“You’re no Matyó embroidery!” – as the proverb goes, which clearly carries the praise of Matyó folk art in the criticism of someone’s appearance.
Since the mid-1800s, the embroidery culture of the Matyó people has separated the ornately-decorated and richly-coloured costumes and folk art of the region from its surrounding regions in the northern part of the Great Hungarian Plain. In the subsequent period, Matyó folk art – with its rich colour scheme and motifs – was nevertheless misrepresented in the public eye for a long time as ancient Hungarian decoration.
István Györffi draws attention to this error in his book:
That which is ancient, has also been preserved elsewhere in Hungarian culture, and that which relates to colourful pomp, only evolved in the second half of the 19th century. In the village of Mezőkövesd and in the countryside, a significant number of costumes and linen works already featured free-hand embroidery, even before the new-style, colourful Matyó embroidery became popular. The oldest embroidered works of Mezőkövesd consisted of only one colour, usually red or red-blue on linen: pillowcases, towels and sheets. When the multicoloured threads emerged, woollen thread replaced cotton, and satin material replaced linen; their aprons now flaunt a whole bouquet of colours.
The Matyó folk costume uses simple linen embroidery, and each colour has its own meaning. While black is the colour of the earth, from which life and the harvest sprout, red is the colour of joy, yellow the colour of summer (that is, the colour of the sun), and blue is the colour of sorrow and of passing. After World War I, the colour green appeared and served as the colour of mourning. In remembrance of the soldiers that died in the war, aprons were embroidered around the edges with green embellishment.
Matyó embroidery uses two basic stitches: a straight- or outline stitch. In addition to these, unique stitch techniques have also developed, like the Matyó nyolcasöltés or ‘8-stitch’, which has become a characteristic stitch method in Mezőkövesd embroidery.
Initially sheet ends, shirt sleeves, pillow corners and apron bottoms were decorated. The best-known motifs are the matyórózsa or ‘Matyó rose’, the ‘heart rose’, the ‘oak rose’ the ‘cipe’ (shoes), the bird and the ‘cat tail’ (helix), but tulip leaves and buds also appear in the embroidery.
By the turn of the XIX-XX century, the women’s costume of Mezőkövesd belonged amongst the most well-known peasant clothing. The popular saying across the Great Hungarian Plain: “Let the stomach growl but the costume shine” best described the Matyó people. No matter how poor the Matyó were, their dresses for special occasions and their waist-length embroidered frock had to be “fancy in poverty or misery”. The best-known representative of Matyó “women writers” was Bori Kis Jankó (1876-1954), who earned a Master of Folk Art Award and received high state honours. Her legacy is preserved in the Mezőkövesd Memorial House. Kis Jankó’s grandfather was a master furrier who made extravagantly beautiful ladies’ fur. His daughter and granddaughter learned the furrier’s compositional order of Matyó embroidery and the harmony of colours in the same workshop.
Matyó embroidery is the most motif- and colour-rich in the country, whether we are considering female or male clothing. They began to leave costumes out of everyday life from the 1950s, and only thanks to the ethnographic collection efforts, did the memory of Matyó costume, embroidery and tradition stay alive.