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Sieve making craft


Sieve making trade in Biłgoraj developed in the 17th century. The date, however, as well as the place it originated from is still questionable. According to a legend, local tradesmen mastered the art from the Gypsies, though the most probable hypothesis states sieve makers came to Biłgoraj from Masovia while travelling in search for valuable material and comfortable living and working conditions. Before long sieve making was the leading and most developed trade in Biłgoraj, providing living for majority of its inhabitants. Sieves were mainly made of hair from horse tails and manes. Less popular were those with wire mesh and wood.

A privilege bestowed in 1720 by the town’s owner Konstancja Maria Szczuczyna from Potok is the earliest legal document with reference to the craft. It was bestowed on a guild replacing one that had burnt down. The document gives evidence to the fact that a sieve makers’ guild must have operated in Biłgoraj before that time. Natural conditions of the land enabled the refinement of the business. Poor quality soil was not sufficient for agricultural purposes, therefore, there was an excess of labour. Moreover, vast forests provided plenty of raw material. Due to intensively developed flour-milling, sieves were in constant demand. Initially, being able to carry as many as eighty sieves at a time, craftsmen carried their products on their backs trading on local markets and fairs. Wealthier tradesmen who could afford a cart and a horse were able to load up to five or seven hundred articles and reach further towns and villages.

Sieves hand-made in Biłgoraj gained popularity in nearly all of Europe and Asia. In the 18th century, they reached as far as present-day Romania, Hungary, Austria and Turkey. In the 19th century, when Biłgoraj was located in Russian sector of partitioned Poland, most were exported to Russia, where sieves were in high demand. Since the transport took place by rail, sales increased. Some craftsmen settled in Odessa, Moscow or Saint Petersburg having their families providing them with necessary material sent from Biłgoraj.

Trips during which sieves were being sold took place from early spring to late autumn. Traditionally, when leaving home, a sieve maker was accompanied by his friends and family to the edge of town marked by the statue of St John Nepomuk on Zamojska Street, where so-called plaintive boozy farewell ceremony was organised. On his return, however, the tradesman was welcomed in the same place with a similar, but this time festive ceremony. During business travels sieve makers communicated using a secret language called okrętkowy, meaning evasive, to avoid being understood or overheard by strangers. The trick, along with great chatty skills helped succeed in business. Sieve makers also had unique clothes and special wedding and funeral customs.

Nineteenth century, when most inhabitants of Biłgoraj dealt with the trade, was the golden age for sieve making craft. Its decline began in the 20th century when hand-made products were slowly being replaced by manufactured ones, whose price was lower. After World War I, Russian market dried up and when great number of Jewish people, who were also in the sieve making business, were murdered by German occupants during the Second World War, the decline was even more sudden.

In an attempt to keep the trade alive and simply to keep their jobs, some tradesmen switched to producing haircloth that was used for tailoring coats and jackets. The material was woven at home even in later period after World War II.

Horse hair used for producing sieves was first washed, brushed, flattened and sorted as only particular hairs of certain length were fit for use. Occasionally, though merely for aesthetic purposes, the hair was dyed. Nine different types of fabric made of horse hair were woven on a special kind of loom. This task was reserved for women while men stretched the fabric inside bent pine tree strips.

Apart from horse hair sieves, those made of wire or wood were also popular. Strainers made of silk were rare and mostly used for apothecary purposes.

Biłgoraj and its famous product was first mentioned in literary sources by bishop Ignacy Krasicki in 1782 in his work On a Journey from Warsaw to Biłgoraj.

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