This part of Europe has long been known for its cloth production. In fact, up until the late 19th century, this was the place to buy textiles. In the 18th century, weavers were still considered craftsmen and were a part of a guild (a type of union that dates from the medieval period). The textile industry in Silesia tapered in the mid-1800s, during the Industrial Revolution. The invention of mechanical looms and sewing machines, and their growing commercial popularity, caused a decrease in the popularity of fabrics produced by master weavers. Conditions got to be so bad that in 1844 the weavers of Silesia (this part of Poland) staged a revolt, which was actually carefully watched by other weavers and trade guilds in the area. Remember, mechanization put a good number of other craftsmen out of business as well.
Despite the weavers literally putting up a fight, most of them still went out of business. Hand-made textiles continued to be a traditional product of the area, but was no longer the main money maker. There are still vestiges of that lifestyle, though, from fancy scarves to embroidered table cloths almost everywhere you go. Bielsko-Biała is no different, although they tout the production, not the product, aspect of the historical textile industry.
Bielsko-Biała (bee-el-skoh bee-ah-wah) is a small town in south western Poland, probably best known for being an entry point to the Beskid Mountains for skiing, hiking, and general outdoorsy activities – it’s an absolutely beautiful place for those, by the way. It’s about fifty minutes by bus from Żory, so I thought I’d do down and take a look. Everyone I talked to mentioned the shopping, the restaurants, or the medieval layout of the town. While these are all good things to look for in Bielsko-Biała, one of my favorite sites was the Weaver’s House.
The city museum in Bielsko-Biała is spread out over several locations. The main branch is in the old castle, which dates from the Piast dynasty. Since dukes no longer reside in Bielsko-Biała, it has been repurposed to house a museum of the city and the surrounding area. One of the satellite locations of the museum is called the Dom Tkacza (dohm t-kach-ah), or the Weaver’s House, and it’s clear on the other side of town from the castle.
The Weaver’s House sticks out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood it’s in. It’s a small, wooden building nestled in among large, cement, block-style buildings. The building itself dates from the 18th century, and it has been refurbished and furnished with era pieces. For obvious reasons, the main foci in the house are the weaving looms. There are two of them, one large, and one larger, which would have been operated by the master weaver and his helpers. Looking at them, you can see why weaving was considered a master craft. The small loom looks complicated enough to operate, but the large loom would be downright impossible for someone who didn’t know what they were doing. There are over 300 threads to loop, which means there are at least 300 ways to go wrong at Step 1. If one of those puppies is out of place, the whole piece of fabric will be ruined and a whole day’s worth of work lost.
Upstairs in the museum, the large room has been converted into a display of different types of fabric and clothing produced in this area of Poland in the time that the house functioned as a weaver’s house. Period wardrobes are filled with linens and intricately embroidered vests and skirts, and mannequins are dressed up in period apparel. There was an impressive number of babushkas, as well as brooches, bed linens, and wedding apparel on display up there.
There is very little information about the house, since records of who owned what are scattered and unclear until more recent times. Even so, the museum has done its best to reconstruct what an actual weaver’s house and guildhall would have looked like. The exhibit is quite good, and the curators are more than willing to walk around with you and explain what everything is – occasionally, using hand gestures to overcome the language barrier.