Unia Europejska
Spiš Highlanders

Spiš Highlanders

The area of the Polish Spiš includes fourteen villages located in Spiš Zamagurze (the foothills of Spiš Magura), enclosed in the north and west by the bend of the Białka and Dunajec rivers; following the year 1920, the villages fell within the Polish borders. The region constitutes a little, north-western area of a larger, multi-national and multi-cultural historical district – Spiš, which comprises (in the territory of today’s Slovakia) a catchment area of the upper Poprad, Hornád and Hnilec, with the towns of Levoča, Kežmarok and Poprad in the centre.

Spiš began to take shape in the Middle Ages (the 11th-12th c.) on the borderline of two young monarchies of the Christian Europe: Hungary and Poland. The settlement there (over several centuries) included Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans (Saxons), and in the 15th-17th centuries also Wallachians and Ruthenians as part of the so-called Wallachian-Ruthenian settlement. Spiš quickly became a highly-civilized region linking the areas to the north and south of the Carpathians. For more than seven centuries it belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, with the borders established at least in the 13th century. In the years 1412-1769, sixteen Spiš towns (including Ľubovňa and Podolínec) were by virtue of a royal pledge transferred to Władysław II Jagiełło, thereby constituting the Spiš Starosty subject to Polish administration. Right before the First Partition of Poland, it was occupied by Austria (under the pretext of a “sanitary cordon” against plague) and reunited with Hungary, which was then a part of the Habsburg monarchy. After the First World War, the newly-established states of Czechoslovakia and Poland were in dispute over the ownership of Spiš. In 1920, by the decision made at the Conference of Ambassadors summoned by the allied power, Poland was granted fourteen Spiš villages: Czarna Góra, Dursztyn, Falsztyn, Frydman, Jurgów, Kacwin, Krempachy, Łapszanka, Łapsze Wyżne and Łapsze Niżne, Niedzica, Nowa Biała, Rzepiska and Trybsz.

In the south, across the national border, Polish Spiš comes into contact with Slovakian Spiš; in the north, it is enclosed by the rivers of Białka and Dunajec. In the east, on its left bank located are the villages of Sromowce Wyżne and Sromowce Niżne, ethnographically referred to as the Pieniny Highlanders. Further up the Dunajec river, Spiš borders on villages of a transitional culture strongly influenced by the Podhale Highlanders – Czorsztyn, Kluszkowce and Maniowy; beginning with Dębno, Spiš borders on the Nowy Targ part of Podhale. In the west (with the village of Nowa Biała situated on the left bank of Białka), the Spiš inhabitants also border on the Podhale people.


The ethnic diversity of Spiš has shaped the culture characteristics of the Polish Spiš villages. Their spatial arrangement – with a dense and often linear settlement – differs from loose, chain-like settlements which predominate in the Polish highland areas. In some villages (e.g. Frydman, Krempachy) there are extant, characteristic, spindle-shaped village market areas, referred to as the Hungarian type of development. Apart from wooden buildings, there were also masonry residential buildings, which was required by old fire regulations implemented by the Hungarian administration. Wooden homesteads – composed predominantly of two or more buildings – comprised a residential cottage and a detached outbuilding, arranged – depending on the layout of the plot – either in a linear manner (one behind the other, e.g. the historic homestead of the Sołtys family in Jurgów), or at a right angle to each other. In affluent homesteads, buildings were arranged like a dense, U-shaped block, with the gable of the residential cottage facing the road (e.g. the homestead of the Korkosz family in Czarna Góra). In the past, also okoła (fully-encircled) arrangements were characteristic of Spiš – buildings arranged in a closed quadrangle.

Typically, cottage houses comprised an entrance hall, a stove kitchen (called izbecka – a ‘small chamber’) and a cold larder – arranged in enfilade. Sometimes, wealthier homesteads had a second residential room of a stately character (called wielka izba – the grand room). The farm building usually had a threshing floor, a sheep’s pen, a (cattle) stable, sometimes also a coach house, a woodshed (drewiarnia), etc. In the attic there was a sopa – hay storage, which could be accessed by a ladder from the threshing floor.

Framework construction cottage houses were built of spruce płazy (half-logs). On traditional cottages, steep rafter roofs were of a gable or gablet construction, and were shingled. Outbuildings were roofed with dranice (timber torn into planks along fibre). The so-called sypańce – small, detached granaries of an archaic construction – used to be characteristic of the Spiš architecture. Their framework walls were crowned with a barrel vault, which resembled a slega construction. Clay was used to fireproof the walls, and the gable roof could be easily thrown off the framework in case of fire. Sypańce were popular in Spiš on both sides of the Carpathians, but they were also constructed in the region of Sącz Lemkivshchyna.


The Spiš villages had no conditions favourable to plant growing. From among all kinds of cereals only oats yielded a good crop, because of a short vegetation period, heavy precipitation, frequent, strong winds and barren soil. Other crops included barley, potatoes, swede and cabbage. Flax was the highest-yielding crop. Great care was taken of hay meadows, which provided animals with winter feed. Because of the good natural conditions for sheep and cattle pasturing in the nearby Jaworzyna Tatras, as well as the age-old traditions of mountain pasturing in the Spiš villages founded by Wallachian settlers (Łapsze Wyżne, Trybsz, Jurgów – the 16th century; Czarna Góra, Rzepiska, Łapszanka – the 17th century) pasturing-based economy played a much greater role here than agriculture. In the feudal era, liegemen were generally allowed (under specified conditions) to graze sheep and cattle in “lordly” mountain pastures and clearings; following 1848 (enfranchisement of the peasantry) many village dwellers were granted the freehold of pastureland, which made pasturing thrive. In the mid-19th century, the Jurgów dwellers alone grazed around 6,000 sheep in the Jaworzyna mountain pastures under the shepherd-chalet system (whereby a grouping of shepherd chalets is organized in mountain pastureland). Many experienced sheep herders were into professional sheep tending. As from 1879, as a result of the change of the proprietor of the Jaworzyna demesne, the grazing conditions in the region sharply deteriorated. Peasants lost their former grazing grounds, the compensation being common pastureland located at lower altitudes (e.g. the Jurgów dwellers were given the Podkólne clearing, which today is a museum-like “sanctuary” of shepherd chalets from the Spiš region). The number of sheep put out to pasture kept falling, and the significance of herding substantially decreased all over the region.

The Spiš Highlanders would often hire themselves out for logging and timber transport jobs in the Jaworzyna forests. Woodworking crafts were popular in the region, e.g. shingle making, cooperage, carpentry, cabinetmaking and woodcarving. Other popular crafts included weaving of simple linen, as well as decorative rąbek (fine linen) and kanafas (linen-cotton mix) fabrics striped cloth used for making the Spiš attire. Jurgów, Czarna Góra and Rzepiska were the cloth-weaving centres. In Jurgów, there were also two fulling mills (which fulled woollen fabric into garment cloth) which provided their services for the whole surrounding area.

As a result of the difficulty in providing for their families on the basis of local work many men were reduced to seasonal migration “in search of bread,” e.g. to Upper Hungary to work haying and harvesting, as well as to further temporary or permanent emigration, e.g. in either America.


Apart from the similarity to ancient Carpathian outfits, the Spiš costume was also strongly influenced by the ethnic environments that moulded the culture of all Spiš, especially of the Hungarian, but also German (in nomenclature) and Slovakian origin. Besides, the Spiš costume itself deeply affected the neighbouring areas, particularly the Pieniny and Szczawnica Highland wear. Its authentic, truly “Spiš” character, in the northern (Polish) part of the region actually came to an end the moment the national border was delineated in the Carpathians after the First World War, when the access to the supply sources of cloth, decorative material and ready-made articles manufactured on the Hungarian side was cut off. The Polish Spiš outfit was characterised by rich diversity and a multitude of variations, of which the major ones were the Jurgów, Kacwin and Trybsz ones.

The Jurgów men’s outfit of the festive type included a linen shirt with embroidered trimmings and loose sleeves; white cloth trousers with tight-fitting legs and leg bottom parts covering the feet (originally, the trousers were only modestly decorated with string along the seams, and later on with embroidery around the slits (ślimocek and serduszko – a ‘little snail’ and a ‘little heart’); a sukmana short, brown-cloth jacket ornamented along the seams with red and yellow cloth, worn by wedding best men, and complemented with an opasek belt on top; sheepskin coats and waistcoats, originally white, and later brown, from Liptov; long belts (2 metres) loosened at the end; decorative, wide opasek belts fastened with several buckles; a black hat similar to the Podhale-style one, wrapped around with retiaski (little brass chains), and on festive occasions – with kostki (little seashells). Wedding best men used to decorate their hats with a piórko, that is with large, wide-stretching rye straw stalks ornamented with scraps of cloth and goose feathers. Kierpce or calf-length boots were worn as footwear.

In the Kacwin variety, men’s trousers were decorated with loopy borytasy trimmings made of string or tape; long, dark sukmana russet coats were decorated with embroidery and dainty appliqués of janglija (fine cloth); short, green lejbik waistcoats decorated with rows of brass buttons and red-yellow embroidery; black hats had high, turned-up brims. Men’s wear of the Trybsz variety was characterised by long sukmana russet coats decorated with chain stitch embroidery and cloth appliqués (rings).

Women’s festive outfit from Jurgów: white linen blouse, bezprzyramkowa (not made of square pieces of material), gathered, with long sleeves and a ruff, worked in black geometrical embroidery, or with puffed, elbow-length sleeves; a suknia janglijowa, that is a long red, fine-cloth skirt, richly gathered, at the bottom trimmed with gold braid (treska); a rąbek apron – a white skirt of thin linen, sometimes with a woven pattern; a thin, white, factory-made zapaska apron worked in Turk’s cap lilies, or a black one with lace edging; a red, a janglija żywotek (bodice) with a distinctive tooth-like flap at the front and at the back, also trimmed with gold treska; a short, velvet or tybet (fabric originally made of wool of Tibetan sheep or goats, hence the name) flowery, button-up tunic. A rańtuch (homespun cloth) shawl of rąbek or tablecloth-like (damask) cloth was flung over the shoulders. In winter, but also always at weddings, in the Jurgów area, white sheepskin coats flared from the waist down, decorated with red skin and cloth appliqués were worn. Married women used to cover their heads with bonnets in the form of a cap made of sateen, and later on of flowery tybet, with a characteristic tooth-like flap over the forehead. Rąbek headscarves, tied under the chin, were worn over the bonnet. Women used to wear kierpce, and on major holidays – the so-called szangrinowe (in the Hungarian style) calf-length boots with a concertinaed section around the ankle. The outfit used to be decorated with genuine coral beads, but because of the prohibitively high price around the mid-19th century they began to be superseded by cheaper glass beads, and later on by the so-called dętki (little baubles of blown glass), or imitation pearls. Girls used to complement beads with colourful ribbons (the so-called sznurki), which they also used to plait their hair.

Women living in the environs of Kacwin and Trybsz used to wear kanafaska skirts of linen-cotton fabric with a predominance of red-white and some navy stripes; white, damask skirts (the so-called kidle gradlowe); short tunics made of cloth, velvet or patterned tybet, siutaź (soutache) braided in twisting bands of mirwa or gadzik ornamental motifs. More often than not, they were black with white ornamentation, or green with red ornamentation; sometimes they were sewn together with the skirt.

Maria Brylak-Załuska



Anna Kozak, Zagroda Korkoszów w Czarnej Górze [The Korkosz Family Homestead in Czarna Góra], Zakopane 2001; Anna Kozak, Zagroda Sołtysów w Jurgowie [The Homestead of the Sołtys Family in Jurgów], Zakopane 2001; Spisz. Spiš. Zips. Szepes, a catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition of the „Pogranicze” Foundation in Sejny, a collective work, ed. Antoni Kroh, Kraków 1999; Edyta Starek, Strój spiski [The Spiš Costume], Atlas Polskich Strojów Ludowych, Poznań 1954