In the early years, a Polish country cottage could not boast of having a such a luxury as a window. This was something available to castles and palaces already in the 14th century in Poland but humble cottages had to wait until the 18th century, before glass and a window became the "eye" of the house to the street. The window was mostly located at the front of the house, on the gable end, facing the street and the earliest form of window decorations were the decorative exterior shutters on either side of the window. They were either carved in some interesting manner or painted. The next major form of decorating the windows in the peasant's cottage were clay pots blooming with flowers, predominantly, geraniums.
I haven't been able to locate a documented source of what one particular event led to the making of lacey, white tissue paper valances that became the norm for most humble Polish cottage windows. Perhaps it was the sight of true Venetian lace by a servant that gave such servant the inspiration to copy it on something cheap and available such as white tissue paper. Some Polish folk art historians indicate that the paper curtains were another form of wycinanki, the folk art of cutting on paper.
It is documented, however, by Polish folk historian Jan Dekowski, that tissue paper valances appeared in the village of Jasień, near Rawa Mazowiecki around 1910 and lasted right up until 1958. The rectangular valances were made from white tissue paper with the use of sheep shears to cut notches and circles to create a lacy effect. In this region the valance was made of two or three parts, depending on the available paper. Each part was made separately and then joined together using glue or thread. In other areas, such as Kurpie and Łowicz regions, the tissue paper was folded accordion style to fit the width of the window and then cut to achieve the desired effect. The curtains were hung on a string, a painted strip of thin wood or a rough rod whittled from a tree branch. There were also curtains just for the upper corners made from tissue paper folded into triangles. This look was something like two open fans in the top corners of the window.
In the Podlasie region, rectangular paper cutout curtains also became popular after the first World War. They decorated not only windows, but also shelves on sideboards and the frames of holy paintings.(see March 2019 blog))
In addition to sheep shears, knives were used to make them. Skillful hands could cut them into complex plant-geometric or animal shapes. Another technique was to use a chisel with different blade shapes.
Paper curtains were eventually replaced by curtains made of thread. The first curtains made of thread were made from flax, spun into a linen thread. These resembled something close to fishing nets. The even-spaced woven net was then stretched onto a frame of some kind and a design such as roses or branches with leaves were filled in using a single needle. You can see this interesting technique here
These types of curtains made of thread became widespread in the Polish countryside in the 1930s and were popular primarily in Greater Poland, Mazowsze and Silesia, where to this day stories still circulate about the time-consuming starching and stretching of curtains made of linen thread. A special frame with dozens of nails nailed to wooden slats served for their stretching. Thanks to this treatment, the fabric, which would shrink and change shape during washing, was returned to its original form. ( I so remember my mother using these curtain stretchers when I was growing up here in the United States. Each spring, in preparation for Easter, my mother would take down the heavy winter drapes and replace them with white lace, cotton curtains, heavily starched and stretched out on the stretchers. They took up the whole front room). These type of thread curtains disappeared when nylon was discovered and began to be used to make curtains which became readily available in local shops.
Everything changes but we can still admire the lengths our ancestors (and our mothers and grandmothers) went to beautify their homes with the means available at the time.
When I travel through Poland, especially the small towns and villages, I don't see paper curtains in the windows except for the cottages in the skansens, the restored villages that depict life in previous centuries. What I do notice is that house after house, today's Polish housewives still prefer to hang white, lacey curtains in their windows.
Photos by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Dekowski, Jan. Wnętrze Chaty Jasieńskie.j Pracy i Materialy Muzeum Archeologicznego i Etnograficznego #2 1958
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.