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Ukrainian traditional embroidery can be traced hundreds, if not thousands of years back into history


Embroidery for Ukrainians is much more than just a way of decorating clothes or various household items. Embroidery is part of the Ukrainian world outlook, of the Ukrainian self-awareness; it is a sort of a sacred ritual of their life. Ukrainians used to wear embroidered shirts when they got married, when they had their children baptized, when they died and were put into coffins. Embroidered towels used to be draped around arms of brides and grooms at church weddings; embroidered towels were draped over icons in Ukrainian homes; tablecloths were decorated with embroidery Ч in fact, embroidery, these magic patterns on linen, accompanied Ukrainians at all the major events of their lives.


"Here comes a group of young girls, walking in a single file, all of them comely, their hair dark, each lovelier than the rest. And dressed up they are indeed! The mid-day sun has warmed up the air, and they wear light clothes, their skirts in bright colours, as though covered in blooming poppy flowers. Braids of hair are handsomely arranged on their heads, with yellow carnations and periwinkles woven into the plaits; the girls' shirts have sleeves and cuffs all covered in embroidery; coral necklaces are entwined around their necks, each necklace of ten or more strings, so heavy that they seem to bend their long necks a little. Gold coins of their decorations and silver crosses shine blindingly, and the girls' checkered plakhty are so nicely enhanced by silver belts."

In this way a Ukrainian writer of the nineteenth century, H. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, describes a scene from the Ukrainian countryside.


The Ukrainians are a puzzling, peculiar nation. They are a people with an original artistic view of the world, a people spiritually Ч but, alas, not politically Ч minded, a people who, for centuries, have been embellishing their homes, their clothes, their pottery, household items with beautiful decorations and designs. The Ukrainians are a people who used to make earthenware and carved wooden plates beautifully shaped and elegantly designed, who created exquisitely fine lace and wonderful embroideries Ч and then renounced their own great cultural achievements with a surprising ease and even destroyed much of their artistic and cultural heritage. Unfortunately, such lamentations will hardly make ordinary Ukrainians feel poignant sorrow for their repudiated Ч to a large extent Ч cultural heritage; neither are they likely to inspire modern Ukrainian designers to create clothes with Ukrainian traditional, age-old dress in mind.

Only a couple of generations back, needlework was a widespread occupation in the Ukrainian countryside. Our grandmothers embroidered shirts and towels and kept them in old decorated trunks. Our parents grew in "the happy family of Soviet peoples" in which traditional handicrafts, needlework included, were neglected. They were largely viewed as "hangovers from the past" and even frowned upon as being "manifestations of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism." Those who collected Ukrainian antiquities and kept them in their homes were under a close KGB supervision.

One disturbing episode from my childhood comes to mind. It was in the 1970s in a village in the Land of Poltavshchyna where my grandmother used to live. Her neighbour, after clearing the attic of her house of old things, brought them down to her garden, piled them near an old acacia near her barn- and put them to torch. I watched as the fire consumed antique wooden spinning-wheels, antique combs made of linden wood, red ribbons that used to be worn by girls decades and decades before, embroidered shirts at least two hundred years old. Waxed thread of the shirts did not want to burn and the shirts only smouldered. Even after they turned to ash, they preserved their original shape- and then the ashes were gone with the wind.

One reminiscence pulls out another one from my memory. As a child, I enjoyed to climb into my grandma's old trunk, and sitting there, in the confined darkness, to inhale the smell of the fancywork which was stored there. Those laces were made by my great-great grandmother more than a century ago; I loved touching the thread that had been held by her fingers.

At the end of the 1980s, at the time when Ukraine entered a period of growing national awareness, I joined ethnographic expeditions to different regions of Ukraine to look for embroidered shirts, towels and other embroidered household items with the aim of acquiring them, if possible. Most of such items we found in the Carpathians, in the villages in the mountains, where the Soviet power had never been able to strike root and destroy the age-old traditions. I brought home about a dozen embroidered shirts from each expedition. I washed them, restored them, ironed them and every day, going out, I put a new one. I wanted so much to be constantly wearing them, that I slept in them Ч in embroidered women's shirts from various regions of Ukraine and from various times. With one of such shirts on at night, I felt mystical energies passing through me. At my wedding, I wore an embroidered Ч white on white Ч shirt from Poltava.

I have always been fascinated with the refined, "winged" silhouette of the traditional Ukrainian dress. It is both chastely modest and temptingly sensual. I have been always attracted to tall, wide-shouldered young men wearing loose, linen shirts embroidered in floral design.

Every region of Ukraine, or even every village for that matter, had their own patterns, designs and colour schemes of embroidery. My grandmother, for example, used ornamental designs that had been passed from generation to generation for centuries. In fact, these designs Ч stars, triangles, meanders, and others Ч were symbols of eternity, of water, of air or of fire, but my grandmother had no idea that she was using millennia-old symbols in her embroidery. She believed that shirts with such designs embroidered on them could protect you from evil. She also believed that by wearing a properly embroidered shirt you could charm a young man into falling in love with you; she was convinced that an embroidered shirt could "be talked" into helping you to be rich, to fall in love, or to do well in general. She used to tell me that she made the young man who became my grandfather, fall in love with her by wearing the shirt she had begun embroidering on the Feast Day of Ivan Kupaylo (St John the Baptist's).

The Ukrainian word "uzor" Ч pattern, design, figure, tracery, is a shortened version of the Old Ukrainian uzoroch (which is still used in the Ukrainian dialect spoken in the Carpathians), which, in its turn, is believed to have been borrowed from the Persian language in which the word uzoroch means "light that comes from above" or "the light of the stars." Whatever the origin of the Ukrainian word uzor, it must have come into use at the time when people worshipped the sun and stars.

Flax has been grown in Ukraine from time immemorial. Linen began to be made from it and embellished with embroidery at the dawn of history. At its starting point, embroidery must have been no more than stitching together pieces of clothing with colour threads. It is known with more certainty that the first stage in what was to become full-fledged embroidery was zavolikannya Ч passing a colour thread through linen or some other fabric at intervals measured by several threads of this fabric. Nyzynka was the next, more complicated method which is still used in the Land of Hutsulshchyna.

Linen thread was one most widely used. It was strong enough and it dyed well. Originally though, the linen thread was simply waxed and waxing added durability and produced a gentle, whitish-yellowish colouring. With the passage of time, design and patterns were becoming more complex and variegated. New dyes were used, and the colour schemes (the next step from the waxed yellowish linen thread was black Ч soot was added into wax) became very elaborate. Gradually, designs, patterns and colour schemes became more or less fixed, with variations depending on a geographical area.

Dyes were made from plants and insects. For bluish-grey hues, acorns were used; for brownish-reddish Ч the bark of horse chestnut; for brown Ч the bark of walnut and alder; for beige Ч the roots of wild plum; for golden Ч the outer skin on onions; for ochre Ч buckwheat husks. When in the 1870s, these natural dyes began to be substituted with industrially produced ones, it came as a serious blow to the traditional embroidery which lost its softness of colouring. The traditional harmony of colours was also unbalanced; warm pastel colours were lost. At the end of the nineteenth century there came another change, a second heavy blow to the traditional embroidery Ч a new fashion of embroidering in cross-stitch came from the East (from China) and ousted the traditional techniques. Consequently, patterns and designs became badly affected. Standardized and stylized animal, plant and floral patterns became dominant Ч symmetrical flowers, roosters, doves were copied from the wrappers of candy and soap, or from the patterns published in magazines. These new designs and patterns were more primitive than the authentic ones, but in spite of their aggressive influence, the original, age-old patterns and designs did not die altogether and continued to be used, though on a limited scale.

The oldest patterns and ornamental designs were geometrical. They can be glimpsed on the Trypillya pottery and earthenware (see an article about the Trypilltya culture in this issue); on the Scythian dress, representations of which can be seen on vases found in ancient barrows. In some of the Ukrainian lands, in Hutsulshchyna or Polissya, for example, geometric patterns and ornamental designs were used well into the twentieth century. In other lands of Ukraine, as long ago as in the early medieval times, the influence of the Byzantine plant ornamental design was strongly felt. Also under the Byzantine influence, there developed in Ukraine an intricate technique of creating in-wrought patterns called vyrizuvannya, or "cutting-out." At first, a pattern of tiny squares (several threads wide) with whipstitched sides is created on a piece of fabric, and then the fabric inside the squares is cut out. It is a time-consuming and pains-taking process. Shirts embellished with vyrizuvannya are not only beautiful Ч they are light and good for being worn on hot summer days. Incidentally, the Greek in-wrought vyrizuvannya looks very similar to the Ukrainian vyrizuvannya style.

The most important motifs in Ukrainian embroidery for many centuries have been stylized shapes of guelder rose, oak, grapes and poppies. All of them are actually ancient symbols stemming from pre-Christian, pagan beliefs. The guelder rose is of a particular importance because of a special attitude to this plant which is felt in Ukraine even today. The Ukrainians regard the guelder rose as their "national tree," "the family tree." The red juice from the guelder rose red fruit symbolizes blood, and blood, in its turn, symbolizes the family and the cycle of birth and death. The wedding towels, women's and even men's shirts used to be embroidered in heavy bunches of guelder rose fruit. There is a Ukrainian folk song about the guelder rose which is capable, I think, of touching the heart of every Ukrainian, even the heart of someone in whom very little of anything Ukrainian is left.

There stands a guelder rose

In the field, red and ripe,

In full bloom, so handsome.

Hey, how nice is that family of ours,

As nice as the guelder rose in bloom.

There's so many of us,

Let's be close,

Let's be nice to each other!


The oak was a sacred tree of the ancient Ukrainians. It symbolized Perun, god of thunder, human energy, development and life. Men's shirts were often embroidered with stylized shapes of acorns and oak leaves.

Many of the old Ukrainian folk songs feature references to "sad-vynohrad," (garden-grapes). This sad-vynohrad symbolized the garden of life, in which Man sows and plants, and Woman takes care of the growing fruit and grain. Motifs of bunches of grapes on embroidered shirts were particularly wide-spread in the Lands of Kyivshchyna and of Poltavshchyna; in the Land of Chernihivshhyna, bunches of grapes decorated embroidered towels.

The bloom of the poppy was the flower of love, and the poppy seeds were thrown over people, cattle and houses to protect them against evil. My great-grandmother Yaryna believed that poppies grew in great numbers on battlefields. Girls, whose fiances died at war, embroidered red poppies on their shirts, and made wreaths with seven poppies woven into them.

The lily was a symbol of chastity and purity. In embroidery, lilies often appeared alongside with leaves and buds which symbolized the tripartite unity of conception/ birth, growth and development. The drops of dew that often appear above the lily in embroideries are believed to be a symbol of conception, of new life.

The most enigmatic, and most beautiful symbol that appears in Ukrainian traditional embroidery is, as far as I am concerned, Berehynya, The Protectress, a female figure with raised arms, each hand holding a flower. Berehynya was a pagan goddess of meadows and fields, a symbol of life and fertility, the mother of everything living. In later times, the figure was substituted with a big, blooming flower on a strong stem with two leaves on each side, rising to the sun. Berehynya was believed to have "a maternal force" that protects people all their life. Berehynya is Mother, Nature and Tree of Life, all rolled into one. Girls embroidered the Berehynya symbols onto the shirts of their fiances who were to go to war Ч these shirts were believed to give protection to those who wore them.

In general, the girls who were planning marriage, embroidered shirts for their prospective fiances with roses, apples, grapes and nightingales, and they began doing it long before it came time for them to get married. These shirts were to be part of their dowries. Depending on the well-being of a particular family, the husband could own up to five or ten embroidered shirts, and the wife Ч up to fifteen or even twenty such shirts. In richer families, the trousseaux included up to 40 or even 60 embroidered shirts.


At present, in urban areas, traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, either purchased or passed down from older generations, are mostly kept in the families of intellectuals. Embroidered shirts are worn on holidays; infants are baptized wearing tiny embroidered shirts; brides and grooms stand on embroidered towels at church weddings when they take an oath of marriage. These traditions live on in the Ukrainian hearts, though they do not find as much outward expression as they used to. But there is hardly a Ukrainian who would not have tears swelling in their eyes when they sing or hear a song which was written in the nineteen-sixties by the poet Dmytro Pavlychko and the composer Oleksandr Bilash, the song that has long become a truly "folk" song:


When I, still young

Set out to go into

The world unknown to me,

My mother gave me a shirt

She embroidered in

Black and red,

In black and red thread,

In two colours, so poignantly dear

Two colours on the linen shirt.

Two colours in my soul,

Two colours, so poignantly dear.

Red is Love,

And Black is Sorrow.

Life took me to distant lands,

But I always came back.

The roads of my life

Are the colours on

My mom's shirt,


Red and Black,

Roads of happiness,

And roads of sorrow


The essay is illustrated with photographs of exhibits of the Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky Historical and Cultural Preserve, and with photographs provided by the Moya Ukrayina. Bervy Project.


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