“In the forest, upon the oak, I was spinning the thread for a shirt.”

in the honeysuckle

In Ukraine, in 2019, I bought two vyshyvanky, the embroidered shirts that encode so much of traditional life and culture. The one on the right uses rhombus forms that I believe symbolize the unity of male and female principles, sown fields, prosperity.


The other vyshyvanka has poppies embroidered on the yoke and sleeves. The poppy is a protection against the evil eye.

on my sleeve

I remember the difficulty in choosing a vyshyvanka among the thousands available in the Kosiv market, each one more beautiful than the last. Some were so heavy with embroidery that I couldn’t imagine actually wearing them — and I wanted to wear mine. I still think of the one that got away, not in Kosiv but in Lviv, at the end of my trip, when my suitcase was full and I thought I’d spent enough money. That one? It was black, with appliqued yoke and sleeves in deep rose, sage green, a rich soft blue. Of course I should have bought it. And will I ever return to Ukraine? I hope so but who knows.

What I think of when I see my vyshyvanky in my closet is ghosts. I think of the mornings when I woke in Ukraine thinking of those my grandfather left behind. This woman, for example:

single woman

I have no idea who she was and why my grandfather kept her photograph, one of two, all his life. I showed her to the relations I met from his village and no one recognized her. She has inspired my work-in-progress and in the way that things work, maybe one day my novel will lead me to her name, who she was to my grandfather. A sister? A sweetheart? A section of my novel is set in Lviv and one of the characters is a curator of a small textiles museum. It’s serving as an impetus to learn more about Ukrainian textiles, the black and red threads that represent the generations and carry their stories forward. My stories are so sparse, so threadbare but I hope that one day I’ll know more of their shape and meaning, the poppies on my sleeve, the sown fields.

A few days ago, a short piece I wrote about Ukraine went up on the Canadian Writers Abroad site. Writing it filled me with the urgency to put things down, to record the stories, the silences, the names, and it also made me wonder if it’s too late to learn embroidery.  In “Museum of the Multitude Village” in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, there are lines of Ukrainian folk poetry threaded through. I loved this little song (though didn’t use it in my book); it’s a spring song, one of a group sung by girls as part of spring rituals.


Where didst thou spend the winter?

“In the forest, upon the oak,
I was spinning the thread for a shirt.”

I thought of ghosts this morning as I hung my vyshyvanka in the honeysuckle by my garden gate. A very light breeze filled their sleeves, let them dance briefly in the new green leaves. Today is Vyshyvanka Day in Ukraine. That amazing man President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “This is our sacred amulet in this war. Happy Vyshyvanka Day, Ukraine!” I echo his words and hope that the power of thread and sacred stories serve as weapons against the terrible violence they are enduring. Slava Ukraini!

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