Why are three Ukranian shepherd’s coats – gunyas - coming to Tilburg?

4 juli 2023

In gunyas made by Ukrainian artist and bio-designer Dasha Tsapenko and Dutch designer Marjo van Schaik, heritage and innovation meet across borders, using old techniques to tell contemporary stories. Three of them will be joining the TextielMuseum’s collection in the coming year. Watch out for them in upcoming exhibitions!

Fig. above: Gunya Kozovannya, a traditionally woven gunya. Photo credits: Alex Blanco.

The Growing Gunya Project – Material Experimentation

Gunyas, traditional Ukrainian woolen coats made using specialized weaving and felting techniques, are still made and worn in some villages in the Carpathian mountains today, though less central to daily life than they were in the past. Due to their material qualities and the way they’re made, gunyas are warm and water-resistant, but they also have symbolic protective qualities for the people who wear them and make them.

Residents of the village of Lypcha in the Khust region near the church in festive dresses, postcard from the First World War.

In the Growing Gunya project, Tsapenko and van Schaik have created variations of the traditional shepherd’s gunya to tell new stories and as a "mother” testing board using new material solutions to address contemporary issues. This project has so far involved many human and non-human collaborators, allowing for exchanges of knowledge and a huge amount of experimentation. Collaborators from the Netherlands have travelled to Ukraine to learn traditional weaving, and in turn a weaver from Ukraine has come to Netherlands to learn about mycelium, dying and felting. The project was recently exhibited at the Design Museum Ghent as part of the Home(land) exhibition which explores the connections of Ukrainian crafts and identity in the context of the ongoing war. 

Two mycelium grown gunyas hanging at the pop-up exhibition Home(Land) in Design Museum Ghent.

The “mother” gunyas from the project were made in Ukraine using ancient wool processing techniques and then woven on a two-stage loom by third-generation weaver, Ruslana Goncharuk. Another gunya was felted in the Netherlands using special felting techniques, so that it can become a shelter for seeds, a reflection on the lost Ukrainian Seed Bank in Kharkiv. Other gunyas were created by growing mycelium on a base of industrial hemp remnants, using biodesign and living organisms to reimagine this typically handmade object in cocreation with nature. In the Netherlands, Marjo and Dasha have been experimenting with dying both the wool and mycelium models then using experimental natural food-based dyes such as berries, borscht remnants, and even fungal dyes in collaboration with Ilse Kremer. 

Gunya Fabulous Fungi, a traditionally woven gunya dyed with fungi in collaboration with Ilse Kremer. Photo credits: Alex Blanco.

Gunya Seed Bank, a felted gunya using Dutch wool with pockets for seeds. Photo credits: Alex Blanco.

Dutch wool in Ukranian gunyas

Research, experimentation and collaborative practices have been central to this project. Gunyas are traditionally woven with wool from the Carpathian mountains, which has certain qualities which make the wool ideal for the intense processing method used to make traditional gunyas. However, Marjo van Schaik has been experimenting with how to use Dutch wool, usually discarded as a waste product, in this project.

Thanks to this research, the revaluation of Dutch wool as a local and valuable material has become an important part of the Growing Gunya project. Dasha and Marjo have made both felted and woven gunya models using Dutch wool. When they brought Dutch wool to Ukraine and the weaver Ruslana processed and wove with it, she and other weavers who saw it were impressed by the quality of the wool and asked where they could get more of it. This story becomes all the more surprising when one realizes that sheep in the Netherlands are mostly bred for meat and for grazing fields, meaning the quality of their wool is low.

Weaving a woolen Gunya fragment on a two-stage loom. Photo credits: Ruslana Goncharuk.

Other projects combatting Dutch wool waste in the Netherlands

From the approximately 1.5 million kilos of wool sheared from sheep in the Netherlands every year, the vast majority is burned or otherwise sold at miniscule prices. After the decline of the once-prosperous wool processing industry in the Netherlands, there are almost no wool processing centers left today in the Netherlands. Disposing of the wool from Dutch sheep has become an enormous issue in the Netherlands.

A Dutch sheep being sheared. Credit: Lion.Touch / Halona.

Artists, designers and farmers have been addressing this issue in different ways. Collectives, like the Hollands Wol Collectief, have been formed to take the matter into their own hands and try to bring back a wool processing industry into the Netherlands. Their projects aim for more sustainable sheep farming and the creation of products using local materials. Larger corporations, like Scotch and Soda , seem to be catching on and have also decided to make use of this waste product and have created collections produced using pure Dutch wool.

Cities like Rotterdam also own flocks of sheep for keeping grass short; in 2020, they have commissioned Christien Meindertsma for the project ‘De Zachte Stad’ to find sustainable and creative solutions for the overflow of wool produced by these flocks. Some of the results of this project will soon be added to the Textile Museum’s collection as well.

Grazing sheep owned by Gemeente Rotterdam, https://www.dezachtestad.nl/).

At the Textile Lab in Tilburg, designers have developed projects addressing this issue as well. Christien Meindertsma developed the project One Sheep Sweater at the Textile Lab in 2010. This is a series of 20 sweaters, each made with the wool from a different sheep from one farm in the south of the Netherlands. This work is in the collection of the Textile Museum Tilburg and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

One Sheep Sweaters installation by Christien Meindertsma at the TextielMuseum. Photo credits: Joep Vogels / TextielMuseum.

Tilburg’s Wool History & The Textile Museum

Tilburg is historically a textile city, and the wool industry specifically provided more than 50% of industrial textile employment in Tilburg at its height in the 19th and 20th centuries.1 The textile industry declined in Tilburg in the 1970s and was almost completely gone by the 1980s, leaving many abandoned former factories as a trace of the past throughout the city. 

The TextielMuseum is housed in the former woolen blanket factory complex from Mommers & Co. Photographer: Maarten Schuth Productions (Benjamin Arthur) / Courtesy of TextielMuseum, 2022.

Housed in a former woolen blanket factory, a large part of the Textile Museum’s industrial heritage collection consists of the machines which were once used to process wool. The knowledge of how to process wool and use these types of machines could be instrumental to a comeback in the usage of Dutch wool as a local sustainable material. 

A technician working on an industrial heritage machine in the Wollendekenfabriek exhibition at the TextielMuseum. Photographer: Josefine Eikenaar / Courtesy of TextielMuseum, 2014.

However, the TextielMuseum’s activities are not only about the past, but also about the future. The existence of the TextielLab within the museum is a space for innovation, combining craft and (modern) industrial methods to create new artworks and develop new projects with international artists and designers on a daily basis. 

At the TextielMuseum, like in the Growing Gunyas project, craft, heritage and innovation come together in one place. Using a traditional Ukrainian garment as a basis for experimentation with new and usually discarded materials, Dasha and Marjo have shown another way to use textile traditions as a starting point for innovation.

Read more

The Knitwit Stable - https://theknitwitstable.nl/en/dutch-wool

Halona, Why we forgot our beautiful local wool, https://www.halona.nl/forgotten-dutch-sheep-wool/


1. 2009 Fatal Clusters: Tilburg, The evolutionary pattern of the Tilburg wool industry. In: H. Mommaas e.a. Comeback Cities, Rotterdam NAI Publishers


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