The Art of Ukrainian Embroidery

With today’s modern technology, machinery can produce intricate embroidery in a fraction of the time it would take for these patterns and pictures to be hand-crafted. While this may have mass-market appeal, those who appreciate traditional decorative arts stand in awe of the skill and patience required to produce the superb embroidery dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries of Ukraine’s history as displayed in many of the country’s museums and in private collections. Even today, hand-crafted embroidery remains a treasured form of art in Ukraine, with numerous embroidery clubs keeping this precious tradition alive.

The history of decorative embroidery in Ukraine goes back to the early medieval times of Kyivan Rus, and over the years embroidery has been influenced by different cultures and traditions, as well as the social standing and wealth of the customer for whom the embroidery was made. Collections in the various museums, such as those found in the cities of Chernihiv, Kiev, Poltava and St Petersburg, include decorative towels, coverlets, tablecloths and clothes, as well as bedspreads and rushnyk – towels associated with religious rituals. The word ‘rushnyk’ is derived from ‘ruka’, meaning ‘hand’, referring to the strip of embroidered cloth being used to wipe one’s hands. Babies are wrapped in rushnyky after being cleansed by holy water at baptism, and coffin lids are covered with these embroidered cloths during funeral ceremonies. Rushnyky also features as part of a wedding ceremony, with the happy couple standing on the rushnyk as they take their marriage vows. While rushnyky does not necessarily have to be embroidered to have religious or ritual significance, hand embroidered rushnyky are prized.

The V.V. Tarnovsky History Museum in Chernihiv has a particularly impressive collection of more than 300 embroidered items. Some embroidered items were crafted with expensive materials imported from China, Poland, Persia and other far-off lands. These materials included silver, gold and silk threads, along with multicolored dyes of high quality. While being very costly, gold threads were also difficult to work with as they were as fine as human hairs and were available only in short lengths. Sometimes silver was gold-plated and used as gold thread, and in some cases embroiderers would use yellow silk threads to create the illusion of gold, and quite effectively too. Dyes were used to color the silk and cotton threads, and a variety of fabrics were used, including imported and locally made linen, velvet, satin, silk and brocade – decorative, and often colorful, shuttle-woven fabrics.

Embroidery designs are only restricted by the embroiderer’s imagination and therefore present a huge range of styles, patterns and pictures, including plants, flowers, crosses, mythical creatures, mosaic-like patterns and frescoes. Certainly, the history of embroidery and its role in Ukraine’s culture is an interesting topic for anyone wanting to know more about the history and culture of this fascinating country.