A wealth of cloth

Ukrainian headdress from the "Timeless Treasures” exhibit at the Ukrainian Museum, on view through January 2019. Photo: Volodymyr Gritsyk, (c) The Ukrainian Museum,
The Ukrainian Museum shows off its recent major acquisition of costumes and textiles

Could you be wearing an ancient tradition?

Could be — if you like embroidered drawstring peasant shirts or favor embroidery on your denim jeans or jacket. Find out for sure, or simply marvel at the needlework and craftsmanship on display at the “Timeless Treasures” exhibit at the Ukrainian Museum on East Sixth Street.

Countless embroidered and woven symbols and designs used for hundreds of years adorn the traditional Ukrainian folk clothing are on display until January 2019.

The 20 sets of folk dress on display, plus belts, ritual cloths, textiles and jewelry, come from a larger collection acquired from Ivan Bernatsky, an avid collector. The exhibit is a bravura show of skills and imagination, honed over the centuries, in patternmaking, weaving, embroidery, appliqué, cutwork, and leather and metal work, performed in wintertime when there were no farm chores, to be worn in special events in the spring, such as Easter.

According to the museum's director, Maria Shust, designs and symbols had meanings beyond decoration, affirming ancient beliefs, offering protection and signaling tribal pride. The clothing could be read as easily as a passport, revealing the region, or even the village of the wearer.

“Although the costumes look basically the same to the average person,” Shust said, “the designs, the choice of embroidery colors, how the thread was used, the type of thread, the embroidery subjects, or where the embroidery was placed on the garment would automatically identify the region.”

This was an agrarian society from long before the Christian era, Shust said. “The symbols that decorate the shirts, skirts, belts, and ritual cloths refer to their ancient origins.” Colors like yellow, orange and red predominate; there were about 10 ways to represent the sun. The most commonly used designs were the tree of life, a symbol of growth and the family, and triad motifs, to represent earth, fire and water, or birth, maturity and death. Other embroidered designs featured stylized plants, stars and geometric patterns that can also be seen in the traditional, ornate Easter eggs, called pysanky, on display nearby.

They also believed their designs had special power. “The ancient goddess Berehynia was a special protector of women, a giver of fertility” Shust said. This stylized figure with outstretched and uplifted arms appears, with other images, on sleeves, on cuffs, at the neckline and at hems regardless of region. “They would embroider all the openings of a garment to prevent any evil from coming into the body,” she said.

A walk through the exhibit shows the scope of imagination and skill of these nameless craftswomen. Long before cities were founded, these local artisans used ancient symbols and patterns, handed down over generations and unique to their village, with distinctive materials and styles.

For instance, in the Podolia region, the predominant thread used was thick black wool, tightly sewn in elaborate patterns containing figures and accents of bright green, orange, red or yellow, giving the dramatic effect of stained glass.

Other costumes appear Russian or Turkish, such as the long linen shirts with pleated sleeves, and finely woven linen pants worn by the men of the Pokuttia region. A traveler from there could be spotted by the pompoms they favored on belts and scarves, and by the elaborately decorated lambskin vests worn by men and women. The vests burst with cutwork, beading and embroidery and could sell in any boutique on now fashionable Orchard Street.

The styles range from exuberant, Roma-like outfits with flared skirts, fitted vests and vibrant color accented with metallic thread and beadwork, to the simple white dresses of Polissia region, accented with red embroidery and woven hems.

These ornate clothes were not day to day but meant for special occasions, worn sparingly and washed in wintertime when the water was cold so the colors of the threads wouldn't run.

Visitors to the museum should stop by the display of vibrant Easter eggs, the traditional pysanky, in a nearby exhibit (plus a short film illustrating how the eggs were decorated). A map matches the eggs designs to the different regions, so visitors can compare the egg designs and regions

The Museum is open Wednesdays – Sundays 11:30am – 5pm; for information about the exhibit, admission fees and courses and workshops, visit www.ukrainianmuseum.org