Ukrainian Crafts: Motanka Dolls

Visitors to the arts and crafts markets found in many Ukrainian cities, town and villages, are very likely to come across traditional motanka dolls on display and for sale. These skillfully made reeled dolls have been part of Ukrainian households for countless generations, serving both a decorative and symbolic role. The feature that sets motanka dolls apart from other hand-crafted dolls is the fact that they do not have any facial features, but instead may have a cross from brow to chin and ear to ear made out of colorful ribbon, threads or fabric. Alternatively, the face is left blank, which comes from the belief that if the motanka has any facial features it may become attached to the soul of the person handling it, which could be detrimental to their wellbeing. On the other hand, motanka dolls with crosses symbolize the sun and good fortune.

The clothing the doll wears may be put together with a needle and thread, and even decorated with embroidery, but the doll itself is made without the use of needle and thread by winding fabric in a special way. The belief is that using a needle to make the doll may result in both good and evil thoughts and intentions being sewn up in the doll.

The head of the doll is made from tightly rolled up fabric of about 5 cm wide which is then covered with a larger piece of fabric, drawn in at the neck and tied with thread to resemble a wrapped lollipop. At this stage thread, ribbon or fabric is used to make the cross on the doll’s face. The doll’s arms are made from a strip of cloth about 14 cm wide and 30cm which is also rolled tightly and secured with thread wound around it. This is attached below the doll’s neck, with equal sections sticking out either side. The body is made by winding several layers of fabric around the piece at the bottom of the “lollipop” with arms, and secured with thread around the waist. A shawl is then draped over the head and wound around the neck as the finishing touch.

In bygone years motankas were part of the rituals of life and community. A young girl thinking of marriage would make a motanka with her groom and marital bliss in mind, while a sick child would be given a motanka for comfort and to take the illness away. Just having a motanka in the house reassured its occupants that the home and all those in it would be protected. Today, some of these beliefs may have slipped away, but the motanka doll remains a uniquely Ukrainian treasure.