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Magnificent Ukrainian embroidery of the 1718 centuries


The art of embroidery, in the opinion of Vira Zaychenko, senior curator of the History Museum in Chernihiv, takes center stage among other decorative arts of Ukraine. The essay that follows, which is based on Ms Zaychenkos research, provides some insights into the history of embroidery in Ukraine in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, excellent samples of which the museum has in its extensive collection.


It is known that decorative embroidery began to be developed in the early medieval times of Kyivan Rus, though, of course, there are good reasons to assume that embroidery had been practiced in the Slavic lands long before the eastern Slavs, ancestors of the Ukrainians, formed their first state, Kyivan Rus, with Kyiv as its capital.

From the available evidence, we can gather that the decorative embroidery done for the upper layers of the then feudal society was much more elaborate than that done by and for the lower social strata. In doing the elaborate embroideries gold and silver threads were used; the ornaments went through changes in the course of centuries, experiencing influences of various cultures and traditions.

In the early twentieth century, Petro Savytsky, one of the first researchers of the Ukrainian embroidery, studied the collections of embroidery in the museums of Chernihiv, Kyiv, Poltava, St Petersburg, and of some private collections, and came to the conclusion that the Ukrainian embroidery patterns carried signs of Eastern influences (such influences could have probably come with the invasions of nomads). At the same time, he admitted that, firstly, similar embroidery ornamental designs could be found in many cultures, even though these cultures had never come into contact, and secondly, that it would be very difficult to trace the migrations in time of such designs from culture to culture. Petro Savytsky also drew attention to many specific features of Ukrainian embroidery, which were characterized by the high and refined quality of Ukrainian embroidery of the later centuries, of the Cossack period in particular, when the Cossack elite occupied the cultural niche which was later occupied by intelligentsia. According to Savytsky, the Cossack elite, in the capacity of customers for whom embroidery was made, exercised a considerable influence on the style and quality of embroidery.

It is clear now that Ukrainian embroidery was also influenced by designs that had currency in other European countries. The collection of Ukrainian embroideries of the History Museum named for V.V. Tarnovsky in Chernihiv contains about 300 items. Most of these embroideries are strips of cloth of various lengths; they are parts of what used to be rushnyky (decorative towels), tablecloths, coverlets, or clothes. V.V. Tarnovsky, a collector and patron of art, called these embroidered items okrayky (pieces cut from the edges) and the term is still in use. The museum collection also has items, which are not parts of whole things but complete items such as bedspreads, shirts and rushnyky.

The expensive materials which were used in embroidery  gold, silver and silk for threads, dyes of different colors  were imported from Poland, Persia, China and other countries.

Naturally, the most expensive embroideries were those in which gold thread was used. The technique of making gold thread must have come from Byzantium where it was perfected to a high level of technology. The gold threads were usually of short lengths, as thin as human hairs. Silver was often gilded to be used instead of gold proper; in some cases, yellow silk threads were used instead of gold to create golden effects. Silver threads were used mostly for embroideries on white fabrics. Various dyes were used to color silk and cotton threads. The fabrics on which embroideries were made varied from cheap to costly; most of the embroidery items in the Chernihiv History Museum are thin linen, which was exported from Germany, Holland, Poland and Russia, directly and through intermediaries; in some cases, linen of local production could also have been used. Among more expensive materials, velvets, satins, brocades and silks should be mentioned. In the eighteenth century, cotton fabrics began increase in popularity.

Designs of embroidery vary widely, but stylized phytomorphic motifs dominate. The level of stylization varies. Certain designs can be traced to the mosaics, frescoes and marble decorations in the eleventh-century Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Kyiv. Similar designs can be seen on church items and vestments of the clergy that date from the sixteenth and later centuries. The study of the designs used in embroideries done in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the Cossack elite, suggest continuity of tradition from the eleventh century onwards, but in later centuries certain European and Oriental influences began to be traceable in Ukrainian embroidery designs. Embroidery designs often include stylized crosses of various kinds and of varying number of arms; crosses are surrounded by stylized petals and leaves. Various plants and flowers, including the exotic ones, served as the starting point for creating decorative and ornamentals patterns, woven around representations of crosses.

Household items, such as pillow cases, were richly embroidered too. The daughter of Hetman I. Samoylovych was married to F. Sheremetyev, a high-ranking Russian boyar; in her dowry several embroided items are mentioned, among them a bed sheet embroidered with gold and green thread and six pillow cases to match, and a bed sheet embroidered richly in gold and red thread and six pillow cases to match.

The testament of Ivan Zabila, a Cossack chief, dated from the year 1733, mentions bed sheets embroidered with griffons in gold and silk, four embroidered pillow cases, and bed sheets embroidered with ornaments shaped like oak leaves in silk thread. Silk thread embroideries are mentioned in other documents that date from the eighteenth century.

Such documents made it possible to date the items in the museum collection and establish their provenance. One of the central pieces of the collection is a bed sheet that used to probably belong to the wife of Hryhory Halahan, a Cossack colonel from Pryluky. V. V. Tarnovsky obtained this item for his collection from one of the descendants of the colonel. The embroidery of this sheet reveals ornamental motifs typical for the mid-eighteenth century with an abundance of stylized floral motifs, based on real and imaginary flowers. The eighteenth century also saw the changes in the techniques of embroidery, which can be traced to the techniques that came from various places, including distant lands such as China, for example.

In the eighteenth century, there was a marked increase in the use of cotton thread mostly of purple, white and blue colors. It is in these colors that tablecloths that used to belong to the family of Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky are embroidered. These embroideries, which are done in cross-stitch, date from 17151722.

Ukrainian embroiderers developed their own techniques of needlework  zapolochchya, rushnykovi shvy and others. As the Cossack elites became wealthier and as they identified themselves less and less with the Cossacks of the old times, their tastes changed and they wanted more expensive and more Europeanized items in their households.

Clergy remained one of the regular customers of embroidered items; the embroiderers who created these embroideries began to use some of the designs and ornaments used for vestments and church items, in decorating items for use at their homes. Thus embroidery designs and ornaments spread to the countryside. Some of the rushnyky and womens skirts of the nineteenth century distinctly bear influences of such designs and ornaments which continued to be used in later times, and are still used in some embroidery styles.

Ukrainian embroideries reveal an amazing continuity that has been sustained for more than a thousand years.


Photos have been provided

by Chernihiv History Museum


Okrayka. Mid-18th century.


Okrayka. Mid-18th century.


Okrayka of a bed sheet. Late 1718th century.


Okrayka. Second half of the 18th century.


Okrayka of a bed sheet. 18 century.


A detail of a kybalka, a womans traditional

headwear. First half of the 18th century.


Detail of a table cloth that belonged to Hetman

Ivan Skoropadsky. 17151722.e


Okrayka. Second half of the 18th century.


Bed sheet that belonged to Colonel Halahan

from Pryluky. 1740s.



The embroidery design on a skirt from the Land of

Chernihivshchyna made in early 20th century

resembles similar patterns on decorative designs

which can be found on some ancient architectural

and sculptural elements in the 11th-century

Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv.

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