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Ukrainian Embroidery

The Ryshnyki Tradition

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Ukrainian Embroideress

Ukrainian Embroideress

Michael Khozyaikin

One tradition that Ukrainians take great pride in is the practice of rich, symbolic embroidered cloths, which function as decorative and ritualistic cloth heirlooms that are integral to Ukrainian culture.

Rushnyki
The rushnyk is a ritual cloth that, in Ukrainian tradition, was regarded as a protection against evil. Today, rushnyki are still found displayed in places of honor in Ukrainian households. They are made of linen or cotton, with woven or embroidered designs. The designs generally decorate both ends of the piece, but may also run up the long edges.

Regional embroidery designs and color schemes evolved gradually, due to the frequent use of rushnyki during ceremony and throughout daily life. Matchmakers wore rushnyki around their shoulders and brought couples together, who would intone their wedding vows while kneeling on a rushnyk. The new bride, wearing a rushnyk around her waist, would later cradle her newborn in a rushnyk. The mother would later teach her daughter to embroider rushnyki for her wedding chest. When family members died, their coffins would be lowered into the ground with rushnyki.

Symbols and Stitches
Over 200 different stitching techniques have been identified throughout Ukrainian rushnyk-making. Each stitch impacts the full design. So, too, do the various symbols and pictures embroidered with the stitches imbue each piece with particular meaning.

For example, the Tree of Life motif symbolizes longevity. It also represents a connection between three realms—heaven, earth, and the underworld. Past, present, and future are also included in the symbolism of the Tree of Life design.

Bees symbolize spiritual purity, roses stand for love, a cherry tree represents beauty, and sunflowers recall the sun. Endless variations and combinations have been used.

Rushnyki Today
Rushnyki are still present in Ukrainian homes. Some are draped over picture frames or crosses. Some are kept as precious family heirlooms. Used during weddings or given as gifts, rushnyki remain a part of Ukrainian cultural life.

Rushnyki are still being woven—the “real” ones are done by hand. (In fact, the word rushnyk has its roots in the Ukrainian word for “hand,” both because of the work that goes into them and as their origins as ritual “towels.”) If you travel to Ukraine, you will be able to find rushnyki for all occasions in various designs. Even if you don’t use them for ceremonial purposes, they make lovely additions to your home, wherever you choose to display them. A rushnyk hung on the wall or given as a gift is sure to encourage love, friendship, and prosperity!

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