THERE ONCE WAS A WOMAN from the mountain village of Breznitsa who was kidnapped by an Arabian prince. In the desert, she lay down her black feredjé cape, stepped on it, and recited a spell. This is how she landed back in her Balkan village wrapped in her flying feredjé.
I can believe it. There is something bold about Breznitsa (the Birches), with its glinting minaret,
bell-towered church, and women who wear the most beautiful—and meaningful—clothes in Europe.
How these clothes have been wrenched from extinction—political terror of the Soviet variety, industrialization, emigration—is miraculous. At dusk, women in flower-printed shalvars (baggy trousers), bright headscarves, and embroidered socks walk home at the end of their shift. The Mesta Valley is a major tailoring hub in Europe. Six days a week, women of all ages sit at sewing machines and stitch together designer-labeled clothes for a wage much lower than the price of a Hugo Boss jacket. They make faceless clothes while wearing ancient patterns—flowers, crosses, mandalas, birds and animals, even coins—stitched like spells into the fabric.
Remains of medieval fortresses and Communist-era bunkers hide in the hills encircling Breznitsa. Here, in the 1970s and ’80s, soldiers trained their guns on the village during a campaign of state terror that forced Muslims to change their names, decapitated mosques, and burned hand-stitched silk shalvars and caftans. The Soviets sought to homogenize people, words, clothes, and the mountain itself, whose native forest was cut down and replaced with tobacco and cheap pine. But the women kept embroidering and spinning on their looms even as they donned the dull worker’s mantle.
Occult magic and herbal healing have been practiced here for thousands of years. To this day, the women of Breznitsa hold a mysterious woven cloth called “the silent weave”—woven only at a crossroad on a new moon, in silence. They must finish before dawn. In a village of magicians, seers, folk healers, and poet-prophets without formal education, she who holds the silent weave reigns supreme in the invisible realm. I met the one rumored to hold it: an old woman with hand-knitted socks embroidered with red butterflies and a white headscarf with hand-painted roses. Her husband had spent years in a concentration camp for resisting state terror; their daughter grew up without a father. The old woman broke an egg into a jar and recited:
Bismillah Rahmani Rahim.
A little from me, more from Allah.
Here’s for fright,
for deeds done to you,
for all the bad.
Let it go like lightest feather
like purest silver
let it go
to cold waters
to thick shadows
to green grasses
let it go.