EMBROIDERY is a most popular form of decorative arts in Ukraine. The finest examples of this work represent the world of beauty and fantasy, showing a poetic perception of the surrounding nature and drawing on images which hark back to ancient mythology, the customs and beliefs of our ancestors. Though the art of embroidery has its origins in the depth of centuries it is an indispensable part of modern culture.
Ornamentation of garments and articles for domestic furnishings with decorative stitchery has been practised since olden times. This fact is testified by numerous archaeological finds and written sources which evidence that embroidery in gold thread, beadwork and applique were wide spread among the Sarmatians and Scythians. Old Rus miniatures, frescos and archaeological finds, as well as chronicles testify to the prevalence and high skill of execution of embroidery in Kievan Rus (9th — 13th cc.). Geometric motifs, representations of cheetahs, lions and birds are often found in Old Rus embroidery patterns, marked by a clear rhythm, magnificence and harmony. Plant motifs are especially diverse.
Ukrainian museums have a number of highly artistic samples of Ukrainian embroidery in gold thread from the 16th— 17th centuries, as well as embroidery in silks from the 17th — 18th centuries, which decorated the clothes and articles of everyday use of the upper strata of society. The embroiderers used various precious textiles like brocade, China and Persian silks, West-European velvet, and gold and silver thread. Ukrainian embroidery in gold of the 16th — 17th centuries was the next stage in the evolution of designs. Here Old Rus traditions combined with the achievements of West-European and Oriental art to form a new style; this was a stage greatly influenced by the Renaissance. Adam Kisiel’s chasuble, Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s cap, epitrachelions of 1640, 1642, 1643 — all these are outstanding monuments of Ukrainian embroidery. Their decorative system impresses with its beauty, immaculate artistic taste, expressive design and plastic line which testify to the embroiderers’ new approach towards the interpretation of the artistic and aesthetic ideals of the time.
The latter half of the 17th and the 18th centuries saw the rapid development of all kinds of Ukrainian art. The optimism and energy which characterized Ukrainian culture at the latter half of the 17th — first of the 18th centuries was consistent with the spirit of the new Baroque style. Blending with local traditions, above all with folk art’s propensity to emphasized decorativeness, this style found a bright and original interpretation in Ukrainian art. In the embroidery it was manifested in the enhanced solemnity of articles and a magnificent and luxurious ornamentation. A new artistic ideal required a change of imagery and stylistic features and called for new embroidery techniques. Plant ornamentation began to dominate and an inner motion could be seen in it; while plasticity and painterly effects became more obvious. Embroidery in satin stitch with silks of various colours becomes dominant. A new approach to ornamentation is evident in the deviation from a flat pattern and decorative juxtaposition of local colour patches to a subtle gradation of colour transitions and the use of intermediate tones (a phelonion of 1749).
In the embroidery of phelonions of 1749 and 1763 and a sakkos of the 18th century the representation of local plant forms appears along with traditional motifs and the colour scheme is further intensified. The rich tonal gradation of colour provides for achieving the sensual-plastic expressiveness of ornamentation. If in the embroidery of the 16th — first half of the 17th centuries the connection with the illumination of manuscript books and engravings is felt, then in the 18th century unsurpassable samples of representation of florae are executed in a free and easy manner. It is as if the embroiderers were painting precious textiles with their needles.
At the turn of the 19th century workshops belonging to landowners were widespread in Ukraine where serfs embroidered household linens as well as garments. Articles decorated with beadwork or drawn-work in white silk on thin, transparent fabrics became particularly popular. Ukraine’s museums present Ukrainian folk embroidery most comprehensively, showing the stylistic unity of artistic features as well as the diversity of clearly defined regional peculiarities. These peculiarities are evident in the distinctive ornamental motifs and compositions, favourite colour gamut, and specific local techniques. Studies of the ornamental system and imagery of Ukrainian embroidery reveal the simultaneous coexistence of both plant and geometrical patterns, whose semantics prove their ancient origin. Being aesthetically re-interpreted they, nevertheless, have not lost their artistic value.
Folk terminology testifies to the deep realistic foundation of Ukrainian ornamentation, to the poetic perception of the surrounding world which find in embroidery a specific decorative interpretation.
Ukraine has a multitude of embroidery techniques. Each region possesses its own style of ornamentation and techniques which have developed through the centuries, as well as a distinctive colour scheme. Hence, the republic’s territory is conventionally divided into such ethnographic regions: Middle Dnieper area, Polissya, Podillya, South, the Carpathians and Subcarpathia.
In the Middle Dnieper area, Poltava embroidery holds the leading position. It is noted for its delicate array of pastel tones, the combination of counted thread technique with a great diversity of cut-out work. Embroidery in white on white is especially noteworthy, its artistic effect being obtained by the. pattern of high relief combined with chiaroscuro modelling. In the Chernihiv Region, red and black speckles are occasionally added. “Boats” and “the Chernihiv birch tree” are the favourite motifs.
The juxtaposition of red and black characterises embroidery of the Kiev Region. Motifs of grape vines and guelder rose are widely used, but the most popular are “starlets”.
The Polissya embroidery has a calm measured rhythm of separate laconic motifs the expressiveness of which is obtained by means of satin stitch in red.
Podolian embroidery is the most intricate and beautiful in Ukraine. The stitchery is laid closely together in dense, saturated lines of a geometrized design. Immaculate taste and beauty mark the embroidery of Klembivka and Horodkivka, centres of long-standing traditions in folk art in the Vinnytsya Region. In the Carpathians and Subcarpathia the embroidery is varied. In the Lviv Region especially noteworthy are embroideries made in Sokal, Horodok and Yavoriv districts. In the Hutsul area every district and even every village has artistic face of its own, marked by its favourite colour scheme. Thus, Kosmach embroidery is done in orange, Verkhovyna articles in black and violet, while Pystyn’s in black and red, Yavoriv’s in green and blue, and Horodenka’s in crimson and cherry.
Special mention should be made of ornamentation of rushnyks (decorative towels). They were of profound symbolic meaning, accompanying a peasant throughout his entire life, both in joy and in grief. Their ornamentation is very diverse, every locality having its traditional method. Podolian towels are not large in size. Their ornamentation presents a world of fantastic horses, riders, female figures with birds in their hands, all reminiscent of the old ages. They are embroidered in colour worsted laid in relief lines.
In the Dnieper area, the ornamentation of rushnyks consists mainly of a tree-flower of luxuriant form. Most ancient images (like the Tree of Life) as well as the symbolic meaning of red have been carried on here.
In the 1920s — 1930s, the creativity of Hanna Sobachko and Paraska Vlasenko flourished as well as of Tetyana Pata, Vira Pavlenko and Paraska Hlushchenko of Petrikivka who made patterns which were used in embroidery workshops throughout Ukraine.
Modern Ukrainian embroidery is a many-faceted phenomenon developing in the spheres of traditional amateur art and professional art as well. In large centres, handicrafts enterprises have been established which are concerned with the careful study and rebirth of classical heritage. Leading embroiderers like N. Hrechanivska, H. Tsybulyova, O. Velykodnya, O. Vasylenko, H. Hrabovska and S. Danyliuk continue and develop the finest traditions of their land.
New motifs appear in modern Ukrainian embroidery. The intensive process of interaction and mutual enrichment of various local centres stipulate the widening of its artistic and expressive means. Most interesting rushnyks acquire a new decorative quality turning into thematic panels for ornamentation of public interiors. Examples of these are works by H. Hryn, O. Vasylenko, E. Talashchenko and L. Lebiha.
Ukrainian embroidery testifies to the fact that people’s aesthetic views and artistic culture have found bright and profound realization in this kind of folk art.