Artefact of the Month

Handwritten Weaver’s Sampler of Mátyás Nagy

March, 2018


Mátyás Nagy, who learned the weaver’s craft in Szabadka (formerly Máriatrés), eventually settled in Szeged. The sampler that bears his name was compiled in 1798, when Nagy was still young, and includes patterns he picked up in the course of his wanderings as a journeyman.  The book’s title page features a decoratively framed poem, written by the author by way of introduction:  “This little book belongs to Mátyás Nagy / A journeyman weaver... .”

The initial pages feature a lineup of figural designs including pelican, star, and two-headed eagle motifs drawn on a square grid.  These are followed by a collection of geometric patterns used in the production of damask fabrics.  The second half of the book comprises Nagy’s hand-written notes regarding the important events of his life:  among other things, how he started his family, the names of his children, when each of them was born and christened, and their zodiac signs.  Progressive entries reveal that Nagy married in 1802 at the age of 25; that his wife, Ágynyis Szüts, was 18 at the time; that the pair had ten children, four boys and six girls; that  Nagy was furthermore elected to serve as a juror in Szeged in 1829; and that he died in 1858, at the age of 81.  After his death, his trade was picked up by his son, Mihály Nagy, who added his own entries to the family chronicle.  The textual portion of the book, which includes not only discussions of such topics as the hanging of thieves, but also the lyrics to secular songs and accounts of various events in the history of Szeged, witnesses to the level of education the master weaver had received.  The sampler even includes a pasted-in “master’s drawing” confirming Nagy’s completion of drawing school, a requirement introduced by the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

The sample books and sheets currently found in the holdings of the Museum of Ethnography are important written sources on the patterns used by the rural weavers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Notably, as a result of the wanderings of guild journeymen, the patterns found in samplers originating in various areas are all very similar.  This uniformity is attributable in part to the requirement that journeymen in crafts involving a certain skill in drawing, such as weaving, attend drawing school in order to achieve their master’s status.  In the time of the guilds, weavers were of two major orders:  embroiderer- (Hungarian) weavers and damask (German) weavers, the former producing plain woven cloths and embroidered plainweave fabrics, the latter damask tablecloths and finer – frequently linen – fabrics.

As a result of the spread of factory products, by the mid-19th century, the weaver’s trade, which had originally served an urban clientele, was sustained almost entirely by peasant customers.  The sampler written and used by Mátyás Nagy still preserves many old-style designs, including 17th and 18th-century figural patterns originating from earlier European printed works.  When, at the beginning of the 20th century, the dissolution of Hungary’s guilds prompted an upsurge in women’s home weaving, the resulting repertoire borrowed heavily from – and even enriched – that of the former guild weavers, adding both colour, and designs, with particular reference to intricate star, rose, carnation, acorn, tendril, and table-leg stripe patterns.

Museum of Ethnography
EA 1365