaving the body, was going up to find cozy refuge in this piece of fabric, while watching all relatives and friends coming to say goodbye. You see, according to the local tradition, a soul without a body feels naked and disoriented. It tries to go to the light; the mirrors might distract it, so they must be covered. Also, it might want to settle in a ceramic pot, because it’s made of earth. So all the pots must be broken to pieces. The soul must go up, to the light.
IE is a perfect example of design: zero material loss, infinite meaning. Normally, a IE was tailored without scissors, by tearing the fabric into pieces. I don’t think women ever knew that the size and proportions of these pieces fit into the ancient golden rules of geometry. No wonder, as they are result of collective work.
Re-drawing all the models I have gathered so far, in electronic format, will keep me busy for the next three years, I guess. And then I’ll move on to the woven signs. In the meantime I’m also working on my own IE, to prove it’s possible and worthy. I hope I’ll be able to convince other women to try to do the same.
And of course, there is also this special project for Basarabia- the Republic of Moldova. I have to recover 40 models of blouses, authentic and very old, some of them never seen before by the public – all from the Patrimony of Moldova, The Ethnographic museum in Chisinau. Like an archeologist, completing and recomposing a pot from broken pieces, I’ll do the same for the blouses. I’ll prove they can be brought back to life – the sleeping beauty is not dead! My intention is to present the first results at the end of May, in Chisinau, in the museum so dear to me.
There is beauty to be found in every country, if beauty is what you’re looking for.
By Yvette Larsson, Guest Writer
Yvette Larsson is Swedish, born 1972 in Gällivare, Lapland. She has a Masters of Arts / Upper Secondary School Teachers’ degree from the University of Umeå, Sweden. There she studied English, Swedish, Education, Media & Communication and Science Journalism. She has 13 years of experience as an ex-pat: she lived and worked in The Reunion Island, Norway, France,UK, and Denmark. Yvette has worked with Sports Management for ten years and is a Coach and Leadership Trainer, passionate about facilitating individuals and organizations to find and express their values & visions, talents and impact in the world. Yvette runs the blog and a Facebook -page called The Bucharest Lounge, where she rebrands Romania with beauty and meaning and where she models a new generation of leadership in Romania, all seen through her Swedish lens.

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