Rajko Balantič from Županje Njive makes shepherd’s capes from linden bark, the kind that herdsmen on the Alpine pasture of Velika Planina used to make to protect themselves from rain. Today, these rain capes are used for demonstrations at different tourist events and folklore festivals. Twenty years ago, Rajko and his mother decided to bring capes made with this fascinating material back to life, and thus joined in the effort to maintain and promote the herdsmen’s legacy. Every year, Rajko makes one or two “pwajš”, capes using the bark of young linden trees.
The Balantič family passed on their knowledge to other local shepherd cape makers: Franc Pestotnik, Andrej Prešeren, and others. Through the Planšar cultural society, they have forged strong collaborations with Austrian tourist societies. Rajko Balantič was also featured in a TV news story for the Austrian national public broadcaster ORF.
who used to graze herds for the local farmers. Shepherds in this area would make special capes back then, so-called “pwajš” – capes made of scrubbed linden bark. They served as excellent protection from rain, with raindrops just slipping down the long woody fibres. Some of these rain capes were preserved and used for the promotion of shepherding heritage by the (now former) Planšar cultural society, where Rajko Balantič was an active member. But as they were made from natural materials the capes wore out and the group needed new ones to present itself in various events. So in 2005, Rajko and his mother made their first rain capes and revived the dying tradition, which Rajko still passes on to others.
Today, shepherd’s capes made of linden bark are part of cultural heritage and protected by different institutions (Peskar Museum, Kamnik Intermunicipal Museum) and individuals who still possess the knowledge related to linden bark processing and its many uses. The shepherd’s costume, which consists of “pwajš”, wooden clogs, and a wide-brim hat, is a popular feature in tourist and folklore demonstrations in Kamnik and the town’s wider surroundings. Today, it has lost its original function, because modern synthetic raincoats do the job far better as they don’t get heavy with rain. Rajko says that scrubbed and dry bark is a highly durable material that was used by wine growers to tie vines to stakes, but it probably also has many other uses that we have yet to explore. As for Rajko, he has a personal relationship with this nearly extinct tradition and enjoys making things, so he uses his free time to keep this fascinating heritage alive.
The key is to cut the tree down at the right time, when sap runs just beneath the bark, which is around 20 May. Bark is a natural material that can only be harvested at a specific time, so “it’s a lottery; if you’re late, you’ll wait another year”. When he has been given permission by the owners to cut the trees, he saws them to 2.5 metres long pieces and debarks them with his drawknife. This is to make transport home easier. Then he folds the bark into a barrel and soaks it in water for three months. The bark partly disintegrates, i.e. it is “retted” in water. In the past, people would accelerate the process by adding manure to the water. He checks progress in August and, if necessary, soaks them some more. Then he separates the inner bark and makes strips, which he cleans thoroughly under running water. He repeats the process three to four times until the bark is no longer slimy and its texture resembles paper. He dries the strips in the sun, then bundles and “strings” them on the collar of the cape using a nylon cord to tie them up. The width of the cape is determined by how much material he has at hand, and the length is adjusted to the wearer. His wife Maria lends a hand with the final steps.
Rajko Balantič works with linden bark exclusively to make shepherd’s capes. He usually makes one or two in a year, but none if he can’t get his hands on good bark. He only works for patient clients, including folklore groups.