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Beauty and Symbolism
Yury Melnychuk, a master of Ukrainian traditional embroidery and a deputy director of the National Folk Culture Center Muzey Ivana Honchara, shares with the readers some of his vast knowledge of Ukrainian embroidery.
Ukrainian traditional embroidery stands out among the decorative arts of other ethnics as a craft which uses color arrangements and symbolism of patterns and ornaments in its own inimical way. Decorative embroidery requires very special skills and artistic talents. The techniques of embroidery, symbolisms and colors are highly sophisticated and reflect hundreds of years of continuous development. The ornaments, their patterns and colors can be read and interpreted as one reads and interprets ancient texts. Various parts of Ukraine have various differences in the colors and patterns used in embroidery; in some areas even neighboring villages can show differences in the colors and patterns used in embroidery. Hundreds of various kinds of stitches used and thousands of ornament patterns attest to a truly amazing variety.
Of a special importance are shirt embroideries — they have their own special symbolisms and patterns which differ on shirts designed for grown-ups and children, for men and women.
These days such embroideries are looked upon as mere decorative elements but in the times of old they played the role of charms protecting the wearers from evil. Shirt embroideries, by their patterns and colors, could tell a lot: the provenance, for example.
The interiors of Ukrainian peasant houses were lavishly decorated with embroideries too. The central items of such decorations were decorative towels. Among the most popular symbols used, we find The Tree of Life, The Tree of the Clan, the symbols of life, blessings and prosperity.
Decorative towels were used in all the most important events of one’s life: birth, coming of age, marriage and death.
WU Magazine thanks to the National Folk Culture Center Muzey Ivana Honchara (www.honchar.org.ua) for the help it provided in preparing this article.
The Land of Kyivshchyna
Kyivshchyna covers a vast swath of land stretching from the right bank of the River Dnipro across forests and steppes. Threads of different colors are used in embroideries in this Land, but black and red predominate. These colors suggest the polar differences of life, life active and passive, female and male, yin and yang, and other such opposites.
In one of the popular Ukrainian songs, lyrics read, in part: “The red — it’s love, the black — it’s grief,” but it does not quite apply to the symbolisms of embroideries.
Embroideries in the Land of Kyivshchyna show predominance of strictly geometric patterns.
The one in the photo comes from a woman’s shirt — the cross symbolizes the sun and provides protection, and the swastika symbolizes happiness. The ornaments that look like parallel horizontal and vertical bars symbolize fecundity in nature.
The Land of Bukovyna
Bukovyna is located in Western Ukraine and today’s Chernivtsi Oblast is only a part of it. There are many ethnics who live in that area and embroideries reflect this ethnic variety — colors and patterns differ widely.
Women’s shirts are true works of art. Wool, cotton and silk threads are used alongside silver and gold threads to create impressive color effects.
Some of the Bukovyna patterns and ornaments can be traced in embroideries of other areas which bear the traces of ancient cultures. Techniques of embroidery also differ a lot and some of them can be found only in Bukovyna.
The Land of Podillya
In Podillya some of the patterns and ornaments suggest their ancient origins. The technique of embroidery is peculiar to this land too — the needle goes into the fabric from the reverse side rather than the other way round. Red and blue, red and black are popular juxtapositions, but probably the black is the most preferred color. Black threads were made from the wool of fine-fleeced sheep. The die of such threads does not fade in the sun.
Among the most popular symbols are the swastika as a symbol of the sun, symbols of happiness, symbols of eternity which protect against evil and symbolize things unharmonious, and symbols of the pagan Great Goddess, Mother of All Being.
The Land of Polissya
Polissya is located in the north of Ukraine and is heavily forested. Polissya is crisscrossed with rivers and it abounds in lakes and marshes.
There are many archaic elements in embroideries that have come from times immemorial. Embroideries often imitate weaving which must have come into being before embroideries did.
The dominant color is red — it is the color of life, of the sun that gives life and warmth.
In the ornaments and patterns we can discern solar rhombic symbols of Earth and of Woman. Such rhombs contain a cross within them and are often referred to as “the sown field.”
Such symbols were often embroidered on shirts by men, and also by women who wanted to have children.
The Land of Pokuttya
White on white is a typical feature of embroideries in that land. As a matter of fact, such white-on-white embroideries were once widely done across Ukraine. It reflects ancient pagan traditions and is probably connected with adoration for the Creator, the Sun, the Fire as one of the natural elements, the realm of spirits which are made of light.
The white was the color widely used in whitewashing the walls of houses, and in garments.
The photo shows a detail of an embroidery from Pokuttya in Western Ukraine (the Land of Ivano-Frankiv-shchyna) which is a fine sample of highly sophisticated and highly skilled embroidery work.
Embroideries of this kind have won many top prizes at exhibitions held in Paris, Berlin and Leipzig.
The Land of Chernihivshchyna
White-on-white embroidery is popular in this land too but often enough we see black and red creep in.
The color of the fabric used for making shirts was usually of a silver-grey shade and embroideries on such a background produce a subtle and tasteful effect. Red and black threads add dynamic effects. Elongated rhombs are typical in the ornaments of Chernihivshchyna. Such rhombs, which contain crosses that divide the inside of the rhomb into four parts, symbolize fecundity, fertility and material well-being.