Rushnyk plays a unique role in culture of Ukraine. The handmade embroidered towel can tell everything about Ukrainian people – about history and traditions, about joys and sorrows, about art and mystery, about hospitality and faith, about generosity and entirety of Ukrainian soul.
So, what is the meaning of Ukrainian rushnyk and why is it so important for Ukrainians? To begin with,
rushnyk is a towel decorated with embroidered ornamental patterns and symbols.
It took its name from a word “ruka”, which means “hand”. According to another version, «rushnyk» comes from the verb «rushaty», which means «to start going your way».
But Ukrainian women don’t create this piece of art only to wipe the hands, Ukrainian rushnyk has wider meaning.
- Historical. The tradition to put embroidered symbols on a towel dates back to ancient times. First rushnyks were used in ritual purpose. They contained information about the aim and sequence of ritual action. It was like first alphabet. Time passed, and new historical events were reflected in towel’s ornament. And now we can study the history of Ukrainian people by reading these symbols.
- Traditional. Every region in Ukraine has its own embroidery style. The wonderful needlework skill passed from mother to daughter for more than 1000 years.
- Religious. Before Christianity, people believed that they could communicate with gods through patterns on rushnyk. They asked for good harvest, health or prosperity by using special symbols. Nowadays rushnyk is used during the liturgy in Christianity.
- Decorative. Ukrainians decorated their houses with embroidered rushnyks.
There are many styles and patterns in embroidery. Ukrainians often use geometric and floral ornaments and elements depicting people, birds and animals. The main themes are:
- The tree of life, the main symbol of family and all ancestors.
- Octagonal star symbolizes the mother and the source of life.
- Symbols of sun and water – the two elements that created life. They also have a meaning of mother’s and father’s energy.
- Rhombus means the goddess of land and fertility. The good sign of defense and happiness.
- Rectangle or square are the symbols of land and sown field.
- Triangle is the symbol of man and human communication.
The great importance is attached to the colors of embroidery. There are six main colors. And for a long time, each color has its own meaning.
Black – symbolizes the Earth and the land. Red means joy, love and passion, also it is a symbol of love for life. White is the color of clearness, purity and holiness. Blue is the color of purification and peaceful mind. It is a symbol of the sky and water. This color is used for patterns, which protect from diseases. Green – the color of plants, it is a symbol of spring and youth. At last, yellow – is a symbol of the stars and moonlight, but at the same time it is considered the color of separation. But there is another color, hot yellow. This color has quite different meaning. It symbolizes wealth, gold, wheat and honey.
Ukrainian rushnyk was not just an object of everyday life, but it carried a certain symbolic role. For this reason, it was made very carefully, observing all norms and rules.
For example, the cloth for rushnyk had to be solid (it couldn’t be stitched from two or more pieces).
The width of the towel was standard, about 30-40 cm, mainly due to the width of the loom.
The choice of thread for embroidery was also a very important process. The main material for the embroidery thread was hemp and wool. Also, they were made from flax. Threads were made as thin and smooth as possible. After that, they were whitened and painted in the needed color, waxed or greased. Then the threads were painted with natural materials. The cones of alder, elderberry or oak acorns were used to get black color, and cranberries were used to get red color.
From the middle of the XIX century Ukrainians began to use metal and silk threads, as well as beads. By the way, silk was considered the most favored material for embroidery. However, at that time it was supplied only from China, and therefore it was very expensive. Silk threads were used to decorate only the most expensive things. Woolen threads were also quite expensive, flax and hemp were slightly cheaper.
The cotton fiber had the lowest value. However, this material had become one of the most used in the embroidery because of its low cost.
Using in ceremonies
Every event in Ukrainian traditional family is connected with rushnyk. It is the first gift of godmother to newly born child. Rushnyk used to be the best bottom drawer, that young woman made herself for a future wedding. It used to be a mother’s blessing for the grown son to start his own independent life. Two loving people are tied by rushnyk on wedding ceremony for long and firm marriage. And rushnyk is tied to the cross during funeral ceremony.
Rushnyk for Ukrainian wedding is made in accordance with rules and traditions. The most beautiful traditions are connected with wedding. For example, during wedding ceremony, the young couple has to stand on a towel, when they are declared to become a family. It is like entering into a new life together. The wife has to take this towel at home and to keep it for the rest of her life. Groom’s parents congratulate the newlyweds with ritual bread “korovai”, and, of course, it is placed on rushnyk.
There is one more main rite – this is a parent’s blessing. Parents should have the icons of the Virgin and Savior. These icons are covered by small embroidered towels, which are called «bozhnyky». All these traditions are full of love and symbolism.
Ukrainian embroidered towel inspires poets and singers for many centuries. National songs about rushnyk are filled with love and passion, pain and worries. The most famous song about rushnyk is “Ridna maty moya”, written by A. Malysko and P. Maiboroda. In Ukraine there are many national museums, where the great collections of rushnyks are presented. The history of rushnyk reflected in art, allows Ukrainians to understand their ancestors and feel deep connection with them.