Bulgarian women's chemises

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These are two main types of chemise worn with Bulgarian folk costume, the straight chemise (riza or koshulya) and gathered chemise (burchanka). Chemises were made from homespun hempen or linen cloth until the mid 19th century when cotton fabric became available in some areas, and silk was occasionally used for chemises for festive wear.

Straight cut chemises - riza or koshulya

Straight cut chemises are found throughout Bulgaria. These are made form a single piece of fabric with a hole cut for the head and a slit down the front. Extra gussets can be added at the sides to give extra width. The sleeves are joined to the main part of the chemise at the shoulders, and are usually left open at the wrists. Straight chemises can be decorated with embroidery around the neck, on the front and along the sleeves.

Straight chemises are worn with the double apron costume in the north east of Bulgaria, east of the Yantra River, in the area around Popovo, Razgrad, and Provadia. These chemises have a narrow straight collar and wide sleeves open at wrists, and are decorated with embroidery in dark colours; black, brown and dark blue.

Chemises worn with the older single apron costume were straight cut, and are broadened laterally with rectangular or triangular gussets. These are usually made of white cotton fabric with coloured stripes.

Straight cut chemises worn with the soukman costume were made from hempen, linen, or cotton fabric, or a mixture of these. These can be plain or can be decorated on the front, sleeves and hem with embroidery, lace, rows of sequins or tinsel. The extent of decoration on these chemises depends on whether they act as an undergarment, with only the hem or sleeve ends showing, in which case they have little or no decoration, or they can be the central element of the costume, in which case they are richly decorated with embroidery, round the neck, front opening, and along the sleeves. Chemises from around Trun can have silk sleeves and were trimmed with lace and small red beads. In Ihtiman lace replaced embroidery on sleeves and neck of riza towards the end of the 19th century.

Chemises worn with saya costumes were originally made from homespun hempen or linen fabric. From 2nd half of 19th century hemp was gradually replaced by mixed fabrics; linen and hemp or cotton with linen or hemp, or cotton especially in the extreme south, with the fabric sometimes being woven with coloured stripes in white or white with light yellow and brown. Sometimes different parts of the chemise were made in different materials, with finer materials being used for parts that would be visible. Fine wool was occasionally used and silk chemises were worn by young women at weddings and festivals.

Chemises worn with saya costumes often had little or no embroidery on them, with possibly a single row on the lower ends of the sleeves and hem, with plant motifs predominating in the west and geometric motifs in the north.  From the early 20th century a row of hand made white or light blue lace was often sewn onto the lower hem in Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, or Haskovo regions.

Gathered neck chemises - burchanka

Burchanka (gathered neck) chemises, made of hempen or linen fabric, or from the second half of the 19th century of cotton or silk were worn in the north west and central north Bulgaria. These chemises were made with two yokes, one front and one back, which were gathered in at the neck and held in place by a narrow band of fabric. The sleeves are also joined into the neck band, with gathers and are usually gathered in at the wrists.

There are three types of Burchanka chemise:

  1. In the north west, in villages along the Danube, gussets are added across the shoulders in the shape of an isosceles triangle. The front opening can be at side front or in the centre. Chemises with side opening were worn by young women on festive occasions.
  2. The chemises worn the central north of Bulgaria, in the Iskar gorge, and valley of river Vit, are called oplechka. This style has a side opening and 2 gussets on the front which are richly embroidered.
  3. The third variant of the burchanka chemise, called altitsa, was found along banks of the Danube in north east Bulgaria. (Note the term altitsa is used in Romania to refer to a line of embroidered decoration on gathered neck chemises).

Burchanka chemises were decorated with a wide band of smocking on the gathered front and back yokes, and a row of embroidery in stylised geometric motifs  round the neck, hem, along the length of the sleeves. This embroidery was originally done in hempen homespun thread dyed with vegetable dyes. Cotton thread was used later. The colour of the embroidery was predominantly red in the north west worked in tiny delicate motifs, becoming darker from west to east, and with larger motifs. In villages around Svistov, the embroidery was dark coloured with large plant and geometric designs, or less often animal motifs around front opening called patki. Burchanka chemises made in the 20th century of thinner materials have a wide band of crochet lace attached along the hem.


© Eliznik2008, Last updated Jan-08