I want to dedicate this post to my grandpa, Al Traaseth, who passed away one year ago this week. Grandpa was an inspiring person. Adventurous, kind, generous, open-minded, a world traveler, a polyglot. He was a Russian and Latin teacher, involved from the beginning with the Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, Minnesota. He brought all of his 14 grandkids, including me, to Washington, D.C. when we were around 10 years old. He encouraged us to try new things, especially food (in my case, escargot. Thanks, grandpa, I love it to this day!), and go to new places, and I think his example had a big impact on who I am today: an adventurous traveler who is curious about the world and loves languages, food, and the humanities. He even taught me how to say “I love you” in Russian so I could surprise my Russian-speaking boyfriend.
When I was growing up, there were a few things in my parents’ house that my grandpa had brought back from his travels: a Russian doll in traditional dress, some wooden elephants from Thailand. My mom would tell me about where they came from and how my grandpa had gone to this place or that. There were stories about him giving his shoes to a guy in Haiti and eating food with the tour guides in India so he could eat the real spicy stuff instead of the toned down American stuff. When I was in middle school or high school, my mom showed me another souvenir that my grandpa had brought back for her in the 1970s: an embroidered Ukrainian shirt. Of course, I quickly stole this from my mom’s closet and started wearing it. I wore it for probably a good 6 or 7 years. Alas, by the end of college it no longer fit, and I had to retire it (after almost tearing some seams trying to get it on).
Luckily, the saga of the Ukrainian shirt was not over, and a couple years ago my amazing talented mom surprised me for Christmas with a new shirt she had made, on which she had replicated the embroidery from the old one. Thanks, mom! It is so awesome. Also, let’s all just take a second to appreciate the bajillion hours my mom spent making and cross-stitching that shirt. Super awesome.
My mom didn’t even realize that I had written a paper about Ukrainian shirts for my Dress and Textiles in World Cultures class at FIT, so I was super into Ukrainian shirts (almost to the point that I wanted to make my own and wear it like these badass ladies from the 70s. Only minus the hairstyles…)
So, for your reading pleasure, here is a slightly abridged version of my paper The Ukrainian Shirt: Historical Handcraft and Enduring Cultural Symbol:
The story of the Ukrainian shirt encompasses a long history of textile production, garment construction, embroidery, spiritual beliefs and traditional customs that attest to the Ukrainian peoples’ rare ability to retain a strong cultural identity despite changing political boundaries and various invasions. The shirt has been worn in what is present-day Ukraine since the time of the Scythians in the seventh century B.C.E. Both men and women wore leather shirts with sleeves as they roamed the steppes between the Danube and Don rivers as nomadic cattle breeders. By the twelfth century, when the people of Ukraine lived a settled life and a feudal system had begun in Ancient Rus’, the Ukrainian “folk dress” that we recognize today was already starting to develop, recognizably different from the rest of Europe and the east. Men and women of all social classes wore folk dress, and the shirt was the basic garment, always worn belted, over which various types of pants or overskirts were worn.
Shirts were made of homespun linen of flax and hemp. The cut of the shirt was the same for men and women, but women’s shirts were longer, almost down to the feet. A long width of fabric was folded in half over the shoulders and straight pieces were sewn onto the sides below the armholes, as the homespun was not wide enough to go around the body. Narrow tubular sleeves were set into the armholes, and the sleeves were often longer than the arm in order to cover the hand in cold weather. The collarless shirts had a high neck and a slit in the middle of the chest, fastened with a button at the top. Embroidery already had a long history in Ancient Rus’, and shirts were often embroidered in red around the neck and front slit.
By the sixteenth century, the term Ukraine, meaning “borderland,” began to replace the name of Rus’ and differentiation in dress based on social class became more common. The wealthy classes started to dress more like the Lithuanian, Polish, and Hungarian ruling elite in more tailored, low-necked costumes, while the rural populations, mainly enserfed villagers, continued to wear folk costume. While dress among social groups changed, the shirt was the universal daily garment for all classes, differing only in decoration and quality of material. The shirt was still made of homespun linen, but was now usually painstakingly bleached white, and ornamentation was gradually enriched. For men, three types of shirt construction were possible, different styles being more common in different regions.
Women’s shirts were also made in two styles. The first was similar to the man’s shirt with shoulder insets, but with wider sleeves. The high neck was gathered into a narrow neckband, and a string with small tassels was threaded through two loops at the center of the neckband and tied in a bow.
The second style, called “Carpathian,” had unbroken sleeves. The shoulder insets and sleeve were cut in one and sewn to the front and back widths up to the neck, like what we now call the “raglan sleeve.” The sleeves were very full and slightly flared towards the bottom, and the neckline was gathered with a drawstring that tied at the front. Women’s shirts were still long, reaching the ankle, and the sleeves were open, not drawn together at the wrist, and of normal sleeve length or shorter. Sometimes the sleeves were made of a different material than the front and back, such as cotton muslin or a finer linen. All shirts and other garments were cut to waste as little cloth as possible. Cuffs and collars were added in the nineteenth century, but some shirts were still worn without them. Embroidery continued to be the principal embellishment on shirts for men and women.
Both embroidery and textile weaving and production were done in the homes of Ukrainian peasant families. Until the late nineteenth century, almost every Ukrainian household produced its own textiles, and in some remote areas of the Carpathian mountains, they still do. Creating the homespun linen was a long process, from planting and harvesting the flax to wetting it with spring or well water, drying it in the sun to be bleached, spinning the yarn and finally weaving the textile. The weaving was usually done on a treadle loom. By the eighteenth century weaving was also done on a larger scale as textile centers developed, particularly in the Chernihiv region. Private or state-owned manufacturies, town guilds, and individual peasant and town weavers all produced textiles for the local populations. In the nineteenth century many weaving centers closed down due to increased prices of raw materials, but trained peasants and craftspeople opened workshops and used locally produced materials, including cotton. The technical skills learned in the weaving centers being applied to village production is “one explanation for the unusually sophisticated technique and ornamentation that is found in Ukrainian folk textiles” (Grabowicz and Shust , 9-10).
Like weaving, embroidery also expanded from the home to a larger scale, with guilds forming as early as the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, almost every woman in Ukraine did embroidery, but it was also a specialized craft as some peasant women began to produce textiles for the town and city markets and families made their living on embroidery, outside of the guilds. As the shirts were always white linen (people wearing colored shirts would be considered foreigners), it was primarily the embroidery yarns that were dyed different colors. Traditionally, natural dyes were used to create tones that were both earthy and durable. Cochineal and sandalwood were used for red, walnut or sunflower seed husks and young leaves of black maple trees for black, onion skins and buckwheat husks for yellow, and apple and oak bark for orange. The homespun threads were soaked in dye for up to a week and then hung out to dry.
Ukrainian embroidery techniques are extremely advanced and varied, with more than one hundred different recorded stitches. The embroidery can be divided into four basic types: openwork embroidery, flat stitches, weaving stitches, and cross-stitch. All of these types are done in counted thread patterns, where the pattern follows the weave of the even plain weave ground fabric.
Openwork embroidery creates open space in the fabric by either tightly sewing around areas without cutting thread, as in the eyelet stitch, ochka, or by cutting threads out of the fabric and embroidering around and over the open spaces, known as cut-thread work. Two types of Ukrainian cut-thread work are hem stitching, known as merezhka, and cutwork known as vyrizuvania. These techniques create lacy patterns that often have bars or embroidery with darning over the open spaces where thread was removed. Openwork embroidery is usually done with light colored threads on ground fabric of the same color.
Flat stitches are used to follow lines or fill in shapes and lie smoothly on the ground fabric. Nastyluvania, hlad, and yavorivka are three common styles of Ukrainian flat stitching. Nastyluvania is often used with openwork stitching in motifs of leaves, flowers, and stars. Hlad stitching is typically used as a fill-in stitch, and yavorivka is a very angular style of embroidery that is done in straight rows of pattern.
Weaving stitches are the most ancient of Ukrainian embroideries, and are so named because the needle imitates a shuttle. Both nyzynka (nyz) embroidery, worked in the direction of the warp, and perevolikania, worked in the direction of the weft, are embroidered from the underside of the fabric. The needle runs over and under one or more warps or wefts of the ground fabric, forming rows that create a geometric background pattern. Flat stitches or cross stitches are often applied on the right side of the fabric to fill in uncovered spaces.
Finally, in cross-stitch embroidery, each stitch is made up of two diagonal lines crossing each other, worked in blocks. This is now the most popular embroidery stitch in Ukraine, and is also the easiest to learn.
Given the long and laborious process of production, textiles were of course extremely valuable for both peasants and landowners. Besides being economically valuable, textiles and in particular shirts also had great cultural and spiritual significance. The shirt was worn next to the body, so it was considered the double of the person wearing it. Some believed that character traits, physical conditions, and both good and bad attributes could be transferred from the wearer to the shirt and vice versa. For this reason, shirts were never loaned. Embroidered shirts made by mothers for their sons before they left to join the army also carried great significance. The shirt served as a remembrance for the boy of his mother back home, and if he died in battle, he would be buried in it.
Shirts and other textiles were also associated with rites of passage, particularly marriage. Every Ukrainian girl learned to embroider, weave, spin, and sew at a very young age, being skilled with a needle and thread as young as six years old. With the help of her mother, she would begin producing textiles for her trousseau, which would be the dowry for her future marriage. This included bolts of cloth, household linens, ritual cloths, and clothing including up to fifty embroidered shirts. Even the poorest peasant woman would have at least twenty shirts in her trousseau by the time of her marriage. The items of the dowry were often exhibited and inspected by guests at the wedding. The shirts played a role in the actual wedding rituals as well. At betrothal, gifts such as embroidered shirts or ritual cloths (rushnyky) were exchanged, and the night before the wedding, or “Maiden’s Eve,” the groom’s ushers would deliver gifts from the groom to the future bride, and she would send them back with gifts for her groom. This always included a shirt she had embroidered especially for him that he would wear for the wedding, like the one below. The woman would of course wear an embroidered shirt at the wedding as well, under several other garments and accessorized with a hair wreath.
The textiles associated with the Ukrainian folk wedding, which was more important than civil or religious wedding ceremonies, were used in rituals that ensured good fortune, fertility, and prosperity for the newlywed couple. The embroidery motifs and arrangement on the shirt were originally thought to have symbolic power related to these elements.The most common of these motifs is the ancient symbol of the fertility goddess, known in Ukraine as “Berehinia,” who is represented in various media from the Neolithic times through the present day.
She is represented in both realistic and abstract forms, usually with her arms raised up, and sometimes she is transformed into a “tree of life.” The goddess is also associated with flowers, even turning into an image of three flowers, and she is often accompanied by a small “daughter goddess,” symbolizing sexual fertility. In Ukraine, the goddess sometimes has bird claws, as birds live in the sky and are considered divine beings. Motifs of Berehinia were often repeated on the edges of shirts, especially for weddings. Examples of stylized tree of life motifs can be seen on the shirts below.
Other fertility designs used in embroidery include lozenges surrounded by rays and hooks, and lozenges divided into quadrants with a dot in the middle of each, known as the “fertile” or “sown field” motif.
The grape vine motif also recurs in Ukrainian embroidery on shirts, and may be associated with fertility as well, related to the harvest and fertility of the earth.
While the fertility motifs occur in many reincarnations on Ukrainian shirts, especially for weddings, embroidery designs are otherwise extremely varied. Some motifs may have ancient roots and originally had symbolic meanings that have now been forgotten, while other motifs are purely decorative. There are regional differences in embroidery designs, and some generalizations can be made about design preference based on time period. For example, patterns were almost exclusively geometric between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, and geometricized plant motifs appeared in the seventeenth century as cross-stitch embroidery became popular. The color red was prominent, but other colors were used as well, and white-work was common for everyday wear. Younger girls tended to wear brighter colors and heavier cutwork designs, while older women wore more subdued designs and widows would no longer wear red. The placement of the designs, however, was consistent throughout Ukraine. Embroidered motifs were thought to protect the wearer from evil forces, so they were placed around any opening in the clothing where the forces might get in – the neckline, cuffs, bottom hem, front opening, and also the entire sleeves and especially upper arm, which was considered the source of strength. Women’s shirts often have more embroidery than men’s, as women are thought to require more protection as the creators of new life.
Traditional embroidery techniques and motifs contribute to the uniquely Ukrainian identity that the shirts symbolize, which still lives on today, despite the fact that traditional peasant dress ceased to be used for everyday wear in most regions by the first quarter of the twentieth century. As industrialism made factory-made clothing and textiles more readily available and urban fashions influenced traditional styles, folk dress was replaced by modern clothing in all but the most remote regions of Ukraine. At the same time, the symbolic importance of folk costume started to be recognized and even glorified, first by the romantic movement of the turn of the twentieth century when peasant culture was thought of as “the carrier and embodiment of the true national ‘essence’” (Grabowicz and Shust, 15). For Ukrainian immigrants in Poland after World War II, the shirt and other textiles became important symbols of national identity, and were used for special occasions. During the Soviet period, the Ukrainian shirt was banned because it was a nationalist symbol, and a man could be sent to Siberia for wearing one. When Ukraine finally gained its independence in 1991, President Leonid Kravchuk and many others celebrated by wearing elaborately embroidered Ukrainian shirts under their suits.
In the 1960s, a renewed interest in ethnicity led to the revival of traditional Ukrainian textiles and costume, particularly in wedding ceremonies. In Ukraine and expatriate communities in other countries, the traditional folk costume has lived on in dance groups and theatrical performances, although many of these costumes are exaggerated and stylized versions of the original folk costume. While “folk dress” motifs and designs go in and out of style in mainstream fashion, the Ukrainian shirt still retains its cultural significance and status as a symbol of national identity. Young girls are often still taught to embroider, and many have at least one traditional Ukrainian shirt of their own.
Despite long periods of invasion and oppression, Ukraine has retained its individuality that manifests itself in traditional textile crafts. The Ukrainian shirt lives on today as a representation of nationalism that is also steeped in a long history of spirituality, cultural traditions and skilled handcraft.
So thank you, Grandpa, for cultivating in me and so many others an interest in and respect for other languages and cultures. You were an inspiration to so many, and I love you. RIP.
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Wonderful article! I really enjoyed it, and it makes my fingers just itch to try embroidering a shirt myself. I’m sure there must be charts to be had out there somewhere. Waste canvas would make a modern attempt so much easier! 🙂
Thank you, there are definitely lots of embroidery patterns out there for you to try!