Bosnia’s intangible cultural heritage: Zmijanje embroidery

Ljiljana Krejic | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Preservation and transmission of nearly-forgotten skills and handmade crafts is probably the most challenging task when it comes to cultural heritage worldwide. No wonder that some invaluable craftworks are inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Besides having three historical objects inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Bosnia & Herzegovina also treasures three old craft skills. One of the three elements of Bosnia’s intangible cultural heritage is Zmijanje embroidery. This outstanding dark-blue needlework is considered the oldest hand embroidery in all the Balkan countries.

Where it all started

Picture © credits to Museum of the Republic of Srpska

Zmijanje embroidery comes from the villages of Zmijanje, a region of Mt. Manjača, situated around 40 km on south from the city of Banja Luka. Geographically speaking, the territory of Zmijanje used to encompass the area between two rivers – Vrbas & Sana, and three mountains – Mt. Kozara, Mt. Dimitor and Mt. Lisina. This region was inhabited as from the prehistorical times, followed by the Roman, medieval and Ottoman periods. Their embroidery dates back at least to the mid-1800s, and since then, it has been kept from oblivion by passing it on from one generation to the next. Besides the handicrafts, embroidery includes other elements of cultural heritage such as music and oral traditions.

A filigree embroidery

Picture © credits to Women’s Humanitarian Association – Duga

What distinguishes Zmijanje embroidery from other needlework of Bosnia & Herzegovina is its color and unique technique. Unlike other embroidery patterns from the region that are done with the treads of different colors, Zmijanje embroidery uses only one – dark-blue thread on white background. It is made in cross-stitch, which creates an elegant geometric design, and it decorates female clothes (including wedding dresses) and some household items (bed linen, tablecloths). This filigree embroidery preserved its ornamental form over the centuries. Originally, it was made on linen and hemp tissues, which is today replaced by cotton clothes. The embroidered design even reflected the social status of women at that time.

Preserved from oblivion

The embroidery technique is transferred orally by a group of women engaged in needlework. This activity usually includes singing and chatting. However, protecting Zmijanje embroidery from oblivion is not an easy task. The embroidery work requires high concentration, a lot of patience and motivation. One of the masters of this traditional skill is Radenka Jungić, who devoted the last 20 years to this aim. Being awarded some prestigious prizes at EUREKA exhibition in Brussels (2011), her works are already spread in many countries (including a unique gift “Blue embroidery from Zmijanje” made for Pope Francis). Another guardian of Zmijanje embroidery is an organization called “Women’s Humanitarian Association – Duga” from Banja Luka that preserves this skill from oblivion and passes it to the new generations in the form of workshops.

An authentic souvenir

Picture © credits to Women’s Humanitarian Association – Duga

As a result of this elegant needlework, many handmade products are created – from napkins, clothes to jewelry and accessories. If you are in Banja Luka and searching for an authentic souvenir, there is no better choice than opting for a piece of Zmijanje embroidery. Some of those handicrafts that reflect Bosnia’s intangible cultural heritage can be seen in the ethno village Ljubačke doline, near Banja Luka or in the Museum of Republika Srpska, where you can also buy some souvenirs.

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