Constantin Vîngârzan must be one of the few sheepskin cloakmakers left in Romania, but such is the prevalence of sheep farmers in the village of J, where he lives, 900 metres up in the Southern Carpathians, that there are two of them there. When I called round at Constantin’s house, he showed me into one of those super-tidy courtyards where suburban modernity and old-fashioned wonkiness whirl round each other in a dance so fast that it can only be happening at molecular level. Plastic windows, mirror glass and chrome balcony railings versus uneven cobbles and good, solid wood doors, and not a speck of mud or even dust – my head was spinning with the disorientation – no sign of the rich dirt that surrounded us, here in the wild, magnificent mountains, and this in mid-autumn when the concrete road outside was lined with dung, earth and leaf litter like a proper rural village. I still found it hard to get used to the differences between how J looked from the street and from inside the domestic citadels that functioned as family homes and farmsteads. They must have been copied from the hugger-mugger style of building which the Transylvanian Saxons developed: cheek by jowl for protection, and sealed like containers from prying eyes.
Dl Vîngârzan’s workshop lay at the back of the property, and was in the same neat state as the yard. You had to go through a kind of conservatory to reach it, and once out back, the craftsman’s studio turned out to be converted animal barns. Looking up, I realised there were rows of new wool cloaks hanging in a huge loft above my head. It felt as though I were tunnelling like a mole under a forest of creamy-white fur and the muffled atmosphere made that sensation more real. Not for the first time, I realised how luxurious humble sheep’s wool can be and the smell of oily fleeces and leather was intoxicating.
First catch your fleece
Before he can start, Dl Vîngârzan has to get hold of the sheepskins. He keeps some capes in stock, but he generally makes them to order, and usually his clients bring him their own skins, from their own freshly-slaughtered sheep. A single full-size cloak takes three or four skins, but before he can get down to tailoring them, he has to cure them – which he does in a tank containing a mixture of fairly toxic smelling chemicals), then he must clean, dry and sand them before cutting and sewing the leather which he does more or less by hand, although he uses a small electrically-powered sanding machine. He let me watch him at work at his sewing table, where he sped through the process of cutting the skins into the right shape to fit round the shoulders in the light of a single electric bulb, and then sewed them together with lightning accuracy. He skill was masterly but it was poignant to realise that as close shepherding dies out in Romania, this beautiful craft will probably disappear as well. The Vîngârzans’ children are not interested in taking the business over, and you cannot blame them because the market must be shrinking, if you will excuse the pun, and in these times, such a painstaking way of making money is not regarded as cool. You can still find cloakmakers hawking their skins at the animal fairs that take place at villages in this area throughout the year.
Until now I have made the mistake of calling these ankle-length, sleeveless sheepskin cloaks which shepherds wear with the fleece outside, cojoace. Mr. Vîngârzan calls himself a cojocar, which comes from the same root. None of the shepherds I met has ever corrected me, but a page from the brilliant anthropological website, Eliznik, shows that the correct terminology for the shaggy capes is either sarică or bituşcă, while a cojoc (pl. cojoace) is a sheepskin coat with sleeves.
I have seen photographs of sarice (plural of sarică) with very long sleeves and the fleece worn inside, but as far as I know these are mainly worn on ceremonial occasions and decorated with embroidery. The long sleeves look exaggerated, like the sleeves of a kimono, and very elegant on the men who carry the coats draped around their shoulders, with the sleeves hanging loose, as they do at New Year rituals, but the sleeves had a practical purpose – to protect shepherds’ arms during blizzards. And having worn a sarică and even slept in one, I can say that they are very much like a house. Hmmm, imagine a whole building made of sheepskins…