Bulgarian embroidery and its influence on modern design

In my role as a web developer and front-end designer, the languages that I use such as HTML and CSS, transform written code into websites. These hidden tags, their groupings and the order in which they are placed create their own individual patterns and meanings which together produce a visual structure. Just like Bulgarian embroidery, these graphical elements can be carefully studied to uncover their hidden meanings.

Handmade vintage Bulgarian embroidered shirt from Made In Bulgaria

Handmade vintage Bulgarian embroidered shirt from Made In Bulgaria

Bulgarian embroidery is part of the traditional Bulgarian folk costume, and it harbours symbols and meanings that were established far back in time. Traditionally the embroidered patterns are combinations of geometric shapes, which form together to create stylised images. As a child at home in Bulgaria, I remember being impressed by my mother’s traditional costume, which had been inherited from her great grandmother. In awe, I analysed the patterns and tried to redraw them on a sheet of paper, colouring them with markers. As I got older, my mother taught me how to embroider these elements onto fabric whilst she told me about the meanings behind the symbols.

Though you may not have heard of Bulgarian embroidery, it is likely that you would recognise it, as modern design pulls inspiration from both the design and technique.

The patterns of Bulgarian embroidery can be traced back at least 3500 years, to the Bronze Age of Thrace. Though their origins remain obscure, due to an absence of written records, it’s clear the Thracians left a lasting mark on the development of European culture and beliefs, having influenced both the Greek and Roman cultures. It is also thought that the Thracians were responsible for creating the oldest golden treasure in the world, dating back to over 6,000BC, which was discovered near the city of Varna, Bulgaria.

Bulgarian embroidery is not just used for beautiful decoration. It also serves as a narrative, a symbol of status and provides coded information. The position of triangles and other basic shapes, and how they slot together, can tell different messages and represent ideals such as nation, family and kinship. Some of the oldest motifs come from the skulls of Bulgaria.

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The colours that are used also carry their own symbolism, and heavily influence the meanings behind the designs. Associated with the Tree of Life, the colour green represents eternal life and resurrection. Red, is the symbol of maternal blood and life expectancy, and is often found used alongside green. White, as in many cultures, symbolises purity and innocence, but also joy, grandeur and beauty. Today, contemporary designers adopt on-trend colours to recreate these folkloric elements in modern design.

There are a variety of symbols, but one of the most important is the rhomb, which represents the feminine being. Different combinations of rhomb produce different shapes and messages, and each position has an individual meaning. Traditionally, the shapes and colours of a woman's clothing will be used to communicate her social status, for example, whether she is married or where her family came from.

Handmade embroidered earrings based on traditional Bulgarian motifs from Kitna

Handmade embroidered earrings based on traditional Bulgarian motifs from Kitna

Contemporary designers often draw their inspiration from an array of sources, both modern and ancient, to express their ideas in new and unique ways. Bulgarian embroidery has provided inspiration to many designers over the years, from fashion design to jewellery, graphics and interiors. The Italian fashion house Valentino used elements of traditional embroideries in classic wine reds for the houses’ 2015 Spring/Summer couture collection.

Bulgarian embroidery is a modern enigma, which houses deep-seated embedded technology and ancient unbreakable codes.