Ukrainians even in the 21st century take great pride in their embroidery. These are considered high art and filled with themes that are deeply symbolic and meaningful. One of the famous Ukrainian artisans is Vira Nakonechny. She is skilled in many folk crafts, including embroidery, weaving, beading, folk costume reconstruction, etc. She is a woman that doesn’t even live in Ukraine, wasn’t born in Ukraine, and visited Ukraine for the first time at a rather mature age, but she’s Ukrainian by descent. And, living in the US, she teaches people how to do Ukrainian handicrafts.
Vira Nakonechny is an artisan of Ukrainian descent who lives in the United States. She is a Master of embroidery, weaving, beadwork, and other folk crafts. Vira Nakonechny also teaches students how to do all of that. She is a very honored and well-known craftswoman both in Ukraine and the US.
Story of her life
Here is a short story of Vira Nakonechny’s life. Her way of thinking.
The Ukrainian art form really is overwhelming because from region to region, it’s all different. It's when you think you got it, understood – you don't.
Going from city to city, village to village, to go and find all those old museums, little museums. Or go through people's houses. What do they have in their boxes stored away? And the stories that those pieces tell. I see it being lost and I almost feel like the glide keeper, that I got to learn.
Vira Nakonechny in the process of weaving
When the Soviet took over, their main goal was to really do away with all our arts. If you were caught doing anything artistic – embroidering or weaving or doing any kind of handwork – you were sent to Siberia, you were put in jail.
My mom at the age of 15 – she and her sister were taken away from home to the labor camps during World War II. And my father also was taken and captured in Germany and stayed in prison for a while. I was not born in Ukraine. I was born in Germany. From there, we moved on to Brazil. All my life, my parents drum, Ukrainian art, Ukrainian this, Ukrainian that. The beautiful little things. Always gave us something to wonder about. I was always connected. It was home. So when I went to Ukraine for the first time, as a, “Wow, I'm really here! There is a country called Ukraine”.
Process of decorating a sleeveless fur coat called “keptar”
I started with the embroidery, and the embroidery took me to weaving, and the weaving took me to beadwork, and the beadwork to finishing one costume. There were so many different techniques that I had to learn.
It's a challenge finding all these things, these artifacts, and then trying to reproduce them.
This is a replica of an old skirt. This pattern was given to me by a museum in Ukraine.
And this belt was in the archives.
This is a bride. This is a cape that she will wear to her wedding day. You know, just a whole learning experience is a great journey. And to learn and to show others, even in Ukraine.
Last year, they were baffled just looking at these heads. I mean, they live there and they don't know where to go.
Reconstruction of a bridal headdress made by Vira Nakonechny
The Hutsul region is beautiful. The mountains, the valleys, all the rivers. But the colors in their art!.. My teacher always said, “We chose the colors that grow on our fields”. Magnificent.
It's a great, great feeling to be able to give it back and to learn. It keeps my culture alive.
The family is the glue that binds the Ukrainians’ soul. As an artist, Vira admits that without the support of family she wouldn't have found the strength to be who she is today – a true keeper of history and tradition.
Yuriy Nakonechny is Vira's husband. Although not as prolific as his wife, he's still her best critic and a pillar of support. Together they strive to pass down all things Ukrainian to their children.
Interview with Vira Nakonechny
– I would like you to wear this and at least be a Ukrainian for an hour or so.
– OK, yes, I'm going to go put this on right now. I love it. I already have the corals. Now, I get to wear this.
– Look at you!
– It’s fabulous. I love it. I’d said, too bad you can't give it to me, too bad I can't take it with me.
Vira Nakonechny has been working with a needle and thread since she was 10 years old. Today, she is of few award-winning folk artists, who has even taught needlework to artists back in Ukraine, preserving centuries-old traditions.
YaKenda McGahee, reporter: Hello. Before we start, I get to put on some corals. Is coral found a lot in Ukraine?
Vira Nakonechny: Yes, it's worn as a traditional adornment.
Reporter: You know I’m not going to want to take these off?
Vira Nakonechny: Oh, yes, you are.
Reporter: How and where did your story begin?
Vira Nakonechny: When I was a child going to school, embroidery and handwork was a mandatory subject. So you needed to do it. So, of course, that's the only thing that I got a nail on it.
Sample of Ukrainian embroidery
Working the weaving loom requires two coordinated moves: stepping down on the wooden pedals which separate the threads, and using the handles to make the desired pattern.
Vira Nakonechny: I always love doing it [weaving]. The art was always in me. This is a God-given gift to me.
Vira Nakonechny has a weaving loom at home
Vira Nakonechny: When I was a child, I had a little table and I did handicraft. At the age of 10, I was able to do it, and I look at it now and I say, “I was good”. At the age of 10, I was good.
Even as a gifted 10-year-old, Vira didn't receive the encouragement she needed.
Vira Nakonechny: My mother would look at that and said to me, “This is so stupid. This has no value”. And I would be so devastated. There was nothing like the Ukrainian art. Where you embroider from the back and your parent comes in the front. And I'm baffled, you know, as to how can you embroider it from the reverse side, if I'm following a stamp work? So, when I came to the United States, I started to search and found out that that was the “niz”.
Ukrainian folk woven belts called “kraika”
So, what goes through an artists’ mind when they are engrossed in their art? I asked Vira how she felt at that moment.
Vira Nakonechny: It's peaceful. And it gives you also a feeling: I am learning something and I am doing something for my heritage. And also, you know, I’ll be able to leave something behind and truly feel like a weaver.
Another vital aspect of Vira's life is the teaching of her art. She says it's important that such traditions are kept alive by artists, like herself.
Vira Nakonechny: I've been teaching for a long time and I have been passing it down, and it has been very important to me. And if I don't learn, what will I pass down?
Ukrainian bead weaving necklaces made by Vira Nakonechny
Melanie Tkach, the student of Vira Nakonechny: When I was a senior in high school, I had to present a project at the end of the year, in order to graduate – a graduation project. And I wanted to do something different, and so I talked to my mom and my mom called pani Vira (Ukrainian variant of Mrs. Vira) and told her that I would like to learn how to embroider. I couldn't ask for a better teacher. She is so patient and she is so willing to pass that on that it just kind of makes her, like, the perfect teacher.
Skillful embroidering is a natural gift
Vira Nakonechny: OK, what I am going to show you is one of the oldest stitches in Ukrainian. It's called “niz”. Niz meaning “from the back”. Because you do it from the back. And the reason why we do it from the back is because it is easier to count the threads, the fabric, and the holes from the back than it would be to count from the front. So it makes it easier.
Ukrainian embroidery pattern called “niz”
The type of cloth used for embroidery is a thick linen with prominent weaves because the niz uses calculated stitches. This clearly visible weave is necessary. Most of the time, the fabric chosen is white or ivory, which makes a great background for all of the colorful threadwork.
Vira Nakonechny: So, what we're going to do is we need to count how many threads you're leaving and how many threads you're picking up. So, basically, this is similar to a weaving technique. We're going in and we're skipping 3 threads.
Reporter: You need some good eyes for this, let me tell you.
Vira Nakonechny: Easy, isn’t it?
Reporter: No, not at all. Not even a little bit. She said earlier that some people just have it and then, there are other people. It's just a natural gift.