She has auburn-saffron, wavy hair, and eyes so blue they mirror the hues of a thousand forget-me-nots. A striking beauty, reminiscent of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “La Ghirlandata”—a redhead playing a harp adorned with a garland of roses and honeysuckles while the angels from heaven are summoned by her enchanting tunes.
In a sense, Anda Suman summons angels, too, but with a thread and needle. She’s an embroiderer.
You wouldn’t be able to tell it if you saw her all dressed up in black, ripped jeans, biker boots, and a Goth T-shirt riding a tricked-out chopper-bike. But then, this is a passion of hers very few people know about. Her Facebook timeline showcases mostly her needlework and her silhouette wearing pristine linen embroidered with gold and the colors of summer.
I’ve never met Suman in real life, but I imagine her voice sweet and melodious like a Romanian “doina” (ballad)—a folk genre I care for deeply. I also imagine the way she is—with an abundance of joie de vivre with rainbows and summer rains in a field of sunflowers. I imagine her like a fairy tale because she creates fairy tales. She is based in Iasi, a cultural cradle of Romania, and one of the country’s most beautiful cities. An abundance of art and culture is perhaps what inspired her work as much as her ancestry.
Needlework is relatively easy, once you learn the craft of stitching and you follow a pattern. But Suman goes beyond clichés, taking traditional values to a higher level, one that defies conventionalism, embracing a fascinating intellectual, forward-looking approach to creation and creativity.
“Ia, the traditional Romanian blouse, has been my world since … forever!” she writes to me, and I feel her joy and passion with such vividity that the world seems brighter all of a sudden.
“It all began in my childhood,” she goes on, “when I saw for the very first time silk threads, pointy needles, and the whitest of linens in my grandma’s home. My grandmother was my teacher and my mentor. She introduced me to the art of traditional embroidery, and she planted the seed of love for the simplicity, power, and beauty of the symbols that adorn the traditional Romanian blouse.”
Anda talks of the same blouse that inspired Henri Matisse to paint “La Blouse Romaine.” A peasant garment from a poor Eastern European country that also inspired Yves Saint Laurent in 1981, Oscar de la Renta in 2000, Carolina Herrera in 2013, and many other fashion designers over the years.
The beautiful, mysterious, and flawlessly mystical Romanian blouse was almost forgotten as communism suffocated most crafts and traditions and because of a prejudice that peasants were an inferior class. But it’s making a strong comeback, mainly due to people such as Suman, who have a strong grasp of traditional values. The Romanian blouse is now a much-coveted fashion item, but it also carries deep-rooted meanings that not many people can understand.
“All of the symbols, such as the diamond, the cross, the flowers, the flying birds, and the other cosmic elements are inherited from our ancestors,” Suman explains. They are believed to have powers.
In fact, the Romanian blouse used to carry a secret code—known only to local communities, showing someone’s age, marital status, occupation, and social status. At the same time, the motifs embroidered onto the fabric were also supposed to protect against misfortune and—yes, even evil. For instance, the cross would protect against demons, black magic, bad luck, and hate.
Then, each symbol carries a meaning: the sunflower, the sun, and the diamond are supposed to bring harmony and joy in the heart of the wearer. The tree is a symbol of wisdom, revival, and life itself. Vines, leaves, and grapes may signify a trade from the area. A straight line stands for the right path in life; spirals mean spirituality; hooks attract good luck, and most of the colorful flowers indicate prosperity. Every authentic Romanian blouse carries strong symbolism and energy.
“Out of the many symbols sewed on the Romanian ia [pronounced ee-ah], one that I like dearly is the hora,” Suman explains, “it represents a traditional dance where the people from a village gather in a circle and dance like brothers and sisters. It’s a dance of life, a dance about the afterlife, about the seasons that come and go—a symphony of feelings in motion to teach us how to understand the Sky and the Earth, the past, the present and the future, and ultimately life and death.”
Embroidering an ia was, and as Suman reveals, still is a very time-consuming endeavor.
“Each creation takes about three and up to 10 weeks to complete,” she writes, describing the items available in her shop, Caterine.
“The ias I create start from the inspiration I gather from the world around me: a smile, two people holding hands or a flower about to bloom. Then I translate the feelings into traditional designs and onto white linen, my canvases. Our ancestors had a wonderful unspoken language of symbols and colors. I am grateful to say that I have learned their language and I am doing my best to preserve and promote it.”
Anda started her business about four years ago to support her life goal of preserving and promoting Romanian traditional values. She already has a team of talented seamstresses, and her work is recognized by fashion experts and magazines all over Romania. My Facebook friend is a fair-eyed, sweet, and kind celebrity of sorts. One who embroiders her soul onto the linen of the ia as much as she likes to revive the tradition held dear by her grandmother.
And finally, the Romanian blouse is a powerful symbol of my ancestry, too, but no one says it better than Suman in her letter to me, in which she concludes:
“Ia is the genetic code of our people, of our unity. Ia is, simply, the Mother.”
A former military journalist, Mihaela Lica-Butler is a senior partner at Argophilia Travel News. Besides her work as a PR pro and travel journalist, she spends her time writing children’s fairy tales and cookbooks.
Anda’s Shop: Caterine
Please remember: Suman’s ias take between three to 10 weeks to complete. Each item is a one-of-a-kind work of art and … patience is a virtue.