Rushnyky: Ukrainian Ritual Cloths
by Chrystyna M. Nykorak
A rushnyk is a ritual cloth, rectangular in shape, preferably of handspun linen of flax or hemp (konopli). It can be plain white, embroidered or woven. The rectangular shape of the cloth always indicates a life's journey. The rushnyk is believed to be a median between God and man. Rushnyky can vary in length. In Podillia they are short 150-180 cm long, whereas in Kyiv, Poltava, Chernihiv and Cherkasy regions, the lengths vary from 300-350 cm or 450-550 cm.
The Ukrainian ritual cloth, rushnyk, accompanies a person from birth to death. The symbols, colors, and designs are cryptograms depicting cycles of life. Rushnyky are used in sacred rituals: from baptism (a white cloth called крижма signified the newborn's purity of soul); weddings, departures and death (a long rushnyk called a сувій or саван was used to lower a coffin).
Ukrainian embroidery utilizes old traditions. Rushnyky are always hung in part of the house called pokuttia where the family gathers for prayers.
The act of spinning thread and the process of weaving linen embodies a spiritual power. Three fingers are used for twisting the threads and embroidering the linen, the same three fingers are used for the sign of the cross. Nature whitens the linen by being exposed to the sun, the moon, soaked in water and dried by the wind. The linen is then folded into a spiral and rolled into a ball. The spinner's energy actually enters the linen. In many countries of the world, spinning themes are found in stories and myths.
After the spinning, the weaver weaves from left to right which depicts the path of life. As with weaving, the embroidery of a rushnyk is started from the bottom and continues to the top. One end of the rushnyk denotes the "plus" and the other the "minus." In church, during a wedding, the woman is on the left (minus) side and the man is on the right (plus) side of the church.
Detail Beryhynia Motif Cherkasy Rushnyk
As to color, white is a sacred color. Black, the color of the Earth, is considered a powerful color that absorbs energy. Red is also a strong color filled with energy. Red and blue colors are used in wedding rushnyky. Blue symbolizes the female and red the male. The two colors together symbolize the union of the couple.
Every color had its own needle . A needle was never loaned but left hidden. It was usually purchased on a Monday, the day of the Moon. The needles that were used to start the embroidery had to be the same ones to complete the embroidery. Needles are considered to have bio energy. This is seen in Chinese acupuncture. Energy is left in whatever a needle touches.
One can imagine what kind of energy thousands of stitches can create. The hands protect the body and its magnetic fields. It was considered unhealthy to keep a rushnyk that was embroidered by an ill person because of the absorption of illness and negativity. The rushnyk could not be keep in the house or given to anyone. Such a rushnyk was taken to the cemetery or battlefield where soldiers had fallen and placed on a cross over the grave where it hung until the elements of the sun, moon and wind destroyed it. Most embroideries are black and red on white backgrounds, the Trypillian palette. The most popular thread color is red, especially in regions of Poltava, Kyiv, Chernihiv, Slobozhanshchyna and Polissia as well as middle Naddnipranshchyna.
Red is a rich happy color used by all nations of the world. On the Right Bank of Ukraine, especially Podillia, black and red are used frequently. The blue from ancient times has since changed to black. Red, black and yellow are used in Cherkasy, Kyiv and Podillia as well as gray and various shades of green. Yellow was never used by itself but with other colors such as blue which represented water. Yellow represented the sun and wisdom. The introduction of synthetic aniline dyes resulted in polychromatic color schemes that ruined the sacred meanings. Presently, there is a return to the usage of natural dyes .
Black on white was used in all areas of Ukraine, but mostly disappeared due to connection with funeral rituals. It is interesting that in Podillia embroidery in black is incorporated in nyzynka stitches on wedding sorochky. Old women In southern Podillia claimed that the best threads were made from silk because of their strength and luxury, followed by the woolen threads, and then the plant threads made from flax and hemp. Cotton threads were considered to be the lowest grade. Woolen threads were mostly used on the Right Bank of Ukraine, for when dyed, wool provides vivid colors. Wool was used in Podillia, Bukovyna, Bassarabia and the areas of the Carpathian Mountains. This is the territory of the Carpatho-Balkan culture, which assimilated the best of the agricultural culture of Trypillia. The linen threads were used in all areas of Ukraine. They were whitened and then dyed with plant dyes such as grasses, bark , berries, roots and seeds. This process of the natural dyeing of linen threads was called zapoloch. Female insects, cochineals (Dactylopius coccus) were used to make a carmine red. The beetles were dried and pulverized into a powder.
Another interesting dye process was the soaking of linen threads in hemp oil and then baked in rye bread to fix the dye so it would not run. This gave the thread a golden yellow color.
According to Yurij Melnychuk of the Ivan Honchar Museum, at one time there were over 200 stitches used in Ukrainian embroidery. These were divided into 20 techniques. There is a visible side and an invisible side, both filled with harmony. Mistakes were not to be ripped out. One cannot fix a mistake like one cannot relive yesterday, but must continue today.
The most prevelant symbols on rushnyky of Central Ukraine are the "Tree Of Life" usually with two birds on either side of the tree which represented happiness and "щастя," a unique word that does not translate well. The closest meaning is luck or good fortune. Other symbols are present that have specific semantics and energy. The compositions are many, especially geometric and plant motifs. Many archaic stitches have been forgotten and are no longer used. In Chernihiv there is a rushnyk dated 1746. It consists of a geometric "ромб"
Krolovets rushnyky from Sumy Oblast are the oldest woven rushnyky in red on white background. Weaving existed in Polissia from ancient times. A legend tells of how Taras Shevchenko ordered Krolovets rushnyky, for his wedding which unfortunately did not take place. Instead when he died his coffin traveled from St. Petersburg through Krolovets on its way to his burial site to Kaniv. The weavers of his wedding rushnyky honored his memory by draping them over his coffin. "Bohynia-Berehynia" is often seen on Krolovets rushnyky. Birds are depicted in profile, eagles, double eagles, ducks and roosters (these designs date back to early Egyptian and Assyrian and later Kozak times). In Paris, in 1936, a Krolovets rushnyk won a gold medal.
The author of the catalog "Embroidery of the Cossack Elite" Vera Zaichenko states that in the collection of V. V. Tarnovsky housed in the Chernihiv Historical Museum, there are many influences in floral motifs of pomegranate and lotus from oriental fabric designs of Turkey and Persia. These can be seen especially on the embroidery of the starshyna. In another book, "Embroidery of Chernihiv" Vera Zaichenko states that in the early 20th century, these designs were displaced by foreign designs of Brokar and Ralle, both French companies, that imported albums, perfumes and soaps wrapped in colorful polychromatic ornamental printed floral paper. These designs were copied and influenced Ukrainian embroidery.
At that time cross stitches became very popular to the detriment of some of the archaic stitches and colors used in Ukraine. Fedir Vovk (1847--1918) an ethnographer, anthropologist and archeologist devoted his life's work to Ukrainian embroidery. He traveled from village to village collecting artifacts. His unique Ukrainian collection is housed at the Hermitage Museum. The Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv has professionally researched and photographed the
A Language of Their Own
Rushnyky are mirrors of a nation's cultural ancestral memory. The ritual ornaments on rushnyky preserved archaic magical signs, symbolism of colors and artistic folk styles, Kozak baroque and rococo as well as classicism, all of which continue to amaze us and are cherished to this day. They have a language of their own — cryptograms that have been forgotten but not lost.
(Photos of Rushnyky Embroidered on Homespun Linen with a Concentration from Central and Northern Ukraine from the Ethnographic Collection of Chrystyna M. Nykorak).