He found himself attracted not only by fencing and falconry but also by the historical clothing itself. And so from day to day he became a shoemaker, a tailor, or a hatter. Matej told us about crafts from times long forgotten, about drumbľa and berets.
Where are you from? Would you say your origins impacted your craft?
I am from Bojnice which is a town known for its neogothic castle. From when I was very little my parents would take me to castles and chateaux in Slovakia and abroad nearly every weekend. That formed my interest in history. I remember buying history books aimed at high schoolers when I was in my seventh or eighth year at primary school. Later I would develop not only theoretical but also practical interest in history. At fourteen I picked up historical fencing, started performing at the falconry, and even did archery. I would say that growing up in that environment has formed what I am interested in and invested in now.
How did you take up historical costume making? Did it come to you in an impulse or was it something that formed within you more gradually?
It was a gradual process. It started with me putting together pieces of my fencing and archery gear, mostly smaller accessories like a leather bag or a leather belt, and arrows. I had never attempted putting together a complete historical costume until relatively recently. I was made redundant because of the pandemic which suddenly left me with a lot of free time on my hands. Wanting to use that time wisely I decided to finally start working on projects I had been postponing for a long time.
Many of the techniques you use for making costumes and leather accessories as well as for metal handling are very rare nowadays. It is also very difficult to access materials close to those used in the past. How do you find your way to them?
Many of the products I create are a culmination of several techniques I have learned gradually throughout the years. In turns, I had to assume the role of a shoemaker, a tailor, a hatmaker, and to work with metal, leather, wood, wax, fabric, and many other materials. I had to learn how to make a boot tree, saw stitches, or how to cast a buckle.
For example, when making a German renaissance shirt I worked with linen, embroidered it with silk thread, and also added some pearls. Coincidentally the old linen sheet and river pearls I used were all given to me by my grandmother, who has been supportive of all my projects. I worked on many of those at her house where I set up a workshop in the garage.
Tell us more about how you conduct research and learn about historical eras. Do you have a favourite one and if so, what makes it special to you?
Work on every piece in my workshop is preceded by a long period of searching for and then studying historical sources. In my research, I look at the vast amount of literature currently available on the topic or I look directly at digitalized historical sources online. I also follow social media groups dedicated to historical crafts where people get together and discuss – it is sometimes surprising even to me how many people are interested in this.
For a long time, I had been a fan of the second half of 15th-century fashion. Recently, however, I fell in love with the Landsknecht fashion with its slashed garments. You could say that Landsknechts were the 16th-century punks – they were mercenary foot soldiers from German-speaking regions, feared outcasts notorious for their bad behaviour. Their slashed tight doublets (jackets) and tallerberets (wide berets) adorned with ostrich feathers and kuhmauls (shoes with wide square toes named after cow mouth) were made using incredibly lively colour combinations and all kinds of fabrics. Their fashion posed a stark contrast to the austere reformation fashion of that era for which monochrome fabrics and disguising silhouettes were the norm.
The attention to detail and honesty with which you handle your material is very noticeable in your work. What are your priorities when it comes to your craft?
Authenticity and quality come first. When selecting materials, I pay attention to their characteristics – they have to be as natural as possible, without any artificial elements. Naturally, that is not always fully achievable, but I still try to get them to be the closest to authentic I can manage. That is why everything is handmade and why I use no contemporary technologies. Accessing that kind of fabric had been tricky even in the relatively recent past but now there are new manufacturers emerging who focus specifically on historical materials that can be used to create functional clothing or objects. Once again it is the internet that is a very helpful place where I can find these materials.
How do you view the importance of craft today?
Craft is indispensable and invaluable to our society. It teaches us about our predecessors and their way of life. I am a little disappointed because of how exclusively and closely-knit Slovak craft seems to be with folklore and the 19th century. There is little to no effort to reach further back in time and rediscover the many long-forgotten crafts and techniques history has to offer.