30 May 2018

Rushnyky - Stitched talismans from Ukraine - Part 1

Rushnyk, detail.

On May 24 a friend and I drove to Clinton, Massachusetts, home of the Museum of Russian Icons, to view an exhibit of a type of textile unfamiliar to both of us: the rushnyk, a cloth imbued with meaning and symbolism.  Most of the rushnyky on display dated from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century; the textiles were cleverly draped in pairs over rods which were wall-mounted or attached to panels hung from the ceiling tracks.  From the exhibit introduction:

"A house without a rushnyk is not a home." -Ukrainian proverb

The word rushnyk derives from ruka, "hand," and while it can refer to an ordinary towel, the ceremonial rushnyk is distinct in its ornamentation and its importance.  The typical placement of rushnyky over icons, on crosses, over graves, and at the sites of holy wells indicate [sic] their sacred status.  The belief in the protective strength and sacred natures of these textiles is tremendously ancient.
A rushnyk is made of an un-seamed length of whole white cloth, which represents the pathway of life's journey.   The ends are hemmed, knotted, or finished with some type of fringe or lacework.  Thus they are "sealed," with a beginning and an end.
The talismanic properties of the rushnyk are reinforced by woven or embroidered motifs of each end.  These are nearly always identical, as the cloth is meant to be hung or held with the ends parallel to each other.  The center of the cloth is usually an unadorned expanse of white, although some woven rushnyky include a simple pattern throughout.
In almost any Ukrainian home, the family icons - and, more recently, family photographs - would be draped in rushnyky, to offer protection to family, home, and village.  When honored guests are greeted, bread and salt are presented on outstretched hands that are covered with a rushnyk.  Rushnyky are used in binding rituals to invoke fertility, and are believed to function as an opening to the sacred realm.  The cloths appear in all family rituals: infants are wrapped in them at birth, they play a significant role in betrothal and wedding ceremonies, and are used in funeral rites.
Remarkably, even after the turmoil of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the use of rushnyk is still an integral part of Ukrainian culture.
Museum of Russian Icons.

Gallery with rushnyky.

Rushnyk draped over family photos (window is reflection.)

Historically, many types of Ukrainian embroidery stitches were utilized to make rushnyky  However, in a bit of cultural transfer, cross-stitch from western Europe infiltrated Ukraine by way of premiums packed with bars of soap. From the exhibit text:
Cross-Stitch: "Brocard" Embroidery

Ukrainian embroidery is renowned for possessing over 200 distinct stitching techniques, many of which were believed to possess special energies.  You can examine several of these in the embroidered ritual towels on display.  The techniques used in the convent rushnyky from Naddnipianshchyna allowed for the patterns to appear on both sides of the fabric.  Another style, called satin stitch, used long stitches to give the embroidery a smooth, silky appearance.  The Zavolikannia stitch imitates the looks of a woven design.

In the 19th century, the simpler cross-stitching, which was already widespread in western Europe, began to replace traditional complex techniques.  The introduction of the technique displayed here is attributed to a French perfumer, Henry Brocard, who founded a perfume and soap factory in the Moscow region in 1864.  He introduced an inexpensive glycerin soap which was widely distributed throughout the Russian Empire, including central and eastern regions of Ukraine.

As an incentive to buy this product, Brocard & Co. offered embroidery patterns, usually floral, as premiums included in the soap packages.  Within a short period of time these new cross-stitch patterns became very trendy, even in remote villages, and supplanted many of the authentic stitching techniques and patterns.  Women's magazines began to feature elaborate cross-stitching scenes, and pattern books were published in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kyiv.  Much of the regional nuance and cultural history of embroidered design was lost with the spread of cross-stitch patterns.

By the last decades of the 19th century, another French firm, the DMC company (Dollfus Mieg et Cie), had introduced strong mercerized thread (thread that is chemically treated to increase luster and strength) in a wide variety of vibrant colors into Ukrainian folk embroidery.
Convent-made rushynyk draped over icon.

Convent-made rushnyky.

Satin-stitch rushnyky.

Satin-stitch rushnyk, detail.

Cross-stitch patterns and DMC embroidery, tools of cultural transfer.

Although I recognize the loss of heritage with the incursion of cross-stitch, this style of stitching does result in textiles with a lot of strong graphic appeal, especially in the black and red color schemes of many of the rushnyky.

Cross-stitch rushnyky.

Cross-stitch rushnyky.

Cross-stitch rushnyky, details.

Floral and geometric rushnyky and cross-stitch detail.

Geometric patterns.

Wonderful red and white design.

Geometry and knotted border.

In addition to geometric patterns and floral motifs, a common motif in many rushnyky is the Tree of Life, a symbol found in many cultures, from Indian palampore bedspreads to American quilts. From the exhibit text:
The Tree of Life (Derevo zhyttia)

One of the most prominent motifs in both embroidered and woven rushnyky is the Tree of Life.  If is a symbol of prosperity, fertility, and longevity, and its display in the home functions as an amulet to protect the family.  This tradition is similar to the Tree of Life quilts made in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The "Tree" can take a variety of forms - a recognizable tree or branch with leaves and flowers; horizontal or vertical bands of leaves or vines; a bouquet of flowers; or even a potted plant.

Birds are sometimes depicted in the foliage.  The tree often sprouts from the upraised arms of the Earth Goddess (Berehynia), while the depiction of the Tree-Cross sometimes seems to sprout with vegetation.

The symbol is archetypal in world mythologies.  The Tree is understood in many cultures, from ancient Assyria to the Germanic tribes, to be the axis mundi, a universal pillar that connects heaven, earth, and the underworld.  It represents the source of life, regeneration and fertility, wisdom, healing, and sustenance.  In Christianity, the Cross of Christ is understood to be the Life-giving Tree, by which believers can enter heaven and be granted eternal life.

Convent-made rushnyk, Tree of Life image, detail.