By Carol J. Sulcoski
"A house without a rushnyk is not a home." — Ukrainian proverb
The human impulse to embellish useful articles is old—archaeologists have found embroidered clothing dating from Cro-Magnon times—and the people who have lived in the area known now as Ukraine have an especially deep and rich tradition of decorative stitching. My ancestors are Eastern European, and I've always admired the bright colors and charming folk motifs used in textiles from this region. On a recent trip to New York City, I ventured to the Ukrainian Museum and discovered the rushnyk, a richly embroidered ceremonial cloth with a fascinating history.
The word rushnyk is derived from the Ukrainian word ruka, which means "hand," and reflects the rushnyk's original purpose as a hand towel. Utilitarian versions still exist; they are plain, perhaps with a straight border, and sometimes called utyralknyky. What really caught my fancy, though, were the highly decorated towels (or nabozhnyky). Made of white woven linen or hemp cloth, these pieces feature motifs either woven into the cloth, or embroidered in rich vivid colors, and are sometimes also embellished with lace.
Detail of a rushnyk. Photo courtesy of the Patriarch Mstyslav Museum Permanent Collection; Ukrainian History and Education Center, Somerset, NJ, Ukrhec.org.
Different geographic areas of Ukraine have traditionally used different motifs, stitches, and colors in their embroidery traditions. For example, in the Polisia region, rushnyk embroidery tends to be worked in bright red, perhaps with a little black; in the Hutsul and Lemko regions, however, more colors are used, including red, blue, green, and yellow; in the Poltava region, white-on-white needlework is popular, as well as lighter colors of thread such as pale green, gray, white, and blue. Traditional motifs include geometric elements as well as floral designs, and sometimes nature-based designs, such as trees or birds. Motifs are often laid out in bands (indeed, the repeating linear motifs will remind many knitters of Fair Isle bands), echoing the rushnyk's rectangular shape.
When it comes to stitches, Ukrainian embroiderers have scores of different techniques to choose from. One of the oldest techniques is a kind of solid stitch that is worked from the reverse side of the cloth. Called nyz or zanyzuvannia, the embroiderer uses red or black thread along the warp of the woven fabric, covering odd-numbered threads to form a negative pattern. This type of stitch by necessity uses linear geometric motifs. The counterpoint to the nyz stitch is the running stitch, or zavolikannia. The running stitch is worked along the weft, usually in black thread, and tends to create clearer patterns. Another commonly used stitch is the lyshtva, or leaf stitch, a version of the satin stitch but which appears on both right and wrong sides of the cloth. Typically, lyshtva is used to create leaves, flowers, or geometric patterns. Cross-stitch is also very popular, although it is a relatively recent development in terms of Ukraine's stitching history. Using cross-stitch gives the craftsperson more flexibility when it comes to design, and is frequently used to create floral, rather than geometric, motifs.
Rushnyk. Photo courtesy of the Patriarch Mstyslav Museum Permanent Collection; Ukrainian History and Education Center, Somerset, NJ, Ukrhec.org.
There are also exquisite openwork stitches, a traditional embellishment in this part of the world. Drawn-work (stiahuvannia) removes threads from warp and weft, and the remaining stitches are then bundled together to create patterns. Cutwork (vyrizuvannya) is similar to Hardanger embroidery, where the pattern outline is overcast with stitches, the centers are cut out, and then the filling is completed. Openwork stitches frequently are done in white-on-white.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the rushnyk, however, is the spiritual significance of the cloth. Nearly every aspect of a ceremonial rushnyk had meaning: the rectangular shape symbolizes a life's journey, while specific motifs reference cultural experiences, elements from nature, or life stages. Individual symbols may refer to ancient goddesses. Rozhanitza, a fertility goddess, might be drawn on a rushnyk used as a ritual cloth during labor. Berehinia, who represented wealth and the harvest, could be used on a marriage cloth, while images of sun goddesses might invoke protection. Geometric and nature-based motifs also were used to represent sun and moon, seasons, or the harvest. Rushnyky were even used to make political statements. During the Soviet years, the hammer and sickle, five-pointed stars, even likenesses of Stalin or Lenin appeared on decidedly untraditional rushnyky.
While rushnyky were used for pragmatic purposes (usually as a form of "currency" or as clothing), the wealth of symbolic meaning worked into the cloth made it especially important for religious rites and life events. Rushnyky were used to decorate crosses on various feast days, and were often presented as gifts to a church. They were used to adorn icons or paintings both in churches and in homes, where families often had a corner devoted to religious symbols. The ceremonial cloth would appear at all major life events:
- A woman in labor would pull on a rushnyk fastened to a beam in the house; once her child was born, the newborn would be immediately laid atop a rushnyk.
- Young girls might hang a rushnyk in the window on the feast of St. Andrew, hoping to learn whether or not they would marry.
- A young man leaving home for the first time would be given a rushnyk by his mother or sweetheart.
- At an engagement or wedding ceremony, the rushnyk tied the hands of the couple together, a physical binding to symbolize the enduring ties of their marriage contract.
- When a bride and groom left the bride's home, they stood on a rushnyk; they also stood on one during the wedding ceremony itself. Important wedding guests wore a rushnyk across the chest. A bride presented rushnyky as gifts to the groom, her in-laws, and even to her matchmaker, with the quality and design a reflection of the bride's skills.
- A rushnyk might be hung in the window to tell the community of a death in the family and was also used to cover the face of the deceased during the funeral. Even the oxen pulling the hearse were adorned with rushnyky, while the coffin was lowered into the ground using rushnyky.
Rushnyky were used in day-to-day life, too. They were hung in homes for protection, used to wrap bread on holidays, and were displayed in the corner of a home used for worship.
Today, the beautiful weaving and embroidery of the rushnyk live on, created mainly by dedicated workshops and individual artisans. Woven rushnyky are more common today than embroidered ones, and in more recent times, much of the embroidery has been mechanized. Thankfully, the cultural and artistic significance of the rushnyk has been recognized, and Ukrainian museums (you can find excellent museums in New York City, Detroit, Stamford, and Cleveland, to name but a few) and ethnographic collections all over the world are preserving these unique and uniquely beautiful pieces of textile art.
Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitter the rest of the day. Her book Knitting Ephemera (Sixth & Spring 2016) contains more knitting-related tidbits for your perusal. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three teenagers and a fat orange cat.