Nakurnjak AKA Willie Warmer
First, may I just send my sincere thanks to Petra Hodak for taking us to this fascinating cultural pearl in Croatia. Also to Sonja Leka, one the the Tara Knitters, historian and guide extraordinaire. All my information here came from Sonja. If you ever visit and want to meet her and have her as a guide through the area and the beautiful Plitvice Lakes, her contact is: Sonja.firstname.lastname@example.org and you can also arrange a tour through Croatia through Morocco Immersion Tours.
So we now found ourselves in the region of Lika... the birthplace of Nikola Tesla and stunning aqua blue lakes nestled at the foot of protective mountains. With short summers and long winters, the fires in homes burn throughout the year. In Licko Petrovo Selo, a village of about 100, women have been gathering in a small center to knit, crochet or weave traditional socks, handbags, towels and of course, the famous nakurnjaks.
The traditional welcome was laid out for us as Sonja explained that bread conveyed the wish that we will always have nourishment, salt for abundance since it was so necessary for preserving food and giving a more interesting taste, honey for sweetness and of course Rakija which is schnapps, brandy for joy! Rakija is made from different kinds of fruit. The most common one is the plum rakija but pears, apples, apricots and grapes are also used. It is usually homemade and the alcohol by volume can be between 40-50%! Sonja told us all about a woman in the village, Manda Luketich who drinks it each day and was featured in a Japanese magazine years ago for her excellent health. Sure enough, we could not have been luckier than to see Manda coming towards us down the path and of course she had a drink of Rakija with us and showed us the magazine.
Once we received the warm and traditional welcome, the fascinating facts began. They came fast and I wasn't prepared with my large camera so I whipped out my iPhone just so that I would not miss any of the historical context of the Nakurnjak! Learning has always been my calling and I reach for whatever camera is the closest! That is what you see here so I apologize for any shaking and car sounds but it was just too priceless. I mean a cultural ICON is an ICON!
The women wore a cotton dress, a woolen apron, woolen socks and a scarf but did not wear underwear. The men wore cotton shirts, woolen trousers, woolen socks and a leather vest. The men traditionally wore a very specific style of woolen underwear considered a suspender or a "codpiece". Each girl in town was expected to knit this coarse sheep's wool "Willie Warmer" (You can be sure we all came up with a lot more names for this during the entire trip and it was not something for publication here but just know we laughed so hard and so continuously!). So back to the story...It was a newly married woman's duty. If she just so happened not to know the correct size, Sonja related that wise older women would step in to "size up the man" (I think that term may have developed in this area of Croatia and "How's it hanging?" would have been the question after the marriage!). A coffee grinder was also used to get the correct size. I didn't ask for more details...it was left to my imagination! Sonja provided me with the information that the coarse wool produced a tingling sensation next to the skin which then produced good blood circulation and ensured fertility to produce a lot of children. This woolen "Willie Warmer" was worn all year long and provided protection while riding a horse since this was the only type of underwear the man would wear. Ouch and Ohhhh!
These were made in the Lika region until the 1950's and then the tradition dropped off. 15 years ago, there was a resurgence in making these as unusual gifts and souvenirs for tourists which would also provide the older women in the town a place to bond and talk about their customs. As Sonja related, "A happy and fruitful marriage in the old days was all down to the women's knitting skills." Tourism is keeping this heritage alive and provides an income for the women in the Tara Association. They have presented these to President Obama and two Croatian Presidents. One who came back to visit and joked that it needed to be repaired!
Connections span across the years and across the continents. It was definitely a day we all totally enjoyed and laughed about. This gathering of historical knowledge, making new friends over Rakija and looking into the deep and knowledgeable eyes of one who walked this path from days gone by is something that I can highly recommend and will remember for sure!