HANDWERK: a Knowledge Transfer of Traditional Zeeuwse Crafts

By Anne van Tatenhove

On rare occasions you can still spot them around the city: people wearing the traditional Zeeuwse costumes. Women wearing long skirts, white caps and striking jewelry, and men more sober costumes. Now that these occurrences are happening less and less, the traditional costumes and products are under threat of real extinction, and with that the knowledge that goes into these traditional Zeeuwse crafts. To prevent this, the Zeeuws Museum is turning the tide, starting with its exhibition “HANDWERK” that opened the 22nd of November and will be a project lasting several years.

The exhibition HANDWERK, set in the Zeeuws Museum, currently shows the first focus of the HANDWERK project: the folding- and pleating techniques of traditional Zeeuwse wear. Upon entering the first room, the visitor is surrounded by clothing. On the sides, the original clothing is presented, featuring both men- and women’s clothing that was worn for different occasions and in different parts of Zeeland. But what is also immediately visible is the modern link of the project: right in front of the visitor, studies of the material, patterns, and techniques are laid out. These studies are an important means towards the project’s objective of transferring the knowledge of the traditional techniques: as mothers no longer pass on knowledge and skills to their daughters, the Zeeuws Museum brought Ms. Vos (91) from Middelburg, who still wears the traditional costumes and masters the skill of making them, and cap-maker Jankees Goud from Yerseke into contact with fashion designer Antoine Peters and students of the ‘Meesteropleiding Coupeur’ (tailor education). Later on in the HANDWERK project, Peters and the students will use these newly gained insights to look for a contemporary use of them.

But why, one might ask, is it so important that this knowledge should be saved? To answer that, a small introduction to the history of the techniques is needed. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, inhabitants of rural areas all over the Netherlands started to develop their regional costumes to express the strong bond with, and pride of, the places they live in. Especially in Zeeland this resulted in an abundance of ‘local’ costumes, as it used to have even more islands than is now the case, and thus knew a lot of local communities that all tried to distinguish themselves by these new means. These distinctions were made by the use of different materials, colors, patterns, and complicated folding- and pleating techniques. The rich diversity this results in can clearly be seen in the exhibition, where different types of clothing, jewelry, and caps are displayed. The information provided for by the museum not only states what the object is, but also the village or area the object comes from, and if relevant, even whether the wearer was catholic or protestant. These additional personal expressions (social status, religion, etc.) of the wearer created even more differences that had to be displayed in the clothing. This all results in very complicated, and very local, techniques that require acts like starching, ironing, plating, etc. This knowledge is thus developed on an extremely locally situated and historical basis, and it would be an immense shame if that was lost.

What is striking about the exhibition itself is that, contrary to what one might expect from the sober and down-to-earth Zeeuwen as we see them, their clothing reveals luxurious materials, skillful techniques, exuberant decorations, and very rich colors. Moreover, the exhibition shows not only clothing, but also shows a short ‘strip show’ video, and numerous paintings of people in traditional Zeeuwse costumes. All these different objects are displayed in the modern, renewing way in which we know the Zeeuws Museum to expose things. The information booklets and information signs read very well, and are available in both Dutch and English. Moreover, what makes this HANDWERK-project extra appealing is that it could, also for the visitors, become a real craft-project. The third room of the exhibition is dubbed the “HANDWERKPLAATS”, and is a place where visitors can follow workshops and lectures on traditional crafts.

In short, the HANDWERK-project is definitely worth a visit, and probably even more visits, as the project will last several years, and also touch upon other crafts. The Zeeuws Museum itself is beautifully located, and literally on crawling distance, as it is situated in the old Abbey. More importantly, being a student and a temporary practitioner of the traditional Zeeuwse craft of being zuunig [thrifty, economical]: on display of your RASA-card, entrance is free.

Anne van Tatenhove, Class of 2016, is an Economics and Sociology major from Berkel en Rodenrijs, The Netherlands.

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