Guide to Bespoke Ukrainian Artisan Handcrafts
Short History of Ukraine and Ukrainian Craftsmanship
Ukraine's revolution in 2014 that toppled Russian-backed former President Victor Yanukovich has resurrected Ukrainians' national pride and an appreciation for the country's rich history that has essentially been wiped from its people's memories since the country was split between Poland and the Russian Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Ukraine's capital city, Kyiv, was once the capital of Kievan Rus, an empire that lay the founding blocks of the Slavic people in Eastern Europe and fell when the Mongols invaded in the 13th century. During this period, Ukraine developed a rich cultural heritage where the people hand stitched beautiful clothing for their everyday wear, wore flower wreaths in their hair as a symbol of youth, and passed time by elaborately decorating eggs and intricately carving wood into household items and decorating them with flower and geometrical shapes. All these traditions are resurfacing as Ukrainians gain back their cultural identity and the world is taking notice.
Below I explore some of the more distinguished heritage craftsmanship originating in the Ukraine.
Artisan goods preserve culture and traditions
Ukrainian Embroidery, a.k.a. Vyshyvanka
"Vyshyvka", the Ukrainian word for the country's beautiful traditional embroidery has its roots in pagan times and symbolizes protection and rituals. There are over 200 different Ukrainian stitching techniques and patterns, and some families even have their own unique symbols and colors. These days the tradition is going through a renaissance.
After over one hundred years of being nearly forgotten, Ukrainian fashion designer Vita Kin brought her homeland's heritage to the runway during Paris Fashion Week in 2015. She was later featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and her creations have been adored by fashion icons like Anna Dello Russo. Each vyshyvanka dress takes an average of a painstaking three weeks to make and back in the day, women would sew embroidered shirts for their husbands, dresses for themselves, ceremonial cloth called "rushnyk", etc. all through the cold winter while singing folk songs along with their family. With that said, that favorite bohemian dress you have hanging in your closet may actually be inspired by the now infamous Ukrainian Vyshyvanka.
Traditionally worn daily throughout the country by both men and women until the arrival of communism, each vyshyvanka dress was handmade by loom to create the white heavy-weight linen and embroidered geometric or floral design patterns in red or blue natural dye along the neck, on the sleeves, and on the hem. The sleeves are typically bell-shaped, the dress draped to the calves, and the neck tied with tasseled ends.
According to Ukrainian folklore, the vyshyvanka protects its wearer from evil spirits. This superstition stems from way before Christianity became the state religion in the year 988 AD.
The Flower Crown, a.k.a. Vynok
Since ancient times, it was tradition for both girls and boys to wear flowers in their hair. From a young age, Ukrainian girls decorate their hair with fresh flower crowns, called "vynok" in Ukrainian, when the weather is warm and with ribbons or other cloth when fresh flowers are not in sight.
When a Ukrainian girl gets married, her friends and family weave her the most beautiful and elaborate wreath - all the day before her wedding. The wedding day is the last day a Ukrainian girl is allowed to wear flowers in her hair.
"Koraly", a.k.a. Coral Jewelry
Jewelry made of coral is the most typical type of jewelry traditionally worn by Ukrainian women. The wealthier the woman, the more strands and the thicker each coral. The color of coral range from the palest peachy hues to the deepest reds. The shape can be sculpted into all different shapes but rounded, or cylinder shapes were most popular. Koraly weren't just used for their beauty; they were also believed to ward off evil for whoever wore them.
"Pysanki" a.k.a. Decorated Eggs
Surely, you've come across them - Easter eggs decorated with intricate flowers and geometrical shapes in all sorts of vibrant colors. Those are Ukrainian Easter eggs called "pysanki".
Pysanki comes from the Ukrainian word for writing and they are very special to Ukrainians. The shapes adoring each pysanka are stemmed in Ukraine's rich folk-art symbology. The symbols have been linked to writings dating back to 3000 B.C. and held special meanings for Ukrainian ancestors. The symbols bestow wishes of love, life, happiness, protection and success.
The designs adorning each pysanka are drawn onto the eggs with beeswax. To make the design and color, wax is applied using a stylus tool called a "kistka" and dipping the egg in dyes of progressively darker shades. When you have your darkest shade set, you remove the wax to reveal your creation. It's quite exciting!
life or eternity
stars or Mary's tears for Jesus
defense and protection
man, woman, and child; or, birth, life and death; or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
immortality or pure love
strength, renewal or eternal life
Conclusion: Supporting Ukrainian Artisan Craftsmanship
Now that you're familiar with heritage craft made in Ukraine, you may be wondering how you can support them and ensuring that these traditions don't die out.
Some things you can do include:
- Taking workshops to learn the craft that sparks your fancy - Workshops and classes are available in many cities throughout the US and Canada
- Buy crafts that you love - a great resource for buying various traditional crafts from Ukraine include Etsy and just googling the items you're interested in
- Travel to Ukraine - what better way to support artisans than to travel to the place where they originate? Cities and small towns throughout Ukraine hold outdoor markets where all kinds of handmade goods are sold
- If you're a designer, collaborate with Ukrainian artisans on a capsule collection
Artisan goods preserve tradition and culture. If you enjoy Ukrainian handmade crafts, support the continued production of them.