Today I would like to talk about a unique type of Ukrainian embroidery, generally known as rushnyk embroidery. I must emphasize that this is NOT the only embroidery used on rushnyks, but this type of embroidery is almost exclusively done on rushnyks The word rushnyk is often translated as 'towel', but this is misleading. Towels may indeed be sometimes called rushnyky, but a true rushnyk is a ritual cloth. They are one loom width, usually linen, and vary in length, but generally are at least 3 yards long. They are found among all the Slavic peoples, from the Russians to the Sorbians, and also among people who live among the Slavs, like the Veps and the Romanians. They are used in many traditional rituals, particularly births, baptisms, weddings and funerals. We drape them over ikons to honor them. They are always ornamented, often with woven designs, but more commonly with embroidery. Many different kinds of embroidery are used on rushnyky, but today I will focus on this one technique only.
This style of embroidery is used in central Ukraine, from Cherkasy to Kharkiw and Slobozhanshchyna. It consists of free form outlines, usually of flowers, executed in stem stitch. The various leaves, petals, etc, are then filled in with various counted thread stitches. These are more or less dense, and thus each filling stitch gives a different shading, some darker and some lighter. Here is a close up example.
The work is overwhelmingly done in red, but in some areas small amounts of blue, black, and/or yellow may be added as accents.
This style of embroidery is unique. Ukraine's neighboring countries have no similar embroideries. There are only two types of embroidery that are even remotely similar.
1. Elizabethan Blackwork.
This style of embroidery was very popular in England among the aristocracy in the Elizabethan era.
This style of embroidery was widely used on linen clothing, being composed of free form floral embroidery with counted thread filling stitches. It was always done in black. The filling stitches were various types of Holbein or outline stitch designs. It faded in popularity after the fall of the House of Tudor, ca 1610.
2 North Russian openwork.
I think that these three embroidery styles are unrelated. Each seems to have been invented as a way to adapt crewel or satin stitch embroidery to linen, in the process replacing the different colors with monochromatic stitches in a counted thread technique so as to give varying textures and shading instead of colors
The Ukrainian tradition, in the opinion of Kara-Vasylieva, most likely grew out of the Cossack Baroque embroidery of the Ukrainian Leaders and townspeople. Here are some examples, done in silk and gold thread. This type of embroidery was also used on Church textiles.
Even these were sometimes done only in red.
This seems to be the origin of the folk tradition. The English and Arkhangelsk embroiderers solved the same problem in similar ways, but the details of the work are very different.
This type of embroidery is never done on clothing, only on rushnyks, and sometimes on things like altar cloths. Under Communist rule, this style of embroidery was also adapted to propaganda banners, in an attempt to transfer the awe and respect inherent in this work to the Communist Party, and thus dress their evil ideas with respectability.
The composition of these rushnyky generally consist of a narrow border, on all four sides, and then a floral grouping at either end. Ukrainian sensibility demands that there be an obvious origin for the floral group. The vines are never twining over the entire field, as you see in English embroidery. Sometimes the point of origin is recognizable as a pot, other times a small hill, rarely a bare stem. Often a single bloom takes the place of the point of origin. The rest of the flowers and leaves are connected to this point of origin, and form a symmetrical branching. Birds and small independent groups of flowers may be scattered about this major design, and in the center of the cloth. This motif is often called 'The Tree of Life', and many ascribe deep roots and symbolism to it. It is undeniable that this motif is very widespread in Ukrainian Folk Art on things like pysanky, folk painting and pottery.
As you can see at a cursory glance, the number of filling stitches is very high, one of my sources claims that over 200 have been identified. The most basic is a running stitch, done over the entire field, leaving it covered with dashes. Sometimes these stitches are grouped into shapes such as triangles or diamonds, etc. Others are counted satin stitch in squares, triangles, etc. Some are darning stitch designs, others use solid bars with various shapes in between. Most of these images can be expanded so as to see the individual stitches better. You can also consult the book 'Ukrainian Embroidery Techniques' by Tania Diakiw O'Neil, pp 145 - 150, where she publishes many of these stitches from both front and back.
Some of these old examples were obviously done freehand, today embroiderers work out their designs on paper and then transfer them, being careful to make them symmetrical.
I will close with some more examples. The possibilities are endless.
Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative.
You might do well to attempt this kind of work yourself, even on something as small as a handkerchief. Bring some of the beauty of Central Ukraine into your home.
Tetiana Kara-Vasilieva, 'Ukrajins'ka Vyshywka', Kyjiw, 1993
Vira Zajchenko, 'Vyshywka Kozats'koji Starshyny XVII-XVIII st.' Rodovid, 2015
Kmit and Luciow, 'Ukrainian Embroidery', New York, 1978
Tania Diakiw O'Neill, 'Ukrainian Embroidery techniques', Mountaintop, PA, 1984
Taras Lozyns'kyj et al, 'Rushnyky Naddripnians'koji Ukrajiny', L'viw, 2017
V Bilozub et al, 'Ukrainian Folk Art - Weaving and Embroidery', Kyjiw, 1960
E Belokur et al, 'Derzhawnyj Musej Ukrajins'koho Narodnoho Dekoratywnoho Mystetsva URSR - Al'bom', Kyjiw, 1983
L Towstucha et al, 'Handicrafts in the Ukraine', Kyjiw, 1979
V Zabolotnyj et al, 'Ukraijins'ke Narodne Dekoratywne Mystetsvo - Dekoratywni Tkanyny', Kyjiw, 1956
L Yefimova et al, 'Russian Embroidery and Lace', London, 1987
I Boguslavskaya, 'Russkaya Narodnaya Vyshyvka', Moscow, 1972