The first pieces of the “furry pillowcases” of Vásárhely were collected in 1904 by Lajos Kiss, later a prominent ethnographer of the town, for the ethnographic room of the industrial and agricultural exhibition held here. Later, similar pieces were found in the Makó area, and written sources from Szentes refer to its former use. They were also collected by prominent people such as János Tornyai, a painter in Hódmezővásárhely, and István Tömörkény, a writer and museum director, for the museum in Szeged. 55 cushion ends are known, some of them only from photographs. The János Tornyai Museum has 14 original pieces.
The data show that this type of embroidery was characteristic of a larger region. However, the name ‘Vásárhely embroidery’ is justified by the fact that it was first collected here, where most of the original furry pillow ends were found, presumably transported to the surrounding towns, and its restoration is also associated with Vásárhely.
The Vásárhely embroidery belongs to the oldest layer of our folk embroideries, including the Tiszántúli embroideries. Its use in the 18th century is confirmed by archival sources, and in the following century it was only occasionally produced.
Fur embroidery has survived on cushion ends, which were used to decorate the towered bridesmaid’s bed. The women embroidered it themselves and it was part of the girls’ chasubles. The raw material for the cushions was hemp canvas, and the embroidery was done using a fur yarn, the hair of the racka sheep, which was home-spun and dyed with dye plants (walnut shells, lamb’s wool, horsetail). The blue colour was also dyed with a master blue dyer, and the rarer, solid-coloured pieces show the natural brown or black colour of the wool. The typical colours of coloured cushion ends are brown, purplish-toned red and blue. Four to five shades of each colour were used. The embroidery technique used for the cushion ends is a so-called false flat stitch, which covers the motif on the fabric, while on the back, small interlocking stitches can be seen along the outlines of the design. The surface stitching is similar to that of old Hungarian embroidery: wedge-shaped, serrated, checkerboard or diagonal.
There is a Renaissance influence in the structure of the designs of the furry cushion ends. The nationally widespread structure is that of a wide central band of main motifs, with a narrow central band repeating a smaller motif. The bands are separated by simple lines or rows of geometric ornamentation. The motifs in the central band are arranged in three different compositional orders: in the banded design, floral motifs in alternating positions sit along a wave band; in the banded design, motifs are arranged in a central pattern; and in the central design, floral motifs are grouped around a main motif.
The designs are named after the motifs they contain, which are largely stylised elements taken from the flora. Thus, the cushion ends have patterns with pomegranate, round rose, semi-rose, tulip, lake rose, but also cup, cup, butterfly, peacock and temple cypress. Varga Mari’s mustard and Kristó mustard are named after their sewers. The originals of the thorn-rose, the rotary-rose and the peony-rose are not known, and only a few photos from the early 20th century preserve their memory. Only a few of the names can be considered as original, collected by Lajos Kiss (tulip, peony, peony, tiny sedge, wheel-crowned, fig, church mustard), the rest are the result of restoration work. The main motifs were probably drawn in walnut wood.
Old Hungarian embroideries, especially church embroideries, played a major role in the development of the Vásárhely embroidery. The embroideries seen in churches could have served as a model for the embroiderers. This is confirmed by the fact that the motif of a bread cloth in the Reformed Old Church of Hódmezővásárhely from the 1700s bears similarities to one of the motifs on a pillow end. The 17th-century altarpiece from Sáros County, presented by Károly Visky in the Ethnography of Hungarian Ethnography, is also a proof of this, and its later folk version is one of the garnet-apple cushion ends from Hódmezővásárhely. The shades of the yarn dyeing were also used in an attempt to reproduce the subtle nuances of gentry embroidery, replacing the silk yarn and floss with home-made wool yarn and hemp linen.
Turkish elements can also be found in the embroidery of Vásárhely through the medium of gentry embroidery. Researchers consider the serrated edges of the leaves, the three-tipped leaf tips and the two-colour embroidery of the leaves, which are divided in two along the longitudinal axis, to be such elements.
In the 1930s, the Vásárhely embroidered textiles were produced within the framework of the Cottage Industry Employment Centre, and these were sold not only in the capital, but also abroad, in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and even at the 1938 Paris World Exhibition.
After the war, in the 1950s, the embroidery of Vásárhely embroidery began a new career, in the framework of a national programme aimed at promoting folk art. On the initiative of the central government, the Cottage Industry Cooperative was established in 1952 in Hódmezővásárhely, and the following year its products included embroidery from Hódmezővásárhely, which soon became the main profile of the cooperative.
Mihályné Tolnai Eszter Sárosi, who joined the cooperative in 1953 and worked there until 1989, played a major role in the creation of high-quality works that met the needs of the time. From 1959 she headed the folk art department and from 1964 she worked as an independent designer. In 1967 she was awarded the title of Master of Folk Art. Over time, he trained many students who helped him in this work, such as Mrs Sándor Marton, who also holds the title of Master of Folk Art. Their products – tablecloths, runners, cushions, wall protectors, etc. – which are in keeping with modern home decor, have won prestigious prizes at numerous national exhibitions and competitions. The most beautiful works created in the cooperative can still be seen today in the House of Folk Art in Árpád Street.
With the development of the shop network of the Folk Art Company, the demand for embroidery in Vásárhely increased, which was also boosted by the growing number of orders from abroad. By the early 1980s, a wide network of suppliers had been established, not only in the city but also in small villages in the surrounding area. In 1981 the cooperative had 274 embroiderers working for it. This was the period when most of the embroidery in Vásárhely was sewn. From the early 1990s, demand fell and with it the number of workers. The cooperative ceased to exist in 1995, but the local municipality took over the activity and continued it under the name “Embroidery Workshop”. Today, the Hódfó Non-profit Ltd. produces items decorated with embroidery from the city of Hódmezővásárhely. They have been operating in this form for two years, employing mainly people with reduced working capacity. Sándorné Marton and Frigyesné Angyal, folk craftsmen, are responsible for the production of traditional embroidered tablecloths, cushion covers and embroidered textile boxes. Today, the work is carried out by 10 embroiderers, but they still participate regularly and with good results in the Little Jankó Bori Embroidery Contests, and for several years they have received the title of “Kraftves Remek” (Craftsman’s Excellence) for their products, and in 2000 the Hungarian Product Grand Prize. They participate in the cultural life of the town with exhibitions and shows.
To encourage the modern use of embroidery in Vásárhely, the city launched a competition in 2011 entitled “Contemporary embroidery in Hódmezővásárhely”. A number of young craftsmen have designed clothes and complementary collections using Vojvodina embroidery motifs, and their work has been presented and awarded prizes at an exhibition.