Sunday, February 6, 2011

South Khanty Embroidery, Art of an extinct people

Hello All, I would like to talk today about a type of costume that has disappeared. Of course, most of what we call folk costumes are no longer in daily use, but are still brought out for special occasions, or to go to church, or for weddings. And many are preserved by societies created for the task. Today I will be speaking of the embroidery and costume tradition of the southern Khanty. On the map, the Khanty are represented by the brownish hatching on the right side, east of the Urals, which officially puts them in Asia. You will notice a dotted area on the map that sort of approximates the territory of this people together with the Mansi, who are shown in light green. This area is known as the Khanty-Mansisk National District, and this is their flag. In old documents the Khanty were known as the Ostyak and the Mansi were known as the Vogul.

These two nations form the Ugric Branch of the Uralic Languages, together with Hungarian. They split off from the rest quite a long time ago, and then at some later time, the Magyar, or Hungarian people traveled to Europe. The Hungarians have a legend of following a mystic white stag to their current homeland.

Here is one example of the embroidery tradition I will be talking about today. The Khanty, like many tribal peoples, are made up of various separate groups with widely divergent dialects and customs. Often outsiders who study them find it obvious that they form a collective whole, but the people themselves often identify only with th eir own tribal group. This is a woman's chemise of the Southern Khanty. This is a group which has today become completely assimilated by Russian settlers. Luckily, there were several people from Finland, Hungary, Germany and other places who traveled to this and other  regions in the 19th century and collected many examples of the local artwork. So we have a record of the artistry of this people.
The northern branches of the Khanty still exist, and do wonderful handwork, but theirs is of a different kind.
I will deal with that in a future posting. Here are a couple more examples of chemises that were collected and are now found in museum collections in the west.

This one is exhibited in the State Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, and gives some idea of how they were worn, with a kerchief on the head, and a beaded decoration around the neck. Notes that we have from the people who collected these items say that these people embroidered many things that they used; mens shirts and pants, kerchiefs, and other items. Here is a kerchief that was collected.

As well as a closeup of one of the beaded necklaces that were worn. These beaded necklaces are still made an worn by the northern Khanty as well. In fact, beadwork is very widespread throughout this entire region.
Here is a picture of some beaded moccasins and patterned knitted socks also from this area.

If we take a close look at the embroidery, we see three main techniques. The first is the one we have already encountered with the Volga peoples. Outline stitch used to define design areas and introduce hooks, which is then filled in with red and blue stitching. In this case, not slant stitch, but one-sided satin stitch, as can be seen in this closeup of one of the hems of the chemises shown above.
The back of the stitching is clearly visible. Here is a closeup of another piece of embroidery. You will notice that the predominant motif is pairs of birds facing each other. Oddly enough, this is still one of the most common motifs in Hungarian embroidery, even though they do not use this technique.

 The other two techniques used were outline stitch used by itself, mostly in red and blue. and counted satin stitch, sometimes called brick stitch. The Hungarians, feeling a kinship with the other Ugric peoples have taken an interest also in their fork culture and i have found some of these designs charted in Hungarian books.
Here are some of the designs which i have taken from Hungarian sources. You will notice the use of the swastika, which is a very ancient symbol, used all over the world. I personally think we need to redeem this motif, and not let the actions of one recent group of people condemn a very ancient and beautiful symbol.

As you can see above, the most impressive chemises, which were woven from nettlecloth, were decorated around the front opening, down the sleeves, around the hem, and all the way down the front. Not all embroiderers were so ambitious, as you can see by this old photo.
I would like very much to find out what the mens shirts looked like and how they were embroidered, because i would like to make one for myself.
In fact I encourage all of you to take these designs and use them, make table scarves or runners, keep these beautiful designs alive.
Just before i was posting this blog, i found an entry online that shows some of these embroideries being made at a handicraft center in Khanty-Mansisk City. Here are a couple of photographs from that website. It is gratifying to see this work being done.

In this photograph you can see some chemises of the type we were discussing, along with a mens shirt cut in the Russian style but embroidered in the Khanty style. the chemise in the middle with the shoulder embroidery is completely Russian in style.
You can see these photos, as well as examples of North Khanty work, and other handwork which is pure Russian in style at this website.

There are also two other websites run by Uralic groups that give more information and closeups of these people and this type of embroidery:

Thank you for reading, as always, and i hope this posting inspires you to go out and make something beautiful.
I would be glad to provide more charted designs upon request. 

Feel free to contact me with requests for research. I hope to eventually cover all of Europe and the Former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. I also gratefully accept tips on source materials which i may not have. I also accept commissions to research/design, sew, and/or embroider costumes or other items for groups or individuals.
Roman K.

Source Material:
Natalia Kalashnikova 'National Costumes of the Soviet Peoples', Moscow, 1990
Mary Gostelow, 'The Complete International Book of Embroidery', New York, 1977
Ildiko Lehtinen, 'The Finno-Ugric Collections at the National Museum of Finland', no year
Zsigmund Batky, 'Osztyak Himzesek' [Ostyak Folk Embroidery], Budapest, 1921
Tatyana Razina, 'Folk Art in the Soviet Union', Leningrad, 1990
L. Molotova et al, 'Folk Art in the Russian Federation', Leningrad, 1981
Gyorgyi Lengyel, 'Keresztszemes Kezimunkak', Budapest, 1981
Gyorgyi Lengyel, 'Nagyaink Oroksege' Budapest, 1986


  1. This is a wonderful blog post! I've recently been using brick stitch, knowing it had been used in Medieval Germany. Beautiful illustrations. Juliana Breitmacher

  2. The designs with the small square units also tie into very similar work done in 9th-16th century Egypt, and early Indian Kasuti.

  3. Beautiful work Roman K... i love this South Khanty Embroidery....

  4. Рассматривая фото вышивки на сорочках моих предков, для меня как QR-код, кому принадлежали платья, какие были покровители и прочее.
    Благодарю автора за фото и статью.