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FROM NEW YORK TO THE CARPATHIANS: always seeking animal trappings

As a collector of textile animal trappings my trip to New York in November 2016 had to include a visit to the Ukrainian Museum’s temporary exhibition Carpathian Echoes: Traditional Textile Materials and Technologies in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania and Ukraine, 222 East 6th Street. But, who could have predicted just 14 months later I would have the opportunity of hearing Nataliya Cummings speak at a monthly ORTS meeting on Carpathian embroideries, and subsequently, be able to join her ‘2018 Carpathian Cultural Experience Tour’ (one of four differently focused annual tours), which comprised a few days visiting the communities in rural Carpathia, sandwiched between a glimpse of Kyiv and an overnight in Lviv.

Nataliya’s company Experience Ukraine is family-owned and Nataliya is both present on the tours and has the freedom, ability and initiative to be flexible in any given situation (not an insignificant set of skills when travelling). Further, she engages equally committed, kind and knowledgeable people to help lead, host and generally take care of her travellers. Finally, and importantly, Nataliya knows the land of her birth well and has many connections – and it is these factors that made my visit a wonderfully rich and informative experience. I highly recommend this trip.

So that’s why I came to go and why you may like to, but what of the detail? And were there any textiles to see and/or buy?

Accounts of travel can only give a flavour, however to start in a chronological fashion …. we small band of Brits were met by Nataliya and a fellow country woman at Tsentralnyi Railway Station, Kyiv, for the overnight train to Ivano-Frankivsk (to pick up our road transport to drive to Kosiv) a long and quite comfortable journey if you are a small person. The diffused morning light revealed expanses of agricultural land dotted with wooden homesteads and individual cows and horses each tethered to a different spot. Swathes of dark forest zipped by. Already the landscape was unfamiliar. I found I had no reference to apply except perhaps the visual imaginings from reading Russian literary classics decades ago. Clusters of dwellings are isolated and historically would had to have been self-supporting in terms of food and fuel production. Equally, the provision of safe housing for livestock in the lengthy severe winters was a major consideration..

Rural landscapes

In such vast rural landscapes pockets of Lizhnyk (handmade rug and blankets) weaving and fulling took place, along with fine wood carving and inlay, embroidery, and festive egg painting, all of which are still practised today for personal use and trade. But more about the crafts when we reach Kosiv.

The historic centre of Ivano-Frankivsk is stylish with cafes and squares and gloriously ornate churches, some of which are still functioning as originally intended and others converted to art galleries. Broadly the city is very pleasant and has embraced both modern tourism and indigenous flourishing artistic life. There is also a market which trickles around the back streets, but no textile of any age – lots of contemporary wedding frippery - big business here.

So, off across more rural expanses to Kosiv which straggles along the valley of the River Rybnytsya for Zhyvytsia Guest House and our hosts, the Halna I Volodmyr Broshevych family. In a sentence the accommodation was wooden, with juxtaposing wooden rooflines, with wooden verandas and wooden rooms and fruit-laden trees and adjacent vegetable plots, and together, with completely home cooked meals – three times a day – together with the home brewed walnut vodka and/or home brewed honey vodka and, and, singing accompanied by exuberant accordion playing, made for a very jolly and memorable time!

Guest house Zhyvytsia

This guest house provided our base from which we sprung daily to visit various cultural features of the area. These included a visit to the Yavoriv Village School, which although closed for their summer break opened specifically to show us around as alongside their regular curriculum there is a special focus on teaching and nurturing the children’s interest in the traditional Hutsul crafts of ornamental woodwork and Lizhnyk weaving (there is a waiting list of children wishing to attend). The school also houses an archive of museum quality - an uplifting visit.

Another attraction for the social historian and/or textile enthusiast is a visit we made to the fulling mill in Yavoriv. Our host Svitlana demonstrated the workings of the enormous hand looms. She explained that the wool was bought ‘on the borders’, she spun it with drop spindles (still!) and this became the weft. On the whole the warp is now flax and bought in ready to go. The resulting Lizhnyk are then carried one level down accessed by a precarious dark wet wooden stair to the fulling tanks (or perhaps wells?) in which they are flung. It seems a rather violent action (a severe and prolonged lashing at Noah’s Ark comes to mind), but some four to six hours later the now felted Lyzknk emerge and just await a wooden bridge from which they hang until dry beneath an azure sky. This fulling process needs to be seen.

Kosiv market

Another outing took in the colossal and very exhilarating ‘craft market’ some 2km out of Kosiv. I place ‘craft market’ in inverted commas because it is an absolutely-anything-you-could possibly-want market. That is everything from puppies to hand-picked-that-very-morning mushrooms, hand painted tiles to hand carved wooden spoons and ladles, heaps of Lyzhnk, the plumpest and freshest berries in large glass jars, cheese horses (see next paragraph), AND textiles. The most prolific were woven Hutsul sashes and embroidered blouses and tunics (perhaps 70 to 100 years old).

Handwoven sashes from Carpathian Mountains

Vintage clothing for sale at Kosiv Market

If in Kosiv make a visit.

Without prolonging this account too long mention of the afternoon spent in Kosmach at Hanna’s wooden house in a scoop of a valley must be made. The day comprised observing Hanna making the traditional palm-size cheese horses, watching her decorate hens’ eggs (called Pysanka) in scarlet/yellow/black with folkloric images (then we had a go - very difficult). Hanna’s home, like a number in this region, has her own collection of traditional costume from the familiar black/red embroidery on cream handwoven flax blouses to the exuberantly embroidered women’s wedding shoes. Given the opportunity to don costume we indulged and photos were taken.

Clare and Barry during our visit to Kosmach

Food and vodka (there is also a wonderful smoked plum homemade drink available as an alternative!) were again part of the equation. Down the track squatted Hanna’s son-in-law’s pottery, where wonderfully earthy clay vessels rested: being a glutton for the rustic I commissioned a huge colander with a green glaze.

There are a few swift observations worthy of note: take a universal basin plug, do wonder at the stork pairs in vast nests atop telegraph poles against another azure sky, and again do wonder at the piche ovens in the rural farmhouses. Do visit the Hutsul churches with their traditional glorious Orthodox gilded narrative interiors. Curiously, they are clad on the exterior with shiny electric blue metal ‘tiles’. The publishing house Lonely Planet brought out a new edition of Ukraine this July – a brilliant tool.

For ORTS members it is worth noting this trip as it stands is fabulous in its diversity and breadth – a great education. There are plenty of textile items to see in museums and private collections, however there is little textile to buy. I did feel that this trip was a taster and indeed although I did extend my visit by one day in Kyiv and three in Lviv, to take in further art galleries, national museums and churches, another trip is in order. A train journey from Budapest to Lviv would be good and certainly possible.

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