Ukrainian embroidery: history, regional features, colors and patterns

Ukrainian embroidery takes the special place among other Ukrainian decorative arts. It is the result of complicated and painstaking labor, filled with great color variety and sacral ornaments. There are two variants of embroidery, manual and machine, which are used for male and female traditional Ukrainian shirts (“vyshyvanka”), dresses, towels (“rushnyk”) and household items, such as tablecloth, blankets and pillowcases.

History of Ukrainian embroidery

Ukrainian hand embroidery clothes have great value and deep history. According to archeological researches and finds embroidery, as a kind of national art, existed since the ancient times.

Greek historian Herodotus (425 BC) described Scythians’ clothes embroidered with different ornaments.

Silver plates with male images, discovered in Cherkassy region and dated in 6th century, were identical not only in clothing, but also in embroidered Ukrainian national costume of the 18th -19th centuries period.

Ukrainian folk embroidery was especially valuable during Kievan Rus times. A lot of boarding schools were opened for young ladies in order to help them hone their embroidery skills. In 16th-17th centuries distinctive needlework had the period of prosperity, when new embroidering techniques appeared.

Ukrainian embroidery designs and stitches had a long period of creation throughout centuries, developing in such a way authentic Ukrainian style.



Needlework was traditionally considered to be exceptionally the women’s work. Cross stitching skill was inherited from grandmothers to mothers and then to their daughters.  Each family had its own recognizable symbols and patterns that made the great historical value for new generation. Nowadays some Ukrainian villages still have hereditary needlewomen, who can introduce national ornament features and teach some embroidery techniques.

Geographic features of Ukrainian embroidery patterns

Each Ukrainian region has its own distinctive features of stitches and patterns in embroidered clothes, which vary in color and embroidering techniques.

Ukrainian embroidered shirts and blouses, which are called “vyshyvanka” in Ukraine, in Poltava region are usually stitched with white thread, rarely with red or grey. The shirtfronts are decorated with white patterns using sating stich technique.

A typical feature of vyshyvanka in Kharkiv region is polychrome ornament, made by cross-stich or half-cross-stich methods. Such patterns are embroidered with coarse thread, so the ornaments look like relief.

The stitches of the Polissya region are simple and accurate. Rhomboid lines of geometric patterns repeat several times.

Regional features and differences

Regional features and differences

Volhynia was always famous for its specific embroidered shirts. The stitches are usually geometric and clear, executed with red threads on the white-gray background.

In Kiev region the patterns of vyshyvanka are geometric and floral with stylized bunches of grapes, hop flowers and eight-petaled rosettes. Basic pattern colors are white, red and black.

In southern Ukrainian regions embroidery technique is similar to central region forms.

Western parts of Ukraine clothes are embroidered using a great variety of techniques such as cross-stitch, curly stitch, openwork, needle-weaving and twisted stitch. The needlework of Bukovyna is considered to be one of the richest in Ukraine. It usually includes a lot of colors combining with gold and silver thread.

Ukrainian embroidery colors

There are six basic colors, which are used in Ukrainian embroidery. Each of them has its symbolic value and meaning:

  • black color symbolizes the earth, which is well-known to be a breadwinner for Ukrainians;
  • red is a bright vivid color that means passion, happiness, love and cheerfulness;
  • white color is used for hemstitch embroidery. It is a source of purity, integrity and sanctity. In the olden times white color was very appreciated, so the wedding rings were made of silver as a talisman;
  • blue is a color of water and sky, the symbol of purification, inner peace and healing sicknesses;
  • green is a floral color, symbol of spring and youth;
  • yellow color is a symbol of stars and the moon. It is also the color of separation. According to folk tradition Ukrainians don`t give their beloved yellow flowers as they may cause breakup. Hot yellow color is a symbol of wealth, gold, wheat and honey.

Ukrainian embroidery symbols

During the last centuries Ukrainian traditions of using special symbols in embroidery didn’t go away.  All needlework patterns can be divided into three groups:

  • geometric;
  • floral;
  • zoomorphic.

Geometric embroidery patterns

The first group of patterns is the most popular and is typical for Slavic mythology. Crosses, circles, oblique and wavy lines, rhombs, squares and spirals have their encrypted deep meaning:

  • cross is the sign of the sun and light, which both resist the darkness;
  • circle (wheel) belongs to solar signs;
  • rectangle is the symbol of fertile field;
  • wavy line (infinity sign) is the symbol of water, the source of people’s life power. The rain is depicted with vertical lines, rivers and subterranean waters – with horizontal lines;
  • Perun’s sign (six-pointed cross in a circle or hexagon) was used as the lightning protection, amulet;
  • square or rhomb, divided into four parts (plowed field) is the sign of the earth and fertility;
  • spiral symbolizes the wisdom; if the color is blue-purple, it is the symbol of secret knowledge.

Floral embroidery symbols

The base of floral ornaments is people’s willing to depict the beauty of nature through the folk embroidery. The most popular ornaments are: oaks, grapes, viburnum, poppies, lilies, periwinkles.

Oak

Oak

Oak

Oak is a sacred tree, embodiment of the World tree, rising in heaven and connecting realities. In ancient mythology it is associated with the God of thunder and lightning Perun.

Oak is honored for its power, beauty and durability. People believed it could protect them from different diseases and evil sorcery.

Viburnum

Viburnum

Viburnum

Viburnum is not just a symbol of Ukrainian embroidered clothes, but of the whole Ukrainian nation. Many years ago this shrub was thought to symbolize a burning trinity: the Sun, the stars and the Moon.

Bright red berries of viburnum are the symbol of blood and immortal generation, fire and the sun. That`s why all wedding rushnyks, Ukrainian tablecloth and vyshyvanka patterns are filled with bunches of viburnum.

The combination of oak and viburnum patterns on vyshyvanka symbolizes healthy power, beauty and life energy.

Poppy

Poppy

Poppy

Since the ancient times poppy was believed to have magic power that could protect people from evil spirits. Poppies are also thought to emerge in places, where people died, from their blood drops. According to folk beliefs battlefield was always covered by poppies in spring. That`s why this tender red flower symbolizes the connection with ancestors’ world and eternity.

Poppy is often used in embroidering special rushnyks, “nakutnyks”, used for decorating icons.

Grapes

Grapes

Grapes

Grape is considered to be the symbol of fertility. It was used for making wedding wreaths and decorating wedding cakes.

Grape patterns are popular in embroidery of the central and northern Ukrainian regions.

Lily

Lily

Lily

Lily flower keeps the mystery of life. Leafs and buds of lily are also an integral part of floral patterns, composing indissoluble trinity connection: conception, development and continuity of life.

In embroidered ornaments lilies are often combined with crosses, as the symbol of blessing for a happy married life. Sometimes dew drops are depicted over the lily, which mean fertilization.

Periwinkle

Periwinkle

Periwinkle

Periwinkle is a “youth” pattern that symbolizes development and youth. It programs on achieving the goals and wishes. Periwinkle patterns are often used in wedding embroidery.

Zoomorphic embroidery ornaments

Zoomorphic (animal) ornaments are always depicted as animal silhouettes or separate fragments, such as ram horns, hare ears, carp scale etc.

Cock

Cock

Cock

Cock is a symbol of happiness, men’s health and wealth. Mothers embroidered rushnyks with cock patterns wishing the married couple happiness, health and prosperity.

Cockscomb is considered to be the symbol of fire.

Peacock

Peacock

Peacock

Peacock is a symbol of blossom and youth, family happiness. It is the Firebird that has the solar energy.

In Ukrainian embroidery peacocks holding viburnum berries in their beaks or sitting opposite one another on the tree symbolize a new family.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Cuckoo is one of the most mythical birds. Its symbolism is connected with death and other world. According to the folk beliefs cuckoos have the keys from the skyline and open it in spring for other birds.

In Ukrainian rushnyk and tablecloth patterns cuckoo is depicted on the viburnum branches and symbolizes procreation.


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