Unia Europejska
Żywiec Highlanders

Żywiec Highlanders

A little southwestern stretch of the Małopolska Province, located within the Sucha County, encompasses a few towns belonging to the historic Żywiec district. Its villages are scattered around the Żywiec Valley, along the Soła river, as well as in the mountainous, densely forested area in the catchment area of the Upper Soła and Koszarawa rivers.

The Żywiec people were a diversified group. The northeastern part of the region, within the Little Beskids, used to be inhabited by the so-called Dolanie (also Doloki), descendants of the earliest settlers – farmers coming from Central Małpolska, the Vistula valley (Polish ‘dolina’). In this area, on the very border of the Highland district, located is: Targoszów, Krzeszów and Kuków in the current Sucha County. Further south: Stryszawa, Lachowice, Kurów and Hucisko – recognized as villages of the Żywiec Highlanders, who settled in the southern and south-eastern parts of the Żywiec district – situated within the Żywiec Beskids.

In the north, the Żywiec Dolanie bordered on Western Krakowiaks (more or less, along the line connecting the villages of Kaczyna and Roczyny); in the east, the Żywiec Highlanders bordered, across the Jałowiec Range, on the Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders; the southern border is the same as Poland’s border with Slovakia; in the west, the Żywiec Highlanders border on the Silesian Highlanders.


At the end of the 10th century, the Żywiec region was part of the early Piast Monarchy. As from 1138 it was located within the Cracow Seniorate Province, but in the 1170s – as a part of the Oświęcim Castellany – it came within the orbit of the influence of Silesia; one hundred years later it became part of the Cieszyn and Oświęcim Duchy. In the 13th and 14th centuries the biggest number of settlements, including Żywiec, were founded (under the Magdeburg law) in the region. In 1460 the Żywiec district came back under the control of the Polish monarch; later on, it was subject to changing fortunes, as a privately-owned land, divided into smaller states, or being returned to subsequent Polish kings. In the 16th century, the southern and south-eastern part of the region received another, major settlement wave, the so-called Wallachian colonization, which originated the distinctness of the Carpathian Highland culture, along with its specific herding-based economy. The Wallachian villages in the Sucha state of the Żywiec district included, inter alia, Stryszawa – a seat of the Wallachian voivode (wajda) – and Lachowice. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as a result of increasing feudal burdens, the peasants in the Żywiec villages were putting up ever greater opposition, which found its expression in, inter alia, burgeoning brigandage in the Carpathians. Until today many themes about famous brigands from the Żywiec Beskids have been preserved in the local Żywiec and Old Witches’ Mountain folklore. As of 1772, by way of occupation, the Żywiec district became part of the Austrian Empire. From 1810 on the Habsburg family began buying the Żywiec demesne, which remained their property until the Second World War.

Until the First World War, the Żywiec architecture was predominantly wooden. The homesteads in the highland villages were in most cases composed of several buildings, often of an irregular layout, which was dependent on the lie of the land. The residential building typically comprised a centrally-located entrance hall, a room and a stable situated at either side. Instead of a stable, wealthy farmstead owners had larders on the other side of the entrance hall, and a stable together with a threshing floor were housed in a separate building. Affluent homesteads sometimes had broad buildings with larders in a second section, but there were also single-building homesteads composed of one room, an entrance hall, a stable and a threshing floor. Framework construction walls were whitewashed all over or only in the residential part. Rafter roofs mostly had hips (in Dolanie settlements), or gables with gable eaves or gablets (in highland settlements), and were covered with shingles and boards (vertical gables).


In the north of the region, especially in the part inhabited by Dolanie, but also in the low-lying highland villages agriculture was the basis of livelihood. Popular crops included oats, rye, barley, potatoes, cabbage, swede; large amounts of flax were sown, as it provided material for home-made thread and linen used to make own clothing. Agriculture was coupled with backyard husbandry of animals, mainly cattle, which provided necessary manure and draught force (e.g. oxen, cows). The Żywiec Highlanders found sheep herding to be of great significance, on account of both cheese-making and extraction of wool for homespun cloth and skin (e.g. sheepskin coats, jackets and caps). The Żywiec Beskids were a place of shepherd chalet-style of mountain herding, which was derived from the Wallachian tradition, with seasonal sheep grazing in mountain pastureland and forest clearings, under the supervision of a professional shepherd. Processing milk into klagany (rennet-curdled) cheese took place at the chalet. Forest exploitation (e.g. timber logging, transport, pre-processing) as well as woodworking crafts such as shingle-making, carpentry, cooperage, wheelwrighting were major branches of the economy in the Żywiec district. Coopers from Styszawa and Lachowice specialized in manufacturing objects much needed for work at the chalet, such as a gielet (a container with a bow-shaped handle, used for milking sheep) and a faska (a firkin for storing bryndza cheese spread); watering cans, buckets and pails were manufactured in Krzeszów. However, the Żywiec villages in the Sucha county were the most famous for toy making, which had been developing here since the mid-19th century. At first, viewed as a side job for cabinetmakers and coopers, it soon became the main means to earn a living for many families in all the Żywiec villages in the Sucha county (but also in the Żywiec county). Remarkably enough, beautiful toys were the pride of Stryszawa and Lachowice, for it was these villages that manufactured, inter alia, little horse-drawn carriages, little horses, klapok flapping birds on wheels, little merry-go-rounds and many species of birds – both single ones and groups perched on branches – widely popular as “Żywiec birds.” The toy-making place in the little, eastern stretch of the Żywiec district – referred to as the “Stryszawa toy-making centre” – is still in operation.

Festive costume

Men’s traditional dress worn by the Żywiec Highlanders includes a white, linen shirt with an obójka (a narrow standing collar) at the neck, decorated at the front with several tucks; the shepherd’s outfit comprised a short, Wallachian-style shirt with wide sleeves. White, cloth, highland-style trousers were called nogawice. They had quite narrow legs, unsewn at the bottom, side stripes trimmed with black cloth and one fly on the right-hand side, bordered around with black or red plaiting of woollen string. The trousers were supported by a long, narrow belt to be wrapped around twice, which was loosened at the hips. On top of it, wealthy farmstead owners would put a broad, senior shepherd-style belt (bacowski) made of double leather, with an inside pocket. For ornamentation, the leather was embossed and studded with brass buttons. On festive occasions, over the shirt a cloth waistcoat was worn – a bruclik in navy, red or sapphire, with stunning ornaments in contrasting colours: red to contrast navy, sapphire to contrast red. The decoration was that of a row of convex, metal, densely-sewn-on buttons with corresponding, horizontal holes trimmed with coloured cloth, as well as two rows of woollen, densely sewn-on pompoms – kućki. Pompoms were also used to decorate the pocket flaps and slits at the back of the bruclik. Also, black, long-sleeved bruclik waistcoats were worn; they were trimmed with red cloth and buttoned up with brass buttons arranged in one or two rows. A medium-length, loose-fitting gunia jacket of brown, homespun cloth was worn as an outer garment over a festive outfit. In the villages on the Soła river, it was moderately decorated with a coloured edging plaited of woollen string, and used to border the line around the neck and the front edges of the gunia. In the east of the region, ornamentation was more lavish, turning the slit into a kind of decorative collar. In winter, the Żywiec Highlanders used to wear moderately long, white sheepskin coats trimmed with black fur at the edges. They were decorated with appliqués of red saffian leather and woollen pompoms. The sheepskin coats were complemented with black, cupolaed fur caps – baranice, and in summer – black, felt hats with small, round domes and broad brims. The dome was wrapped around with red, plaited string, the ends of which – decorated with tassels called chwościki (kućki) – were dangling loosely from the brim at the back. Only unmarried men were allowed to wear kućki (they were cut off during the wedding ceremony). Kierpce were a popular kind of footwear in the region in question; they were worn over cloth socks – kopyce. The kierpce leather straps were laced up over the trouser legs. The poloki calf-length boots were only worn by rich farmers.


Women’s festive attire

The oldest outfits worn by the Żywiec highland women were made chiefly of white, homespun linen and navy-dyed imprints called siwizna (grey fabric). Women’s underwear comprised a tight, linen ciasnocha slip with narrow shoulder straps. A white, thin, long-sleeved blouse with richly gathered ruffs at the neck and cuffs was worn over it. Very wide (7-9 brytów – strips of fabric) skirts richly tucked and ankle-length used to be made of white linen or navy siwizna with white imprints, later on – of woollen tybet fabrics decorated with dainty flowers (worn by maidens), and darker, plain ones (worn by housewives). Underneath, a white, linen, starched podpaśnik with zęby (tooth-like flaps) at the bottom. The skirt was covered with a linen, muslin or batiste zapaska (an apron), decorated with handmade broderie anglaise or lace insets. Over the blouse, unmarried and married women used to wear bodices – kabotki made of cloth or (black, navy, dark red, green or blue) velvet with small kaletki (tooth-like flaps). They were also made of floral tybet fabrics. Plain bodices were embroidered with coloured thread in elaborate, flowery twigs (reportedly patterned on the glory box motifs). They were laced up with red ribbons tied into a bow at the waist. Instead of bodices, elderly women used to wear sleeved jakla jackets made to fit the figure with a number of gussets that at the bottom turned into a kind of ruffle. They were made of tybet wool fabrics or patterned siwizna. A jakla jacket was fastened with little decorative buttons, and the area along the fastening was trimmed with lace. The outer garment worn on holidays was a long, thin, linen or muslin rańtuch shawl with braid or lace trimmings. Already at the end of the 19th century, square, colourful shoulder shawls called łoktuski were more widespread; they were manufactured in Bielsko and Łódź. They were imprinted with floral or paisley (called oriental or tureckie – ‘Turkish’) patterns, bordered with braid. In winter, women used to wrap themselves up in thick, woollen hacki with a large check pattern. Married women used to cover their hair tied in a flat bun with white, shallow, linen or lace (crocheted) mob caps. These in turn they would cover with scarves, which for festive occasions were typically made of wool, flowery tybet or sateen, and tied under the chin. On very sepcial holidays some housewives (especially in the northern part of the region) would put on white czepinowe (mob cap-like) headscarves tied in a knot over the forehead – after the Cracow fashion. Also, on holidays, highland women in the Żywiec region used to wear kierpce, and more affluent women – black, leather, laced, mid-heel pobutki (boots). Genuine coral beads were considered the most valuable decoration of women’s costume, as well as a protective amulet; they were red or pink and laced with red ribbon.

As regards Dolanie men’s ancient outfit, apart from summer linen trousers, also undecorated, navy-blue, two-slitted trousers made of shop cloth were worn; a cloth waistcoat and a navy-blue bruclik waistcoat were similarly decorated (with woollen pompoms called kućki and metal buttons) just like the ones worn by the Żywiec Highlanders. As for Dolanie women’s outfit, factory-made fabrics began to be used earlier than in the highland district; festive jakla jackets, bodices and aprons were often decorated with floral embroidery after the Cracow fashion; on very important occasions, married women typically used to wear white mob-cap, broderie anglaise headscarves done up in “w koguta” (in a quiff-like fashion) after the Cracow fashion.

Maria Brylak-Załuska



Jerzy Czajkowski, Historyczne, osadnicze i etniczne warunki kształtowania się kultur po północnej stronie Karpat [Historical, Ethnic and Settlement Conditions for the Development of the Cultures on the Northern Side of the Carpathians], Zeszyty sądecko-spiskie [Sącz and Spiš Bulletins], vol. I, Nowy Sącz 2006; Dziedzictwo kulturowe Podbabiogórza. Tradycje i folklor [The Cultural Heritage of the Old Witches’ Mountain Region. Tradition and Folklore], a collective work, ed. Janusz Kociołek, Sucha 2012; Jan Gąsiorek, Stroje ludowe na Żywiecczyźnie [Folk Costume in the Żywiec Region], Milówka 2007; Elżbieta Piskorz-Branekova, Polskie stroje ludowe [Polish Folk Costumes], part 3, Warszawa 2007