LICKO PETROVO SELO, November 18, 2020 (AFP) — Once used to warm men’s private parts during harsh winters in rural Croatia, the woolen Croatian codpiece or ‘nakurnjak’ is making a comeback as a popular souvenir. A handful of women from Lika are preserving traditional handicrafts and bringing them back from oblivion.
“The nakurnjak sparks laughter, a lot of positive energy, and plenty of jokes. Many tourists are taking them home as a nice Christmas gift,“ explains Sonja Leka. The 55-year-old runs an association of local knitters. They are preserving the old-fashioned art in their tiny Croatian village in the central Lika region.
In 15th and 16th century Europe, crotch coverings, known as codpieces, became fashionable items. They are visible in portraits of kings, like Henry VIII of England. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne went as far as to lambast the accessory. He referred to the covering as an “empty and useless model of a member. We cannot even decently mention it by name, which however we show off and parade in public”.
Croatian Men Wore the ‘Nakurnjak’ to Stay Warm, Soften Impact of Horseback Riding
But ordinary men in Central Croatia wore these coverings for more practical reasons. Specifically, they wore them as underwear to stay warm and soften the impact of horseback riding. In Lika, a mountainous sparsely populated region known for cold winters, the nakurnjak was a must-have item. These Croatian women knit them from sheep’s wool.
“Men’s folk costumes had large pants, without any protection below. These men had to ride horses and walk through forests to collect firewood. That’s where the need for nakurnjaks comes from,” explained Leka.
“Our ancestors were practical, there was no shame in naming useful items,” she said of the Croatian name for the accessory. The translation of the Croatian word is more literal than “codpiece”.
In Licko Petrovo Selo, a village of around 100, Leka runs the Tara Association. Women have been gathering here in the small center to knit, crochet or weave traditional socks, handbags, towels and nakurnjaks. The latter became a big hit among tourists who visit the nearby Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, revealed Leka, who is also a tourist guide.
Men’s Handknit Accessory Popular With Plitvice Lakes National Park Tourists
Last year nearly 600 mostly American tourists visited the handicraft group. In addition, the group has received donations from several embassies and the local municipality. However, a four-star hotel across from the run-down building accommodating the association now sits empty due to COVID-19.
A spread of knitted accessories, including dozens of cylindrical white and grey nakurnjaks, lie on tables at Tara Association’s modest premises. They are a sad reminder of the consequences of the pandemic. So far, the women have sold or gifted around 1,500 of the men’s accessory. They pack them in cardboard boxes with a background story and pair of walnuts as a “symbol of good health”.
The elderly Croatian knitters say the nakurnjak was once an important item in a woman’s dowry. The dowry included the so-called “bride’s chest” of handicrafts which women prepared for their future husbands. If a bride could not estimate the right dimensions for her husband’s nakurnjak, she asked her groom’s relatives for guidance. The codpieces are available in XL, XXL and ‘Lika size’, Leka revealed with a laugh.
Men in the region stopped sporting the item in the late 1950s when cotton underwear became available and took over.
“We come here to socialize and work so that these old handcrafts, knitting and weaving, are not forgotten,” explained Anka Prica. The 73-year-old is also part of the Tara Association. She and 83-year-old Bozica Leka regret that youngsters are not showing interest in learning the craft.
“It’s a pity not to pass this on to young people so that the tradition continues. The tradition will die with us,” Leka concluded.
Check out our Lifestyle page for more information on Croatian traditional handcrafts, their history and use. See the Udruga gradana “TARA” (Tara Association) Facebook page here for pricing and purchase options.