The saya is an open tunic (like a coat), which can be knee or calf length, and made from plain coloured or striped woollen, linen or cotton fabric depending on the area. Saya usually have a low neckline and can be have long or short sleeves, and are usually worn with a front apron made of a single width of cloth or two lengths of fabric with a vertical seam, which can be plain, striped or checked.
Saya costumes are most common in Southern Bulgaria, in Pirin, Kyustendil (Shopluk), the Rhodope mountains and the valley of the Maritsa. Saya style garments are also worn further east in Turkey and in parts of Greece, and are worn parallel to the sukman costume in some areas.
There are two main variants of saya:
Short sleeved saya
Short sleeved saya were found in the west and southwest of Bulgaria and co-existed with sukman costumes in some areas. This style of saya usually has short sleeves and is made of black, dark blue, green or white plain coloured woollen fabric, for the winter, or hempen, linen or cotton fabric for the summer. It is decorated round the neck and sleeve ends with rows of brightly coloured braid, linear embroidery and appliquéd lace or gold thread.
This style of saya is worn with a front apron made of a single width of woven cloth which has horizontal woven stripes in red, gold or silver thread, or can be plain, and decorated with woollen floral embroidery and edged with black velvet. Plain aprons are worn in Pirin, striped aprons in Shopluk.
The colours of the saya worn changed through time. The fashion for dark coloured, black and blue saya was adopted once indigo, supplied by merchants, could be used to dye woven fabric. Before the 1860-70s white saya decorated with rich embroidery were worn for festive wear in Pirin, Kyustendil and in the middle parts of the Maritsa valley. This style of dress had died out by the end of the 19th century with white saya remaining only for summer wear.
Saya costume from around Ihtiman, that were worn for weddings and festival occasions, had very rich decoration and were worn with fine white cotton aprons decorated with delicate lace or aprons made from gold lace.
In Kyustendil and Radomir (Shopluk), the winter saya was black or dark green, while the saya worn in summer was white. In Sandanski (Pirin) the saya was white, and decorated with red and gold. A red saya was worn in Petrich (Pirin).
Long sleeved saya
Saya with long sleeves and calf or ankle length were worn along the middle reaches of the River Maritsa (Plovdiv and Dimitrovgrad), in the Rhodopes and parts of Pirin (Blagoevgrad). This style of saya was made of woven woollen, hempen or cotton fabric, or a mix of these and was predominantly red in colour. From the second half of the 19th century saya made of striped cloth began to be worn. Along the valley of the Maritsa river, and around Chirpan and Stara Zagora these had broad stripes in deep or bright red that were interleaved with black, white, green, blue stripes. Saya from around Plovdiv had appliquéd black or occasionally green velvet or satin on the front opening, lower hem, sleeve ends, and were often edged with black (crochet) lace.
Front aprons worn with this style of saya can be made of a single or double width of fabric, the oldest style being a single width with coloured stripes woven in the form of a weft, which was worn mostly with one-coloured and striped saya. Aprons made of checked fabric decorated with geometrical motifs representing figures or plants were worn in the Maritsa valley and Rhodopes for work, during holidays or by the elderly. Double width aprons that were red, green, blue or brown in colour were worn along the Maritsa valley.
Saya from the eastern Rhodopes were often made from thinner fabric with multicoloured stripes, and had side seams slit to hip height. They were also known as kazmir, zabun, kaftan, buraki, shutak, or aladzha. The decoration on this style of saya was limited to braiding along the front edges, hem and the slit side seams. The front aprons (chultar) worn with this type of saya were made from a single pieces of striped or checked woollen or linen cloth, and were worn without a front apron for festive occasions. This type of saya was worn until the mid-20th century as this area was more isolated so traditional styles of dress continued to be worn until more recently.