Five hundred embroidered shirts to be shown in first documentary about Ukrainian “vyshyvanka”

By Valeria Radzievska,
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine

[Editor’s note: A “vyshyvanka” is the name for a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt that has many regional patterns and symbols encoded into its stitches].

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The trailer for the first feature documentary about the vyshyvanka [traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt], entitled A Nation’s Heritage, was presented in Kyiv.

Idea initiator and screenwriter Les Voronyuk, together with director Oleksandr Tkachuk, founded the “World Vyshyvanka Day” 9 years ago, which gradually became an international event for Ukrainians from all over the world.

“We found a great many stories of people who were ready to die or be arrested for the sake of their vyshyvanka,” says Les. “One of those stories is the life story of Olha Ilkiv, a messenger for Roman Shukhevych. She was exiled for 12 years to Siberia. What saved her was that she was secretly embroidering a shirt while there. She is now over 90 years old, and still keeps this shirt as a symbol of her history.”

Another story: during the famine in 1947 in Bukovina, people exchanged vyshyvanky for grain and potatoes. The shirts saved entire families.

“Today, mothers, girls, and wives embroider shirts for their loved ones, husbands, and sons in the ATO [Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation], and they embroider them with great reverence, believing that these shirts will protect the soldiers at the front. Embroidering such a shirt is a very intimate process, even religious – they purposefully fast before embroidering, to make the creation of the shirt go more easily. There are several stories related to the ATO which we won’t talk about today, but they will be in the film. Those are very difficult stories – a cross-section of today that will be profound and revealing years into the future.”

The authors filmed more than five hundred shirts for the documentary and traveled almost the whole of Ukraine.

“Filming took place in Podillya, Bukovina, along the Dnieper, in Slobozhanschyna, Polesia, Luhansk, Donetsk and other regions. Material was collected even from Russia (Murmansk), Germany, and Canada.”

“There are interesting stories from Italy and the UAE – Ukrainians live in all of these places. They consider that the vyshyvanka identifies them as Ukrainian in the world and is part of their homeland,” says director Oleksandr Tkachuk. “We also have stories from the temporarily occupied territories [of Ukraine]. We met a woman who wanted to save an embroidered shirt and pass it on to her descendants. She remains there [in the occupied territories], but her vyshyvanka is already in Kyiv. By hook or by crook, we managed to get it past all the checkpoints.”

According to Oleksandr, the idea to film in the occupied territories was inspired during his visit to the ethnographic museum in the town of Svatove, just 20 kilometers from the Russian border:

“That is the only ethnographic museum in the Luhansk region which holds traditional embroideries from Luhansk. We recorded an interview with an employee of the museum, a young, beautiful woman. I had just finished packing my equipment away when she said, ‘Show everyone that we are Ukrainian, that we speak Ukrainian and that we wear these [vyshyvanky], though we find ourselves on the border.’ She said they had to keep proving that they are Ukrainian, both to Russians and to Ukrainians coming in from central Ukraine.”

A Nation’s Heritage trailer:

“Currently, the vyshyvanka is riding a wave of patriotism – it’s in fashion. But if you don’t study the history of these shirts that are a national heritage, their being in fashion will decline within a few years, like the fashion for embroideries did in the early 90s, say the authors of the film. To avoid this, it is worth perceiving of the vyshyvanka not only as a thing, but as history itself.”

The scientific consultant for the film and ethnographer Olexiy Dolya advises to take an interest in authentic samples – to look for the patterns of each region and copy them:

“When the fashion for the vyshyvanka began, they started to churn them out like a mass market product. A few years ago, 400,000 embroidered shirts were delivered from China. Our businessmen were ordering them from there, because it was cheaper that way. We have craftsmen who really put soul into the shirt they embroider – and they [the businessmen] are offering us things off a conveyor belt.”

The filmmakers plan to present the film in March: it will be shown throughout the regions of Ukraine and then on television. Filming will last until the middle of January. The authors are asking everyone to share their unique vyshyvanka stories; these could make it into the film.

The budget of the film is 620,000 UAH [approx. 26,200 USD]. Slightly less than half this amount is still needed, thus the authors of the film ask that patrons respond, but stress that they will not work with any political parties.


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