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The Story of Ukrainian Artisan Craftsmanship

Updated on August 5, 2017
Traditional Ukrainian flower crown and embroidery
Traditional Ukrainian flower crown and embroidery | Source

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 these long gone times, 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 now once again 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

Map of Ukraine with each region's embroidery annotated
Map of Ukraine with each region's embroidery annotated | Source
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Vyshyvanka stand at an outdoor market in Kyiv, UkraineThis girl is wearing a "vinok" and a "hustka", which is a traditional embroidered shawl or scarf that usually has fringes
Vyshyvanka stand at an outdoor market in Kyiv, Ukraine
Vyshyvanka stand at an outdoor market in Kyiv, Ukraine
Source
This girl is wearing a "vinok" and a "hustka", which is a traditional embroidered shawl or scarf that usually has fringes
This girl is wearing a "vinok" and a "hustka", which is a traditional embroidered shawl or scarf that usually has fringes
Source

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.

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A recreation of Ukrainian wedding dress from an old surviving photoA photo from a pre-Communist time Ukrainian wedding in the country's Carpathian Mountains region
A recreation of Ukrainian wedding dress from an old surviving photo
A recreation of Ukrainian wedding dress from an old surviving photo | Source
A photo from a pre-Communist time Ukrainian wedding in the country's Carpathian Mountains region
A photo from a pre-Communist time Ukrainian wedding in the country's Carpathian Mountains region | Source
Source

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.

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Source

"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 but they were believed to ward its wearer against evil.

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A Ukrainian wearing traditional garb, playing the bandura (a Ukrainian, plucked string, folk instrument)Ukrainian kozak
A Ukrainian wearing traditional garb, playing the bandura (a Ukrainian, plucked string, folk instrument)
A Ukrainian wearing traditional garb, playing the bandura (a Ukrainian, plucked string, folk instrument) | Source
Ukrainian kozak
Ukrainian kozak | Source
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Source
Source
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"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!

Shape
Meaning
line
life or eternity
dots
stars or Mary's tears for Jesus
waves
defense and protection
triangle
man, woman, and child; or, birth, life and death; or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
leaves/branches
immortality or pure love
trees
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.

Poll!

What's your favorite Ukrainian craft?

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A Look at the Vyshyvanka Through the Years

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    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 3 months ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Thanks for taking into the new world. The coral jewelry is marvelous and the photographs are superb.