How a French Perfume Company Influenced Ukrainian Embroideries

One of the most quintessentially Ukrainian embroideries is called rushnyk (pl, rushnyky), richly decorated hand towels that accompany a person from birth to death. In two videos that I recorded, I would like to show you rushnyky embroidered by my great-great grandmother. I discovered them by accident when I was cleaning out our shed and spotted a large chest hidden under old rugs. The drawers were jammed, but I persevered and opened them only to discover decaying paper and mouse droppings. I rummaged in it–no, I’m not even one bit squeamish–and I found the embroideries. I cleaned and restored them and it’s a pleasure to share them with you.

My great-great grandmother Pasha wove the cloth on a hand-loom, and she then decorated it. These embroideries are at least 70 years old, and yet they are remarkably resilient.

The design also holds its own mystery. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, a French perfume company, Brocard, opened a soap factory near Kremenchug in central Ukraine, not far from Pasha’s town. To entice women to buy their soaps, Brocard included an embroidery pattern. The trend for Brocard style embroidery swept over the villages as women tried new motifs and patterns.

While the simplistic cross-stitch replaced the more complex traditional techniques, it made embroidery a beloved local art easily accessible to all. Embroiderers adapted French style flowers and vases to Ukrainian motifs and created their own patterns.

This grape festooned rushnyk from 1960 is one such example.

That’s how influential a bar of scented soap can be.

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30 Comments

  • Silvermoon: Oh Victoria! These are absolutely beautiful! What a stunning contrast between the rich red of the embroidery threads and the white material/cloth. I loved your top. And loved to hear about the connection to a French soap company. What a great marketing idea – a foreign firm appealing to local traditions. What happened to the company?

    Also, loved the image of Gogol embroidering things alone at home. And that Ukrainian men enjoy embroidery. It sort of reminded me about how in Sweden men knit (something not associated with being a male pass time elsewhere).

    I think I would go crazy to be in a shop that sells this type of embroidery. Imagine making a choice (grapes or roses? Peacocks or other birds? And so on.)!

    Loved the article and accompanying short videos. Thanks. April 17, 2020 at 9:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!
      Brocard has recently been revived, so it’s still around. The soap factory itself didn’t survive the Bolshevik Revolution. The embroideries still persist. These kind of designs with vases and big bunches of flowers are inspired by the Brocard patterns.

      I don’t remember whether it was in Sweden or Finland, but there is a heavy metal-knitting festival there. I highly recommend everyone to look for videos about it in Youtube. I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. April 20, 2020 at 6:57am Reply

  • Ariadne: Oh my goodness! I am imagining you discovering this incredible work! My heart would be racing!
    Very wonderful to see this fabric move in your videos. In addition to the fresh colors and images in the embroidery you experience how heavy and fluid the pieces are. The ‘hand’ so to speak.
    I also maybe glimpsed some very intricate cutwork portions? April 17, 2020 at 9:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, you’re right, there is also the cutwork on it. Amazing how well they’ve survived. April 20, 2020 at 6:58am Reply

  • MaryAnn Hardy: Thank you so very much for sharing such a personal part of your life, for all of us to enjoy. We can derive such pleasure from this kind of beauty– meaningful works of personal art. Every time “you” land in my INBOX I am excited because I am about to click on it and enter a world where I have never been, yet there will be something that I can relate to. Here, it would be the cherishing of a family’s story and the handwork that came from them, and from another time. I have an old quilt in very good condition which my grandmother and her friends (all old women) made for me for my wedding in 1965. I am old now too and have arranged for one of my very young cousins to receive it and keep it…to pass on when the time will come for her to do that. She cried when I told her that i was sending it to her. These pieces of our past, of our family link us to them…like the Relics I’ve seen in European churches and cathedrals. It is what we have left of them, and when I touch it, I touch them. And so I can relate to your fascination and pride in your beautiful embroidery work. I always learn something new and wonderful whenever I “click” on Bois de Jasmin! Thank you so much! April 17, 2020 at 2:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, MaryAnn! You put it so well, these kind of pieces are meaningful, especially when so much today is meant to be disposable. April 20, 2020 at 6:59am Reply

  • Anne: Beautiful embroidery! I’m really liking the videos too. 😀 April 17, 2020 at 2:56pm Reply

  • Tara C: Thank you for the beautiful videos, it’s great to hear your stories and your voice! April 17, 2020 at 4:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: So glad that you liked them, Tara. 🙂 April 20, 2020 at 6:59am Reply

  • Fleurycat: Delightful! Thank you for another gem. April 17, 2020 at 6:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! Happy to share. April 20, 2020 at 6:59am Reply

  • Karin Wainwright: So very very interesting. What beautiful designs. You are fortunate that you could rescue them before there were damaged. April 18, 2020 at 4:47am Reply

    • Victoria: The shed was damaged by a flood a year later, so my discovery was timely. April 20, 2020 at 7:00am Reply

  • Karen A: Wow! You must have felt like you discovered a pot of gold – what a treasure. Thank you for sharing! (And what beautiful handwoven fabric! Plus the embroidery, absolutely stunning) April 18, 2020 at 9:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Absolutely! Don’t ask me why I decided to rummage in a drawer full of mouse dropping and decomposing paper, but it was the best decision. April 20, 2020 at 7:02am Reply

  • Natasha: Wonderful embroideries and lovely story. I love the soap connection. My great grandmother and grandmother were from Belarus and also created similar beautiful embroideries between 1910-1940. My mother passed recently and I shared her collection with all her granddaughters so that everyone has one. I am not a needleworker, but my daughter are. I feel very blessed to have inherited this legacy. April 18, 2020 at 6:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: How beautiful! What kind of embroidery does your daughter do? April 20, 2020 at 7:02am Reply

  • Klaas: I love the fact that men were doing embroidery in Ukraine! It’s something I have always wanted to do…….I should waste no more time and get on with it! April 19, 2020 at 4:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: You should try it! It’s such a beautiful craft and so meditative. April 20, 2020 at 7:02am Reply

  • Inma: Oh Victoria, what beautiful embroidery pieces with such a touching story told by you! Thank you April 19, 2020 at 7:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so happy to know that you liked it! April 20, 2020 at 7:03am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: So beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing with us. April 20, 2020 at 8:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! April 23, 2020 at 4:23am Reply

  • Aurora: What a wonderful discovery, it must be so precious to you, I so enjoy the story. April 21, 2020 at 2:37pm Reply

  • Patricia Devine: These are really beautiful. I’m an embroiderer myself as well as collecting perfume, so this post was doubly fascinating for me. Thank you for continuing your posts – they are something to look forward to during this difficult tiime. April 21, 2020 at 3:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Patricia! April 23, 2020 at 4:24am Reply

  • Elisa: I love getting to hear your voice! <3 April 23, 2020 at 9:35am Reply

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