Yuriy Melnychuk: Even the most poor girl used to embroider at least 30 shirts and chemises
Yuriy Melnychuk, a member of Kiev museum of Ivan Honchar, is perhaps considered the most known connoisseur of the art of national embroidery in Ukraine. Starting from 1996, he has been teaching ladies to make embroideries in a correct manner and running a thematic studio. The man has taken over this attraction to a women’s handicraft from his mother and grandmothers and is mastering this art by himself; nevertheless the artist stresses that this knowledge about national art has been with him right from his birth day.
Yuriy Melnychuk, member of Ukrainian Union of National Arts:
— I graduated from a pedagogical institute then worked at the Geography Institute for 10 years until at last God led me to this path to the Museum, which was totally unexpected for my colleagues and associates at the institute – the fact that a man can be doing such things... But probably it started long ago from the roots which are descend by the ancestral line. That is my both grandmothers used to embroider – my mother’s mom and my father’s mom; my mother has been embroidering a lot and she is 78 at present. And because my mother has two sons and I am the elder one they say the first son always belongs to his mother’s kin – so I take after my mother and it is true I take some things over from her.
A lot of women and young girls feel drawn to a needle with a tread and linen. As they say people keep coming back to what is theirs by and by, but unfortunately cross-stitching remains the most popular embroidery technique and this technique is not a traditional Ukrainian one. In due time cross-stitch attracted needlewomen by its simplicity: it can easily and quickly provide the necessary pattern so a lot of people can boast the things of their grandmothers embroidered with cross-stitch.
— More than 200 kinds of stitches that used to be spread in Ukraine were eventually replaced by only two: cross-stitch and satin-stitch. There is also fancy satin-stitch usual in the East in China. Eastern people have been making embroideries with this double-sided satin-stitch for thousands of years and we will never surpass or excel them in this area. We have double-sided satin-stitch on rushnyks (Ukrainian national linen towels with a lot of embroidery) of Kiev, Chernihiv and Poltava regions but this satin-stitch is not of a fancy kind.
As for the cross-stitch it also is an ancient kind of stitch characteristic for Asia. Later it spread to Egypt and eventually came to Europe and to us. Town culture accepted cross-stitch earlier than the culture of villages. All these naturalistic patterns created using cross-stitch started to spread since 1850th in the empire of which Ukraine was a part. These patterns were called brokkar in honor of «Brokkar and Co» which manufactured soap, perfumes, make-up, toilet water, powders and other things. One side in the magazines contained the advertisements of these goods and the other one had patterns for cross-stitching. A lot of such magazines were issued that way. Naturally first they were spread in the cities and rich country estates and later came into the peasant culture.
Nearly every girl started embroidering when yet at school. Lessons in crafts are never lost on anyone. Even the author of these lines during her school time cross-stitched he first Kobzar (usually meaning a Ukrainian folk singer accompanying himself on kobza, here – a popular name for a famous Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko) which up to now has an honored place on the wall in the creator’s room. The portrait was made using cross-stitch technique because at the time the author didn’t know anything about other kinds of stitches). After a number of years the situation remains the same and the school programs in national art don’t keep up with the time...
— I conducted workshops in embroidery for the courses of advanced training of extracurricular school work teachers, so together we faced a lot of problems in teaching children. School programs in embroidery are very bad and drawn by who knows what people; in particular, by Hrinchenko institute and others. We never see these people either in Ivan Honchar museum or in the Ukrainian Union of National Artists, in other words in those places where the real cream of embroidery society can be found. Instead, they consider themselves to be the best authors and think that they know how to teach all Ukrainian children embroidery. So most part of all of these awful programs are oriented for cross-stitch and satin-stitch and maybe several other kinds of simple stitches but the methodologies of knowledge presentation are utterly unattractive and uninteresting.
Even the teachers of hobby groups see how unintelligently the diagrams and descriptions are presented. And it would be nice to make a kind of album “Ukrainian cross-stitch for children”. And it would be good to approve it as a teaching program material and not only sell it to children or to parents and grandparents of these children… But we have not addressed the Ministry of education yet because for this purpose at least a half of the album needs to be ready. But anyway I have it in my plans to complete this work.
Not many girls can boast of a chemise or a shirt embroidered with their own hands. Though it has to be noticed that the number of such modern “heroines” is increasing every day. And indeed it seems there is no need for embroidering now that in shops there are lots of different kinds of clothes for different tastes. Nevertheless handicraft is very highly appreciated and a shirt or a chemise created with one’s own hands will be the best item among the modern clothing collection in the wardrobe. And once every girl used to embroider more than one dozen of shirts and chemises because by this work people defined both the social wealth of her family and the level of her own diligence.
— As we are ploughmen and farmers our yearly ceremonial round was served by an immense multitudes of embroidery…That is lots of information are applied to all the shirts, chemises, outer clothing and especially to underwear by embroidery, and they differentiate among all the rites where these particular items of clothing are used, their belonging to a particular age and sex and all the seasons. For example if a man was going to mow than he had a shirt with a particular ornament; if he was going to plough or sow the ornament was different; if he was cropping the cereals it was yet different again. A special kind of ornamented shirts was worn by young guys; or for example a bride’s clothes used to have quite different patterns in the ornament… If to trace a life of separate people we will get the information about the dowry with which girls were married and how many shirts and chemises they had. A poor girl had 30–40 of them, one coming from a family with average means had about 50–70 items, a rich girl – over a hundred. What does that mean? It means all kinds of shirts and chemises were included into the dowry: ferial, festive and for different other cases, that is even the shirt embroidered specially for the person’s funeral had to be kept in a special kind of a knot and there were a lot of other kinds intentionally prepared in advance.
The shirts and the chemises were prepared in advance because every girl had a lot of spare time and her relatives intentionally released her from any work for her to be occupied by exclusively embroidery because when later a girl got married she had a lot of children one after another so where could she find time for embroidery then?! She had to keep house; that is she had to do all the work about the house and in the vegetable garden. As the saying goes three corners of the house are supported by the wife and only one – by the husband, that means that the husband works somewhere outside all the time. Some of men were chumaks by occupation (peasants in Ukraine who in the old days used to go to Crimea on carts pulled by oxen to sell agricultural products and to buy salt, fish and other goods there) some of them were at war somewhere so women had to bear all the household load on their shoulders; nevertheless each woman had to practice embroidery while she had good sight for that – so they used to say once. And embroidery was not only to decorate the interior or clothes; in itself this process was vitally important for each woman.
Embroidery is not just entertainment but an efficient way to keep calm and even-tempered. Yuri Melnytchuk advises every woman to use such creative medicine because he observes that even the expressions of very nervous women change during the process of embroidering and they become kind and considerate mistresses.
— All the girls about the age of 6 were initiated into embroideresses. Each girl had to be able to embroider; whether she could do it well or at the very least was a question of minor importance provided she practiced it and for the longest possible time. Well, let’s say while the woman is the mistress of the house and until she marries off all of her children and becomes a grandmother she should practice embroidery. Why? Because while she is a mistress and the keeper of the hearth she lets through all the energies and energy flows which exist in the house; all of them pass through her hands.
If a woman works but is never occupied by any embroidery she a kind of obtains energy blocks at the tips of her fingers. That means that each finger has a channel conducting energy and if there are any blocks in them than the energy passes with difficulty and the woman cannot cope with all the energies in the house. But she is the center of concentration of all the energy flows coming from her husband, children and parents. It is also said the woman who works is purified herself and purifies the kin, and by means of her periods, too. So to be able to cope with everything she should keep herself in good energy form and as a result – to be physically fit, in other words – not to be humiliated, belittled and abased to the degree when one drops from tiredness. That is why it is correct when the husband does all the hard work in the family. And here exactly the embroidering helps each woman to keep psychological and emotional balance – many times it was noticed that any emotionally restless or nervous woman changes completely when starting embroidering.
Each woman is a priestess in the temple of her own home. So this priestess function is performed best when the woman is making rushnyks and other ceremonial things and the clothes for her family. No one is able to embroider a guardian item for a child better than his or her mother: neither an artist by an order no a market dealer.
Marriages of many young women do not last long nowadays. A lot of young women are unhappy, lonely and they don’t understand how to break the circle of bad luck. But to a great extent this can be done by embroidering a rushnyk. Here’s a case from modern life: a divorced woman with no children was left alone and she wanted to marry but how can one find a husband? It is not possible just to catch a person by the sleeve in the street. So the brothers of this woman advised her to start embroidering a rushnyk. And before it was finished she got married.
What does this tell us? When a girl or a woman is working with embroidery and in particular with ceremonial items, linen and rushnyks, she creates a kind of field around her that attracts the very situation for the sake of which she is working.
Yuriy Melnychuk Creative work history
Courses of Ukrainian national needlework «Oriyana» have been conducted under the guidance of the National center of folk culture «Ivan Honchar museum», starting from 1996. I’ve been working here since 1995. For 12 years I held a position of the Fabric Sector Head. At the time I was hired as a National Artist working in the area of embroidery. I was given this title by the Ukrainian Union of National Artists in 1993…
And back in 1992 a small group of three people was organized including me, Antonina Pipko and Taras Beiko who lives in Montreal in Canada for a long time. So the three of us formed a group – a youth club named “Tsvit” (meaning “blossoms”) the aim of which was to revive ancient Ukrainian kinds of embroidery. Literally after two years and with the support of the international fund “Revival” we organized an exhibition “Ukrainian national embroidery: traditions and the present” devoted to the third anniversary of the Independence Day in the Taras Shevchenko museum. The exhibition was a great success. At the time people felt need in such things more than usual, high on the elevation and national revival wave. And we during the previous years by the time had made all the interesting embroidered things (at least – all of them that we had managed to make) and did that mainly using those ancient national kinds of stitches and with cross-stitch. Different items embroidered by the artists of the “Tsvit” club were shown at the exhibition, then – items from the National museum, private collections and modern things as well. We called the club a youth club but there were people of different ages in it. And up to now this group has not obtained any legal address or registration, but has the same name.
Beside that there is «Oryana» studio where I work with students and where from time to time the artist club with which I cooperate sew things to order. We have already had 4 graduating classes of two-year courses; that is first these courses were being organized in the period starting 1996 through 2004. After 2004 we organized yearly intensive courses but they were conventionally intensive because this work takes not just one week. But starting from this year we have extended the courses. Earlier we used to have only one group and now there are three of them coming on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 16:00 — 18:00 and on Saturdays at13:00 — 15:00. Besides there is a second course because when we organized this one-year course the first group which had the shortened program wanted to know everything the way it had been taught earlier. And people graduating from the second course do not want to part because the courses and lessons have become much more than simple lectures where people come learn something and leave. They unite people and brings them together.
Kateryna Kachur was talking to the artist