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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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