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.
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