People took vyshyvanka even in exile. How Ukrainians preserved the genetic code

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The collection of the Lviv Museum of Folk Architecture and Life named after Clement Sheptytsky has about two thousand vyshyvanky (embroidery). The oldest are dated from the end of the XIX – the beginning of the XX century. These shirts were worn on weekdays and holidays, each of them is unique and inimitable in style, cut, and technique. Even now, fleeing the enemy fire, some Ukrainians leave everything but take their vyshyvanky with them.

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«Vyshivanka is the best new thing for Easter,» – says a researcher at the scientific fund department of the Museum, Lyubov Svarnyk. According to her, no matter what the embroidered shirt is – old, from the grandmother’s chest, or a modern one, from the store, you should wear the one that fits your soul. And even better, to embroider it yourself. Then, the «thread is knitted» and the genetic code of Ukrainians is not lost.

From ancient to modern

The history of embroidery in Ukraine dates back to ancient times, and it has become especially important over the past few centuries. Mostly, girls embroidered shirts. Those who were poorer had a few, and the rich had dozens of them.

According to Lyubov Svarnyk, everything is important in embroidery: from threads, and fabrics to ornaments, to the number of techniques and colours used.

«An embroidered shirt, depending on what fabric it is made of, what cut it is, what decorative motifs are present in it, can tell a lot about its owner. Where this girl came from, what events or dates she sewed it for. For example, in some areas, home-woven flax linen was common, in others – hemp. In particular, in the Lviv region they used mostly flax,» – says the scientist.

Embroidery is, in fact, an ethnographic marker, an address by which it was possible to determine where the owner of the shirt comes from, for example, from Hutsul or Bukovyna [areas of Western Ukraine, corresponding to Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi regions respectively].

«Of course, the main thing in a shirt is embroidery. The colour, character, and compositions, which changed with each new generation, were important. Initially, the embroidery of one region was only in the inserts, collars, and cuffs. Embroidery of the other was on the entire plane of the sleeve,»- Lyubov adds.

Embroidery ornaments and colours were also based on traditions. Each region, and sometimes individual villages in it had some differences in embroidery. For example, bright red colours were typical of the ancient Yavoriv region. The inhabitants of Sokal region used black thread (so-called graphic embroidery), although in the 20s and 30s the black background began to be «diluted» with coloured threads, and embroidery thus became colorful. In particular, there were always bright flowers on the Bukovynian shirt.

On weekdays, people embroidered simpler shirts, with poorer decoration, but on holidays the embroidered shirt had to be richer and more colorful. The best shirt was made for the girl when she was going to get married. Both the canvas and the threads were to be new in it. Such a shirt was kept by the woman throughout her life, respected and worn infrequently, except on holidays, or kept «for death».

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«Every girl and woman tried to embroider a shirt for herself because she wanted to have her own thing. The tradition of storing and inheriting a shirt has only recently emerged. In the past, people did not pass on or bequeath embroidered shirts to their children or grandchildren, because, firstly, they wore them, and secondly, they could only pass on boots, corali, coats, and scarves from generation to generation. The rest were burned or given to the poor after death,» – explains Lyubov Svarnyk.

A special shirt is for Easter

From time immemorial, women wore embroidered shirts constantly, because it was the basis of their clothes. However, they preferred to look especially festive at Easter.

«In the spring, nature is renewed, so people wanted to get into something new. Most often, they tried to buy new things just before the Easter holidays. It could be a completely new shirt, and the one that has just finished embroidering and decorating. Taras Shevchenko even has a poem «On Easter, on straw», where we read: «Children are against the sun. They played with Easter eggs. And they began to brag with new things», – the scientist continues.

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That is, both then and now, everyone wants to update their wardrobe for Easter.

«And the best novelty for these holidays is an embroidered shirt. This is the maintenance of traditions and involvement in the roots of the family. Of course, it’s easiest to go and buy a shirt, but then there is no attraction to history. In addition, the purchased shirt will not be as respected as embroidered by hand. The choice can fall only on the one where there is a large pattern, well, because now it is fashionable to wear an embroidered shirt. However, then it will be just a tribute to fashion, not a dream thing. Anyone who is interested in embroidery will always find time to visit the exhibition, read history, enroll in courses, and do not be lazy to embroider a shirt yourself. Because, as I said, it will be the best,» – Lyubov Svarnyk adds.

The strength of the embroidered shirt

According to the scientist, the protection of Christians from all evil and bad has always been and is prayer, but the embroidered shirt is a symbol of family memory, warmth, joy, and the code of happiness.

«The embroidered shirt has to «warm up» because it was embroidered by a mother, grandmother or great-grandmother. We must remember our family, our land, and our traditions, as our ancestors did. Even in the years of exile, people take documents and clothes with them, including an embroidered shirt as the basis of the national costume,» – the scientist emphasizes.

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Lyubov Svarnyk’s has not have many embroidered shirts. Some are embroidered by herself, but most are decorated with machine embroidery. And no museum.

«I’m like a shoemaker without boots. I embroidered by hand when there were small children and grandchildren. I don’t have and don’t want to have a museum embroidered shirt. I remember the late Borys Voznytsky telling me that a museum’s moral code is never to collect, never to keep at home the things you do,» – she says.

She adds that, taking care here, in the west of Ukraine, of honoring our kind, we should not forget, even remind of traditions to those who unintentionally or deliberately forget about them.

«For example, each of us can give embroidered shirts to people who came to us from the east. Such a gift will be a sign that we accept them into our family,» – said Lyubov Svarnyk.

In the Lviv Museum of Folk Architecture and Life named after Klymenty Sheptytsky has organized various exhibitions before the Easter holidays, such as Easter in Yavoriv region, little-known Lviv region, Sokal region, Zhydachiv region. This year there was to be an exhibition about Easter in Boykivshchyna. According to Lyubov Svarnyk, they have even selected exhibits, including old photographs, ceramics, interior fabrics, folk costumes, including shirts. However, first because of the coronavirus, and now because of the war, this exhibition was not organized.

Today, during the war, the museum is open to visitors, and its interiors have become impoverished, as the best exhibits have been preserved.

In total, the museum has up to 23 thousand exhibits, two thousand of which are embroidered shirts from Pokuttya, Boykivshchyna, Hutsulshchyna, Polissya, Zakarpattia. A similar museum, which presents a collection of ancient clothes and household items from all over Ukraine, is located in the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life in Pyrohiv.

By Olha Shveda, translated by Kateryna Bortniak 

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.


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