by Suzanne Labry
Hungarian Kékfestö Cotton
Heritage by Maria Kovalik, part of the “Hungarian Blue-Dyed Quilts” special exhibit at the 2012 International Quilt Festival in Houston.Back in 2012, some of the most beautiful works at the International Quilt Festival in Houston (to my eye) were those in the “Hungarian Blue-Dyed Quilts” special exhibit. I’ve always had a special fondness for blue-and-white quilts, and the ones in that exhibition were notable not only for their fine workmanship, but also for the vividness of the indigo print fabrics used in their construction.
They’ve stayed in my memory all these years, and I was reminded of them this summer when I had the opportunity to visit Hungary. In the Great Market Hall in Budapest, I saw a woman wearing a dress made from a similar blue fabric as those in the quilts. From her stall at the Market, she was selling items featuring the remarkable embroidery for which the Hungarians are widely known. Turns out, Hungarians are also known for that remarkable blue fabric!
Bedcover for My Daughter by Ferencne Somogyi, part of the “Hungarian Blue-Dyed Quilts” special exhibit at the 2012 International Quilt Festival in Houston.It is called kékfestö, after the process kékfestés, which roughly translates in English as blue painting or blue dyeing. Kékfestés employs indigo dyes on white cotton fabric using a batik-like, wax resist-dye, block-printing process to create intricate white motifs on a deep blue ground. Hungarians have been producing this fabric for centuries, although it was German immigrants (who settled in the southwestern parts of the country in the early 18th century when the Habsburgs defeated the Ottomans) who originally brought the process to Hungary.
For many years, kékfestö cotton was so widely available that it was considered common, but today the labor-intensive process is a cottage industry folk art practiced only by a handful of families. The website for one such family can be seen here.
Much of the fine-quality, raw cotton cloth used in making kékfestö comes from Turkey. Then comes the arduous, highly skilled process of printing, only the briefest description of which is listed here. The cloth is rinsed in a solvent to remove impurities, dried, ironed, and rolled on rods that will feed it onto a printing machine. Wooden print blocks fitted with wire pins that create the traditional, folk art motifs are covered with wax resist are then pressed against the fabric.
After being imprinted with the wax resist, the fabric is dried on a drying rack. Once dry, it is then dyed by being dipped in vats of indigo (the longer it stays in the dye the darker it gets), washed to remove the wax resist, and rinsed to remove any excess dye. After it has dried, it is starched, dried again and then pressed. A wonderful video shows the traditional steps involved in making this beautiful fabric.
Hommage for Dear Jean by Panni Szabo, part of the “Hungarian Blue-Dyed Quilts” special exhibit at the 2012 International Quilt Festival in Houston.Although the production of kékfestö cotton is no longer widely practiced, the fabric and the traditions surrounding it are highly valued in Hungary, and some of the “blue painters” have been honored with national recognition. The Kékfestö Museum, which is dedicated to the tradition, is located in the city of Pápa, and an annual Kékfestö Festival takes place in Nagynyárád every year on the last weekend of July.
The Hungarian Patchwork Guild has been a primary force in making kékfestö more widely known outside of Hungary, and that was one of the reasons the Hungarian Blue-Dyed Quilts exhibition was organized and promoted in other countries. Anna Dolányi, who co-founded that guild in order to introduce quilting to Hungarians, also organized the Blue-Dyed Quilts exhibition.
The colorfast, fade-resistant kékfestö cloth is perfect for quilts and its rich blues and delightful patterns make for a fabricaholic’s delight. If you ever have a chance to visit Hungary, be sure to put some kékfestö cotton on your souvenir list.
Detail from Panni Szabo’s Hommage for Dear Jean.