White on White : Vyshyvanka and Poltava Embroidery

My favorite piece of clothing is a white linen shirt. The tailoring is plain–a straight, loose bodice is framed by a rounded collar and full three-quarter sleeves. In Ukrainian it’s called vyshyvanka, which means “an embroidered shirt,” and indeed the ornamentation is what makes this simple garment unique. The embroidery runs near the collar and falls onto the front of the bodice. It covers the sleeves so thickly that in some parts the fabric is hardly seen. The stitches become the bands of stars, snowflakes, lace and guelder rose, kalyna, a plant that in the symbolic language of Ukrainian art speaks of beauty and happiness. On my shirt, kalyna is abstract enough to be either flowers or berries, and it is intertwined with sinuous leaves and wispy stems. In the artist’s rendering of bile po bilomu, an embroidery technique native to Poltava, only one color is used to capture all of the nuances that in nature are given by a diversity of hues. The color is white.

white-shirt2

Bile po bilomu, or “white on white”, is among the oldest and most complicated embroideries, combining up to twenty different techniques and using drawn thread and counted stitch patterns to create an ornament full of light and shimmer. The artist who created my shirt is Nadia Vakulenko, one of the leading embroidery masters in Ukraine and a teacher at the Reshetylivka Arts Lyceum. Reshetylivka is a small town located in the Poltava region of central Ukraine. I first came here looking for any trace of my great-grandmother Olena and to learn about Ukrainian textile arts. The two aims were closely related, because Olena not only was one of the most creative people in our family, leaving behind several cookbooks and countless knits and embroideries, she also worked at Reshetylivka’s Clara Zetkin carpet factory.

If the connection might have been between a German Marxist and Ukrainian carpets is tenuous, that between Reshetylivka and art isn’t. Despite its small size, the town has an old heritage as an artistic center of Ukraine, with many original techniques in embroidery, weaving, carpet making, wood carving and painting blossoming in its studios and guilds. Legend has it that the town’s cobblers used to make red boots for the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host, the well-known dandies. Poltava style embroidery can include a range of colors, but pastels predominate–pale blue, sepia beige, delicate pink, grey, sea wave green. Bile po bilomu, or “white on white”, on the other hand, is the most stylized and complicated of all techniques.

white embroidery1

The embroidery captures the glimmer of water touched by ice as well as the whirlwind of falling spring petals. The geometrical motifs with names like “a broken branch,” “nightingale’s eyes,” “ram’s horns” or “carnations,” are alternated with the lace-like drawn-thread embroidery called merezhka poltavska.

whiteshirt1amerezhka-poltavska

Merezhka exists all over Ukraine, but its Poltava variant is marked by the use of rich floral patterns and white color. To create it, a master removes threads one by one, and then embroiders tiny stitches on the remaining fabric to create a pattern. The finished work looks like lace, and it’s done entirely by hand. The serrated edges on the collar and cuffs are also handmade.

white-cuff

The “white on white” technique doesn’t allow for any mistakes, and an error in counting even a single thread leaves the whole pattern crooked. Moreover, no knots are allowed in the finished work, and the reverse should look as neat as the face side. To give a design luminosity and form, threads of different weights and finishes are used, while the stitches are angled to let light catch the minute details.

It takes almost a year to finish such a garment. There are few places in Ukraine, and indeed Europe, where traditional techniques are still being used. First, the easier cross-stitch introduced in the 19th century has supplanted the laborious traditional methods. Second, machine and computer embroidery have dealt another blow to artisans. Nadia Vakulenko and Alla Kys are in charge of the artisanal embroidery faculty at the Reshetylivka Arts Lyceum, and despite the lack of funds and difficulty of enrolling students–partly explained by the demographic crisis, partly by the lack of prestige of arts as a vocation, they are completely devoted to fostering a new generation of artisans. Private commissions, like mine, go towards maintaining the school facilities and purchasing supplies.

white-lyshtva-reshetylivka

I find photos of Olena. In one picture, the whole family poses in front of the blooming cherry trees, my grandfather and his twin brother, still mere infants, held by Olena’s mother in law. The year is 1929. The older generation is wearing traditional attire, embroidered shirts, thickly pleated dresses, while the younger folk are in shapeless quilted jackets. The contrast between the parents and children that would be accentuated further in the coming decades couldn’t be more striking. Looking at Olena’s embroideries, chemises, shirts and table linens, I see the white on white motifs that have a distinctive Reshetylivka mark. But the Clara Zetkin factory fell apart along with the Soviet Union and few people are left who remember the 1930s.

Still, the Reshetylivka masters continue their work, and I like the town with its wide streets, cafes and numerous fabric stores. Whenever I come to Poltava, I visit the Arts Lyceum and meet its artists. My white embroidered shirt is a memento of those encounters. Usually I find Coco Chanel’s statements on fashion too limiting–elegance is refusal, less is more, and so on–but I do agree with her on one thing. The beauty of white is absolute.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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74 Comments

  • Pearl: Can anyone make a private commission? Your blouse is stunning. I would love wear such a beauty. September 26, 2016 at 8:04am Reply

    • Victoria: In theory, yes, anyone can contact either Nadia Vakulenko or Alla Kys and make a private commission. I was there on a visit, so it was easy enough to browse through the masters’ portfolios and discuss what I wanted myself. I’m not sure how it can be done from abroad, but I know that they both have clients in other countries. September 26, 2016 at 11:14am Reply

  • Pearl: TO wear… September 26, 2016 at 8:05am Reply

  • rosarita: This is a fascinating read, thank you, V. Love the photos, you remind me of a delicate porcelain doll and your blouse suits you beautifully 🙂 September 26, 2016 at 8:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! 🙂 It’s a versatile item too, which is another reason I love it. September 26, 2016 at 11:14am Reply

  • sara: Wow! I could have sworn it was lace when I saw your photos. Can’t even imagine how it’s done!! September 26, 2016 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s quite complicated, and I know this, because I’ve tried doing it myself. You pull out the vertical threads, and then count the horizontal ones and add stitches depending on the patterns you have. It takes me hours just to be one inch of a band, and I can’t imagine how long it would take me to do the large merezhka as in my second photo. Obviously, they’re the pros. September 26, 2016 at 11:16am Reply

  • epapsiou: I could not take my eyes off your earrings. Simply fabulous. September 26, 2016 at 9:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! I’ve had them for years, and I love this kind of dangling design. September 26, 2016 at 11:17am Reply

  • Jillie: What intricacy. I wonder how the ladies’ eyesight fare after this intense creativity?

    Your shirt is not just clothing but a true work of art. I would be frightened to wear it if it were mine as I am so clumsy! September 26, 2016 at 9:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Both masters at that particular college have good vision. I asked, because as someone with less than perfect vision, I get curious about these things myself. 🙂

      Believe me, I was worried to wear it for the first time, but white linen is not hard to take care of. You can bleach it, along with embroidery, and it looks good. Nadia Vakulenko recommended soaking in hot soapy water to take out spots. September 26, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

  • Tijana: So beautiful!!! I have a table cloth with this pattern – from my ex-mother-in-law who is Ukranian and gave it to me as a wedding gift. But your blouse is just stunning!!! September 26, 2016 at 9:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Also white? Lucky you! 🙂 September 26, 2016 at 11:20am Reply

      • Tijana: Yes also white! It is beautiful, but I fear to use it as it is pristinely white… and I am clumsy! 😂 September 26, 2016 at 11:58am Reply

        • Victoria: I know what you mean. I ended up using my grandmother’s embroideries on a coffee table. At least, they end up displayed. September 26, 2016 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Erry: It’s so beautiful. I love it and want one. September 26, 2016 at 10:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. I now want another one, but with a different pattern. Once you start looking at different regional varieties, it becomes an addiction. September 26, 2016 at 11:21am Reply

  • Amalia: So beautiful! Like the old handmade art pieces from greek grandmas, I have saved some from my mom, blouses, hand towels, tablecloths, curtains for tiny windows. September 26, 2016 at 10:05am Reply

    • Victoria: They must be so beautiful! I have a couple of Greek and Cypriot embroideries, including lefkaritika, and it reminds me a little of the Ukrainian designs. September 26, 2016 at 11:23am Reply

  • Bela: I learned how to do pulled-thread embroidery at school, when I was about 12 or 13. Obviously nothing so elaborate, but still pretty. I loved doing it. Still have a handkerchief and, because we were always making things for our future children, a tiny new-born ‘brassière’, which I never got to use, but couldn’t bring myself to give away. I also have the spool of incredibly fine white thread I used at the time. Perhaps I should take it up again… September 26, 2016 at 10:25am Reply

    • Victoria: I wouldn’t be able to give away something like that either. Pulled thread embroidery is some of my favorite to do, because it’s not monotonous like cross stitching. You have to think about every single move and keep the pattern in mind. I started embroidering my own shirt, but I realize that at my rate it will take it decades to finish it. Still, I love the process. It’s so meditative. September 26, 2016 at 11:25am Reply

  • Karen A: Beautiful! How wonderful to have and wear such a work of art. And I, too, am curious if commissions are taken or how one can acquire such a piece.

    Glad that even a few women are keeping the art alive. It gets more and more difficult to find people devoted to doing such intricate work.

    White on white quilts were very popular in the 1800’s here in the US as a way to show off your quilting stitches in a subtle way. September 26, 2016 at 10:46am Reply

    • Victoria: As I was replying to Pearl, I’m not sure what’s their procedure for orders, other than to walk into the Lyceum and ask to see one of the local masters. 🙂 Which is what I have done. I’m not affiliated with that institution, so it’s hard for me to say, but if someone is seriously interested in getting such a piece, I’ll try to find out.

      I’m off to google a white on white quilt! September 26, 2016 at 11:28am Reply

  • Ann: I have a framed piece of old Chinese embroidery that is impossibly complex–in only shimmering shades of blue and gold. Large and small flowers and butterflies are intertwined, perfectly, with just the thinnest bits of beige cloth peeping through–and you only see them if you are standing very close. It is so beautiful it can give you a little ache behind your eyes. My piece is about 14″ x 8″. I wonder and wonder where it came from, who made it, who wore it, and why.

    I love your story of white on white. Why do we build skyscrapers? Because we can. The human drive to make something perfect in a bodice and wristband is just as inspiring.

    I am curious about your Poltavan Merezhka. Was it created by men as well as women at one point, or has it always been the artistic purview of women? September 26, 2016 at 10:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Your Chinese embroidery sounds beautiful. I have a book on Chinese embroidery techniques, and they’re incredibly complicated, starting from the way the thread is prepared.

      At the Arts Lyceum there are both men and women learning embroidery, and one of the leading specialists on embroidery in Ukraine is Yurij Melnichuk. Well, even Gogol, another Poltava boy, liked to embroider and knit, according to his friends’ recollections. On the other hand, the majority of embroidery masters are women. September 26, 2016 at 11:02am Reply

      • Ann: My cynical side says that at least the craft will remain valued, so long as it is created by men as well as women.

        Thanks for sharing your blouse and its story. September 26, 2016 at 4:48pm Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t think that there is much danger for embroidery to die off, but unless people learn these kind of complicated techniques, it will lose some of its beauty. And the most complicated thing in Ukraine right is the economic crisis. The handmade shirts are significantly more expensive than the machine made. September 27, 2016 at 8:44am Reply

  • Jeanne: I enjoyed your article very much! The pictures are beautiful, and the detail on the edges of the cuffs is just gorgeous and so intricate. I hope that the artisans are successful in passing the skill on to the next generation. September 26, 2016 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: That cuff detail is one of my favorite parts. Essentially it’s a drawn thread embroidery, which is folded in half to make that kind of jagged edge. September 26, 2016 at 11:30am Reply

  • Sandra: So beautiful! Any “white on white” fragrances that you love to match with this? September 26, 2016 at 11:06am Reply

    • Victoria: A fun question! When I think of white smells, I imagine powder or vanilla. Or perhaps, even creamy sandalwood. Not necessarily musk. So, a very appropriately named Lumiere Blanche by Olfactive Studio might fit the bill. What do you think? September 26, 2016 at 11:31am Reply

      • Claire: Perfection! September 26, 2016 at 12:21pm Reply

      • spe: Chanel 22 September 26, 2016 at 2:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, that’s a good one! Frederic Malle L’Eau d’Hiver was my other option. September 26, 2016 at 3:08pm Reply

          • spe: Oh, yes, great suggestion! September 26, 2016 at 7:48pm Reply

      • Surbhi: Such beautiful pictures, love the art, really enjoyed this article. Now, I am trying to figure out how to get a shirt like this.

        I would probably do Dolce and Gabbana light blue or any other light fresh scent that smells good but is not the statement and not taking away from the piece of art the shirt is. September 26, 2016 at 11:48pm Reply

        • Victoria: The Lyceum is very welcoming to visitors. 🙂 September 27, 2016 at 10:08am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: What a beautiful white blouse and the earrings are gorgeous! You are a very pretty young woman. September 26, 2016 at 11:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Phyllis. 🙂 September 26, 2016 at 11:31am Reply

  • Maribel Blasco: Thank you for your very beautiful post. Bois de Jasmin is an oasis. September 26, 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Maribel. September 26, 2016 at 3:08pm Reply

  • Marilyn Stanonis: Victoria – white-on-white embroidery is my very favorite, and your blouse is beyond beautiful! What a lovely thing for you to share with us! September 26, 2016 at 12:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I never thought I liked white that much until I saw this type of work. It’s delicate but still sharp, accented. Glad that you liked it! September 26, 2016 at 3:10pm Reply

  • spe: Love, love, love. Reminds me of my communion dress, a beautiful swimsuit cover up, and gorgeous sheets. The shirt is perfect on you. Clean but feminine. September 26, 2016 at 1:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: It feels like it’s made for sunshine, which is why I love wearing it in the colder weather. It makes me think of springtime and blossoms. September 26, 2016 at 3:12pm Reply

  • Alicia: White on white, be it embroidered or lace, has always been a favorite of mine. Most of my linen nightgowns are just so.That is how I imagine the gown of an angel, and you certainly look angelic. September 26, 2016 at 1:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: I had a white embroidered nightgown as a child, and I wish it were still around. The angelic image (of embroideries, not of me as a child) is completed by the scent of violets that my grandmother used to perfume our linens.

      By the way, I started reading The Ornament of the World, and it’s as good as you said it would be. September 26, 2016 at 3:16pm Reply

      • Karen A: I have quite a few antique nightgowns that are white with white embroidery and various edge finishes. At some antique shops they are in desperate need of rescue (under bright lights, just tossed in a pile, or one was just hanging lopsided on a bent metal hangar), so I feel a responsibility to bring them home.

        A soak in cool water, dry in the shade and ironed back to neatness. Hopefully the spirits are happy! September 27, 2016 at 7:43pm Reply

        • Victoria: A woman after my heart. I’ve done that too sometimes. White linen, especially, is so easy to bring back to life. September 28, 2016 at 11:03am Reply

          • Karen A: Exactly! I have a few silk and cotton nightgowns. Love that they were made so beautifully – even the simple ones. September 29, 2016 at 5:57am Reply

            • Victoria: Even the finish on the seams is perfect! September 29, 2016 at 10:07am Reply

  • Alicia: So happy, Victoria, that you enjoy the book.
    Violet scented linens, how exquisite! My grandmother perfumed them with lavender in summer, and rosewater in winter. I spray them with Tea Rose, and occasionally Yardley lavender, but violets…that is really heavenly.With all these images of violets I am wearing in your grandmother’s honor Penhaligon’s Violetta.Meanwhile I am getting ready for the debate tonight.Friends from the university are coming. I am praying for common sense in this country I love. September 26, 2016 at 4:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: I wish for the same thing! Fervently. September 27, 2016 at 6:06am Reply

  • Sarah: Victoria, What a treat to read your piece on this incredible artwork! The blouse is stunning. I cannot imagine having the patience to do this type of work. Thank you for your always creative postings on the finer aspects of life!! September 26, 2016 at 5:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! September 27, 2016 at 10:07am Reply

  • Karen 5.0: What a lovely blouse and beautiful essay – you look positively seraphic! September 27, 2016 at 10:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. White clothes definitely create that kind of illusion. 🙂 September 27, 2016 at 12:30pm Reply

  • Notturno7: Gorgeous. You and the blouse! What an amazing piece of art.
    You look like an angel. It’s funny I just remembered one hot summer day, I was wearing a long,embroidered, flowing all-white dress and this child said to her mom pointing at me ‘Look Mom, an angel!’ 😘☀️ September 27, 2016 at 12:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Compliments from children are the best! 🙂 I bet you looked gorgeous in your dress. Do you still have it?

      Thank you! September 28, 2016 at 10:55am Reply

      • Notturno7: Yes, I still have it. I wear it when it’s very hot here, with some flat,bohemian looking sandals for a gypsy look. Otherwise, if I dress it up with some fancy jewelry ,it can look like a wedding dress. September 29, 2016 at 4:33pm Reply

        • Victoria: That’s another aspect of white dresses I like–they can be dressed up or down very easily. September 30, 2016 at 7:31am Reply

  • Jay: Count me in as another person who is seriously interested in obtaining a white on white vyshyvanka! I’ve actually spent some time combing eBay, but have only found tawdry factory copies or pieces from Ukraine that don’t employ drawn-thread embroidery techniques. I haven’t had much success in Googling the Lyceum either. September 27, 2016 at 2:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m afraid that the lyceum’s website isn’t in English, and it’s not particularly good. They’re badly financed, despite/because they’re a public educational organization, and they put all of their efforts into helping students. But for what it’s worth here is their website:
      http://resh-hud-lic.ucoz.net/

      Here is also an article, in English, about Nadia Vakulenko and her work:
      http://ukrainianweek.com/Culture/18021

      Anyway, given that there is so much interest, I will find out how it might be possible to order such work. September 28, 2016 at 11:01am Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: Victoria, thank you for your endless precious gift of sharing all things stunning…xo September 27, 2016 at 4:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading! September 28, 2016 at 11:02am Reply

  • Aurora: The blouse is exquisite, white on white embroidery is so tasteful but I also admired very much your great grandmother’s choice of colours (green, mauve, blue, purple I think) for the wonderful cushion I had noticed on one of your recent photos from Poltava.
    May Ukraine keep their traditions forever, they make our world richer. Northern France used to be a centre for lace-making. September 28, 2016 at 9:11am Reply

    • Victoria: I believe those were made by the same great-grandmother, Olena. Yes, she was such an artist. Strangely enough, out of all of my grandmother’s she’s the one with whom I have most in common, but I have never met her. I was a baby when she passed away.

      There is a beautiful fabric store in Paris not far from Le Palais Royal, and they have a small but exquisite selection of French laces. It makes me wish I knew how to sew, because I long to use those materials. In Belgium, too, lace is a big tradition. September 28, 2016 at 11:14am Reply

  • Musette: Victoria, this was a fascinating post! I love embroidery and there is nothing more elegant, in my opinion, than white on white! Your shirt (and you) are beautiful!

    xoxoA September 28, 2016 at 4:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! 🙂 September 29, 2016 at 5:19am Reply

  • ClareObscure: Thanks Victoria for this inspiring article about Ukrainian traditional embroidery by artisan craftsmen/women. The photography is incredible, both in capturing & conveying the details of the embroidery & in highlighting your personal beauty. You do look radiant. The photographer has done you & this fine work justice.
    The comments have been good, especially Jeanne’s. September 28, 2016 at 10:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. Your words mean a lot to me. And to my husband, who took the two photos of me. I took the rest of the photos. September 29, 2016 at 5:17am Reply

  • zephyr: Victoria, it’s wonderful that you are able to go back home and peel back layers of years and memories, here and there, to learn as much as you can about your family. You are doing a great service for your younger relatives.

    Your embroidered blouse is a piece of this history; what a gorgeous heirloom! It and its wearer are meant for each other and are both beautiful. October 3, 2016 at 1:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for such a warm comment. When I realized how little remained from my great-grandmother’s time in that town, I was sad. I regretted having started my search so late. But I ended up discovering so many other interesting stories and meeting such fascinating people that the quest resulted in much more than I anticipated. Of course, this art in itself is an amazing find. October 4, 2016 at 12:54pm Reply

      • zephyr: You’re welcome! This vyshyvanka is perfect for you!

        Have no regrets; you haven’t started your search too late. If you’d started ten or fifteen years earlier, you wouldn’t have had quite the perspective you do now. Yes, buildings come down, there is war, political/governmental upheaval, all those things. What you’ve found, though, the people you’ve talked to and the stories you’ve heard, has roots in what was before, common threads, as it were. It’s all intangible, but still very real. I would argue that the “threads” are much more important. And you’re finding them. I love reading your posts about them! October 4, 2016 at 2:24pm Reply

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