Belarusian Ruchnik
Belarusian Traditional Ornamental Towel
This web page is based entirely on the English introduction (translated by A.L. Vasil'eva) to an exquisite new photo-album by Vol'ha Labacheuskaia "Poviaz' Chasou - Belaruski Ruchnik" ("Link of Times - Belarusian Traditional Ornamental Towel") published in 2002 by "Belarus" publishing house in Minsk (see bottom of th4e page).

Towel is a very symbolic thing of many meanings. Art and symbol are united in towel in a single whole. Being created according to art laws, towel embellishes ordinariness, and at the same time it is a symbolic reminder of invisible threads that tie together a man and God, his kin, his ancestors.

Towel is a mirror of people's history, their spirit, creative aspirations, and artistic perception of the World. And nowadays, towels are woven and embroidered in different places of Belarus as well. With its enigmatic fancy signs, magic ritual power, and exciting vivid artistic diction, a towel keeps taking part in the continuous dialogue between the culture of the past and of the future.

In Belarus, comprehension of the towel as a property of national culture dates back to the 70s-80s. A great layer of authentic decorative cloth was discovered as a result of museums' collecting work. Former towels taken out of country women coffers and those created nowadays, enriched museum collections, formed stock, that, by some estimates, comprises more than 10 thousand units.

Mikhas Ramaniuk started thorough ethnographic and fine art studies of the Belarusian towel. The researcher wrote a number of articles on towels for Belarusian Encyclopedias.

In 1994 the summarizing work "Belarusian Towel", written by ethnographer Volha Fadzeyeva, was published. She analyzed numerous functions of the towel for Belarusian people in baptismal, funeral, situational and calendar rituals, and traced the history of its development.

Studies by Halina Niachayeva, Maryia Vinnikava and other Belarusian researchers deepened understanding of the richness of Belarusian towel tradition; they pointed new levels of regarding the towel as a poly-semantic text of traditional culture and realizing the sophisticated sign language of its ornamental pattern. Considerable amount of samples of woven and embroidered Belarusian towels are presented in the book "Belarusian Ornamental Pattern' (1996), written by the oldest Belarusian researcher of folk art Mikhail Katsar.

At the end of 1998 - the beginning of 1999 The National Exhibition "Belarusian Towel" was held. Towels of six historical and ethnographic regions of Belarus were presented at the exhibition, there were about 400 exhibits from the collection of 11 museums of the country. Polyphony of regional peculiarities appeared in a great number of national traits of the Belarusian towel, and it impressed with its artistry. This current album is made up in accordance with the displays of the exhibition. 220 samples of Belarusian towels, created during about one century (from the 70s of the 19th century, to the 80s of the 20"' century.) are presented in it. In their compositions, ornamental patterns, and color combinations, the oldest towels reflect hoary antiquity of ethno-genetic memory, and artistic traditions of Belarusian ethnos. Modern towels demonstrate time-correlated changes and, at the same time, stable integrity of local, regional, and national artistic peculiarities. Publication of towels from museum collections in the album puts into scientific and socio-cultural use a great number of works of Belarusian folk art. That will serve the purpose of further comprehending cultural poly-semantics and ethnic specificity of the Belarusian towel, and studying its artistic traditions and ornamental art.

In Belarusian language there are several words to denote towels, depending on their different functions. A piece of towel cloth without decoration or with narrow stripes along the edges, which is used for domestic needs, is called uciralnik ('wiper'). Towels that are richly decorated with embroidery and lace have the name of nabozhnik all over Belarus, and in some places they are also called babavik, nabraznik, nakutnik, platok. ('headscarf), or nabozhny platok ('religious headscarf). All these names indicate that this cloth is meant for God, its cohesion with icons and their permanent place - icon case in the place of honor in the house. It's the towel-nabozhnik that represents the essence of great country art - women's fancywork. It's as if small parts of female soul were in-woven, twisted in towel cloths. Their female creators, who passed away, continue their earthy existence in nabozhniki, they keep in invisible touch with their relatives and influence us with some special, really perceptible spiritual energy.

There are stable symbols-images associating with a towel: towel - road, towel - bond, towel - embodiment of good. They have been solidifying in people's consciousness for years, and in modern culture they are taken as archetypes.

The archetype symbolism of the towel is determined by stable ritual, ceremonial and decorative functions of that thing, peculiarities of its form, nature of decor and composition, quality of towel cloth itself.

The image of towel-road originates from the process of thread spinning. The thread appears from the chaos of fiber, extends, and lengthens in hands of spinner - a mythical and poetic symbol of fate, personified in different cultures. The cosmic image of World’s space, wound on the spindle, might have arisen in imagination of those women who have left for the history their stone and clay spinning wheels in the strata of late Neolithic cultures.

The image of future cloth-road would arise in a woman's mind when she would make a warp from woven threads. The warp wound on the loom - mill was that visible way a spinner should follow. The cloth was a kind of mark of a traversed path, and a woman's thoughts were reflected in its patterns.

The woven cloth, taken off the mill, turned into a different space representation - into a spiral of linen whirlpool that resembles the model of the World as it preserves powerful motion energy. It is not by chance that in the mythical and poetic imagery different peoples are firmly associating spinning and weaving with World’s creation, it’s cosmic texture.

Linens, made by women's hands, didn't have strictly utilitarian function. They served, perhaps, as the first textbooks, visual aids for understanding the methods of comprehension of the World, realizing the notions of infinity and measure. From times immemorial linens that were woven during winter were whitened during the early summer dues in wet meadows, at the riverbank. The linens spread on the young grass under delicate rays of the morning sun, always evoked the image of the Way that calls you, leads you over the horizon into unknown World.

Towel-Path appears from the endlessness of linen as a measure of space. The length of towel linen relates to an arms span, person's height, and size of one’s house. The length of a towel-nabozhnik usually equaled to one  “gooba” which is approximately equal to the length of the longest wall in the house (one linen whirlpool equals approximately to three or four “gooba” lengths). Or it was equal tone or two “measures” of human height. In that way, cloth structured surrounding space, attached human dimension to it. The cloth, appearing from the chaos of natural material, was turning into the World model - well-ordered and decorated space - exactly through the relation with the towel as a certain measure and a completed object. It's not by chance, that in the Antique times the same word `cosmos' was used to define the notions of “World”, “harmony”, and “decoration’.

One may see the prototype of an artistic completeness of a towel as an object in a usual towel-ucirainik ('wiper'). The uciralnik acquires a quality of an object only when the edge of towel cloth is marked. Since the times of invention of weaving craft, a line, a stripe, an edging, that marks the beginning and the end of cloth, becomes a prototype of textile ornament.

The notions of cloth as a Path have been a part of the mythical World imagery since ancient times. They are embodied in rituals, folklore images, and works of folk art. There's a lot of evidence of this fact in ethnographic records of traditional ceremonies of Belarusian people of the 19th- 20th centuries. The image of a Path appears almost in all ceremonial acts performed with a towel.

The image of towel-path is present literary or symbolically at all acts of the wedding ceremony. The towel is tied around bride's hand, she drags it behind herself on the ground, and it represents the pathway her girlfriends will follow to get married. A padnozhnik towel (“step-on” towel), that the newly-weds stand upon during wedding ceremony in church, is supposed to be dragged by the bride behind herself, while she is walking around the altar, in order for her girlfriends to follow her path and get married.

By means of wedding ceremony the newly-weds passed into another age and social status, were born in a new quality. The towel was to mark the very moment of their passing. It was symbolically marking the path that led one to another, to their entering a new family structure.

Ethnographers note a semantic similarity of wedding and funeral rituals. Funeral rituals, according to firm beliefs of Belarusian people, assisted the passing of the dead into Another World and establishing relations of souls of ancestors and those of living relatives. This points to a continuous figurative and semantic tie of a towel and a Path even in a greater degree.

A spread linen, towel were supposed to serve as the path for souls of the dead. A towel was hanged behind a window of the house where there was a dead person, so that the soul of this dead person could find path into Another World.  Interestingly white towel would serve as a path to a good soul, while simple rope would lead a dead witch into Another World. The towel was supposed to hang in the house until the funeral and six weeks after that.

Putting a coffin into the grave on long towels or linen also symbolizes the way to the other world. A towel was the way between the world of the living and the world of the dead, between mundane and heavenly spheres.

In widespread in Belarus customs of worship of dead ancestors, that takes place on definite memorial days of every season of the year – “Dziady” (“Ancestors”), a towel is also a symbolic mark of the way that Dziady allegedly follow to return to the World of the living. According to ancient customs and ideas of a symbolic role of towel-path, even nowadays here and there in Belarus people cover graves with towels on Radaunitsa - Easter of the Dead.

Ancient rituals, concerned with the cult of ancestors, have remained in Belarus in traditions of worshiping Dziady. As an echo of these rituals, the towel plays another figurative archetypical part - the one of towel-poviaz’ (`bond'). Its presence in funeral rituals symbolizes the continuous connection of kin members.

At the wedding, a towel also plays a ritual part of connecting. It serves as a mediator in uniting two families, two kins. A bride prepares for her wedding together with the eldest women of the family towels-presents, towels-nabozhniki. The role of a towel at the wedding (none of the phases of the wedding can do without it) is well known, and is described in detail by ethnographers. For example, in 1947 in Luninets district up to 30-40 towels were typically prepared for the wedding. By means of the ritual of giving gifts, of tying up with a towel most respected people of the wedding ceremony - Father-in-law, Mother-in-law, matchmakers, brothers-in-law from groom’s side, his friends -a symbolic joining of the bride's kin to the groom's kin occurred. It is indicative that men were tied up by women - the bride, her mother and the bride's girlfriends. A towel, passing on from the bride's side to the groom's, embodied the idea of tying, it played a symbolic part of connecting two entities - masculine and feminine, joining up two families, two kins.

In poly-semantic significance of the towel at the wedding one can trace its most archaic role - to be a sign, a symbol, a protector of invisible participants of the ceremony - the dead members of the kin, ancestors. A decorated towel was a special ritual thing that ancestors' souls inhabited during the carrying out of the ceremony, and now the ancestor-towel took part in arranging the marriage and sanctified it. A pagan ritual of thrice-repeated wrapping of newly-weds with towel cloth in the place of honor, that preceded the wedding ceremony in the church, is well known not only in Belarus. Russians in Kaluga area call it - betrothal of newly-weds.

During the wedding celebration the bride and women of her family sanctified the towels provided as a dowry - from pieces of decorated cloth they turned into sacral things, got a semeiotic status. Women used wedding towels during all their life, they handed them down to their daughters. Decorated towels, that participants of the ceremony received at the wedding as presents, enriched family treasure of the costliest and most sacral things, and they were given to the church, wrapped around crosses, etc.

Among polysemantic symbolic meanings of the towel, the idea of good embodied in it and a firm belief in its magic properties, that can bring happiness, prosperity, health to a person and his/her family, perhaps are the main and the most significant ones. All Eastern Slavs believed that a towel is an embodiment of good. The towel is able to influence positively one's life, it possesses magic power. These firm beliefs showed an invariable function of the towel as a talisman. The towel carried out its protecting and magic function by means of symbolic qualities of yarn and linen, a sacral property of the red color and a sign property of design.

The symbolic idea of good, beneficence is probably embodied in the greatest degree in a towel-abydzennik and rent towels. The archaic tradition of making everyday cloth existed in Belarus till the middle of the 20th century. People applied to the tradition of the joint making of cloth, a towel, from the very beginning, i.e. thread spinning, to the end of weaving, when it was necessary to ward off a disease from a village, to save the harvest from drought and in other circumstances, dangerous for people. The last cases of making everyday cloth in Belarus were stated by ethnographers in the years of World War II, when women tried to protect lives of their own men-soldiers with help of this ancient custom.

Everyday cloth, newly made, embodies the symbolic idea of first-born purity and kindness. It is able to spread these properties around, to resist evil, sinful things, to change a dangerous course of life. For that purpose, Belarusians lay everyday cloth across the road and drove animals across it to protect them from illness; they lay it across the street to prevent spread of diseases; they held it above their heads and all inhabitants of the village passed under it, people also hanged it on crosses and sacrificed it to church. Magic actions with an everyday towel, donation of it to the church are the evidence of firm people's beliefs in a capability of cloth to change the broken World’s order and influence kindly man's fate.

Wedding towels, like everyday ones, got their good qualities while being used in a ritual. Being sanctified during the wedding ceremony a towel becomes means of attracting good, radiating happiness, it acquires virtuous qualities. Being put in place of honor, a towel-nabozhnik is able to influence positively family’s well-being, it’s life order.

Apotropic properties of towel cloth were strengthened by red color of its ornamental pattern, which in itself was an effective warning against everything unfavorable. Red threads and cloths with red ornamental patterns were used in ceremonial rites of Belarusian people and all the Eastern Slavs. An ornamental pattern of a Belarusian woven and embroidered towel was mostly plain red till the end of the 19th century.

A towel-natbozhnik as a sacral object was given a permanent place in the house - in the red corner, i.e. the place of honor. The very name 'red corner' reflects people's ideas of a favorable impact of the red color of the sun on everything alive, and the place of honor was always directed eastwards. A towel with a red ornamental pattern in place of honor was considered to be a materialized embodiment of the symbolic idea of the red corner itself.

For ten centuries of Christianity on Slav lands, a towel has been placed together with icons in red corner. But a towel is the oldest of them. The sacral place in the house was marked by towel cloth even in pre-Christian times. Christianity did away with wooden images of home gods-ancestors in the red corner, but the corner itself remained the place of worshiping ancestors - Dziady. Functionally, a towel kept on being used for covering this time Christian icons. But semantically, it superseded worshiped ancestors, having assumed sacral properties of their images, as well as the role of a symbolic bond between the World of living and the World of dead. A towel in red corner serves as a real and, at the same time, figurative tie of Christianity and Paganism, which keep coexisting in folk culture.

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The towel doesn't play an important part in calendar-agrarian rituals aimed at ensuring the crop capacity. And that's despite the fact that a towel traditionally accompanies bread: bread and salt on a Belarusian peasant's table were always covered with a towel, a kneading trough with dough in it was covered with a special towel called nadziozhnik, guests should be presented with an offering of bread and salt on a towel. Only in the reaping ritual of “covering the field”, the first cut sheaf was traditionally tied up with a towel. The symbolism of fertility, reflected in an ornamental pattern of a towel, was to help to improve the well-being, to have a rich harvest, but the deep sense of the ritual is concerned with the cult of ancestors, the wish to get their support, protection and blessing by giving them a towel. That's why all over Belarus the first cut sheaf – “master” - was brought home, put in place of honor and covered, tied up or belted with a towel.

Belarusian people connect the ritual use of a towel with ideas about ancestors - Dziady - as guardians of the kin, real creatures that are able to protect, to help, to contribute to the peaceful living of living relatives. From time immemorial towels were made by a woman - Mother, heiress, guardian of the kin and family - and they undoubtedly had clan signs. Knowledge about them and the basics of weaving and fancywork were passed on from elder women to younger ones.

An ornamental pattern of traditional cloth is a female language. For a long period of existence, the language of design has absorbed all the meanings of 'words' and 'sentences' of different time origin, beginning with sacral-magic parent language.

Belarusian towels comprise a special World of culture. An ornamental pattern that is drawn across cloth, structurally twisted into cruciform interweaving of warp and weft, directed upwards at the ends of the towel displays linear conception of horizontal and vertical ties, the Universe, three levels of World’s space that are cosmological in their origin. In fulfilling its functions, a towel gets one more dimension - time. During the ritual the towel united in four-dimensional space the socium of a family group in its whole – its living members and dead ancestors, who are in the other World. Christian ideology added to the image of the towel the meaning of visual bond with God in space and time.

A towel as a spatial and lengthy object, flexible and yielding by its material nature, model not only symbolically but physically those ties.

The meaning of the white color of towel linen traditionally sorts with divine origin, the other World. It is not by chance that most of Belarusian towels have the white center, and a red ornamental pattern is concentrated at the ends. Usually the ends of a towel-nabozbnik are joined together under icons. The ornamental pattern is plane-unfolded, and it creates a red base for a white round arch and Christian images in the middle. A towel in a place of honor resembles a ring, identical to a tied belt, and it becomes mandala, the specific center of spiritual-religious meditation, and at the same time mandarla round Christian icons.

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A deep semantic relation to the cult of ancestors and Christian symbolism of a towel-nabozhnik are the main idea and image axe, the art of making a towel was built upon. The place of honor is the place that determined the image, composition and metrical qualities of the towel. 

The millennial coexistence of a towel, pagan by its origin, and Christian icons in the place of honor gave rise to a great number of artistic variants of their plastic and architectonical combinations. In a country-woman's hands, a towel turned into the material that let her create heavenly space in the sacral place of the house, model it in accord with Christian iconostasis and personal ideas about beauty of the higher World where God and saints live. It's well known from ethnographic descriptions of the 19th century that Belarusian country-men aspired to have as rich decoration of the place of honor as possible. It referred to the number of icons and towels-nabozhniki. Villagers were not always able to afford a great number of icons, and they used towels to decorate the place of honor. Rich nabozhniki were evidence of the family's well-being.

A towel-nabozhnik is a decorative system. Artistic methods of decorating it were conditioned by the sacral sense of that object, its outward representativeness and permanent presence in the place of honor. Woven and embroidered ornamental patterns, lace, that accomplishes the composition, additional insets of ribbons, red bunting, fine lace of industrial production that were expensive for a country-man - all these artistic means, available to a country-woman, creates harmonious decorative sounding, polyphonic in rhythm, texture and color.

A towel and a table-cloth had been almost only decorative objects among home facilities of a villager. The rise of artistic development of Belarusian towel-nabozhnik falls on the epoch of the post-reform development of a Belarusian village in the second half of the 19th century, when rural interior was gradually getting decorative traits in connection with transfer from smoky huts to clean houses with ovens. At the same time, diversity of composition techniques, ornamental richness of towel cloth are evidencing depth of such artistic traditions in Belarus, of their formation on the basis of strong ethnogenetic factors centuries ago. Towels of the end of the 19th - the beginning of the 20th centuries that have been saved till our time, preserve traits of their regional distinctions, expressive local peculiarities. Leveling impacts that folk art experienced in the first half of the 20th century were not able to destroy, to obliterate entirely distinctive phenomena of Slavic and Baltic cultural areas, bygone tribe cultures and secluded local traditions in towels. 

The conditional-symbolic language of geometric design, that is usually related to the World perception of agricultural crops, agrarian symbolism, generating magic, prevails in archaic ornamental codes of Belarusian towels. Textile figuration absorbed and preserved almost the whole arsenal of signs, elements of the language that the mankind has been using since the times of upper Paleolithic period for passing the ideal matter of the notions of life and good, for magical transmittance of sacral properties to real objects. Unlike neighboring ethnoses - Russians and Ukrainians - the plot-artistic composition is not characteristic of Belarusian people, and only sometimes plant patterns and images of the tree of life are presented on traditional embroidered towels.

Signs of ornamental patterns on towels, their combination in the unified composition on the principle of plurality are the evidence of ancient ideas of a man about the Universe; they reflect his archaic outlook and World perception. Thoroughness of Belarusian textile figuration, diversity of ornamental compositions: borders, nets, thick carpet patterns are the result of the centuries-old development of art of design, techniques of patterned weaving and embroidery. Sophisticated textile methods of weaving for embodying symbolic images of the rhombic-geometric pattern were known on the territory of ethnic Belarusians as early as the 11th-12th centuries (burial mounds near Smalensk and Charnihau).

With time the sacral language of patterns lost its original meaning, changed semantically, but its artistic qualities were improving from generation to generation. It has reached us in the climax of its artistic development, but as a language and means of communication it has lost its meaning and inner semantic relations.

Traditionally towels had remained a real part of culture in Belarus till the middle of the 20th century. Even when people stopped making towels in accord with old artistic canons, their ancient patterns were still being used in ceremonies and as naboznniki. Gradually woven and embroidered towels with geometric red patterns became “former”, “old” and “un-fashionable” among countrymen. As a result of this change of aesthetic tastes and artistic ideals, traditional towels have practically disappeared from the place of honor of village houses. They are kept in chests as a reminder about Mother and Grandmother. Without pity old towels are used in funeral rites, they are given to churches and put on crosses. And nowadays you can often see classic patterns of ornamental towels on village graves, on crosses.

The towel doesn't disappear entirely from the place of honor. But these are different towels. They look livelier with their many-colored patterns, images of different flowers. They are embroidered in free satin-stitch technique or woven with special setting. The refusal of traditional towels in favor of new ones is caused by a change of aesthetic preferences and stylistics of an artistic language, also possibilities to use various polychrome threads.

The switch of folk-art to new aesthetical ideals and artistic standards was gradual. At the end of 19th century there have appeared plant and floral patterns, embroidered in cross-stitch, on towels. During the 20th century a gradual exclusion of household goods of traditional culture from countrymen's way of life was going on. In our time the layer of traditional towels has become thinner in the authentic milieu of countrymen as a result of natural physical elimination of things, deliberate transfer from the everyday sphere to the sacral one of funeral rites, the sacral space of the church and cross-decoration. Old towels in abandoned houses in villages of Chernobyl zone remind of the catastrophically destroyed World. One more reason for the decrease in the number of traditional towels in villages is collecting these objects for museums. Nowadays only few towels are preserved in families as relics, a reminder of ancestors. At the end of the 20th century the making of traditional towels according to old artistic canons stopped in villages of Belarus almost entirely.

Regional Ruchnik Traditions

Traditional towels are grouped according to historical and ethnographic areas of Belarus in the album. Every region is presented by its most significant local types of towels. In most cases local types of towels were named after administrative districts of the country. If the territory of some towel type spreading is small (for example it covers only one or several neighboring villages), towels receive their names according to the name of the village where their most significant patterns are stated. The last part of the album is dedicated to embroidered towels of the end of the 19th - the beginning of the 20th centuries, that have practically lost their ethnic originality and peculiarities of the ornamental-decorative language as a result of destroying traditions of folk art, and they don't have distinctive regional and local artistic features.

Towels of Zahodniaye (Western) Palesse

This is a historical and geographical area that occupies main part of the Brest region.

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    The predominating sort of towels in Zahodniaye Palesse districts are striped ones; these are the most archaic type of ritual towels. Cross red stripes of various widths are put rhythmically all over the linen of a towel or centered on its ends. This is the oldest way of magic-ritual marking of cloth, related to the belief in protective properties of the red stripe.

    A peculiar rhythm of striped decoration of Zahodniave Palesse towels could appear only in this area, where the scenery itself with its boundlessness and flat land seems to have accustomed men to measuring space. By their artistic nature towels are similar to Palesse singing as its drawl and monotonous rhythm of sounds was caused by this landscape, too.

    Towels striping, which dominates almost all over Zahodniaye Palesse - from Stolin to Biaroza and Ivacevichy, is one of the archaic features of traditional culture of that area. Along with considerable preservation of rituals, mythological ideas, folklore, material culture manifestations, traditional methods of keeping house, aimed at harmonic coexistence of a man under specific natural and geographic conditions of Palesse, this kind of towels is a part of the ancient Slavic World. 

    Traditions of making and using towels exist in Zahodniaye Palesse nowadays as well. Good preservation of traditional wedding ceremony in this region, decorating houses in Palesse are favorable to present day utilizations of towels.

    The following types of towels are presented in the album: Zahodniaye Palesse striped towels, Zahodniaye Palesse towels with attached ends, Ivanava towels, Stolin and Pinsk towels, Klecak and Liahavichy towels, Moral towels, Drahichyn towels.

Towels of Ushodniaye (Eastern) Palesse

This is a historical and geographical area that occupies the Western part of the Homel region from Zhytkavichy to Rechytsa on the right bank of the Dnieper and the lower Biarezina rivers. The Southern part of the Luninets district and the Gantsavichy district of the Brest region form part of this region, too.

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Two strong ethno-cultural traditions are synthesized in towels of Ushodniaye Palesse. They are red and white banding of Zahodniaye Palesse's towels and semantic and sign richness of the red rhombic-geometric design of the Dnieper district. The monotonous and marshy landscape of the Prypiats river lowland changes into Mazyr Palesse's high banks and hills of fertile woods plateaus that a man had mastered for farming long time ago. This diverse relief of the region is reflected in multi-formity of artistic expressiveness of Ushodniaye Palesse's towels.

Towels of Ushodniaye Palesse are characterized by striping of the whole composition, distinct widening of the rhombic-geometric design, its richness of the red color with slight predominance over the white color of towel cloths. Their peculiar features are artistic and handicraft accuracy of making, richness of texture, a wide range of weaving techniques, that quite often combine between themselves in a peculiar way in one textile work.

The most artistically expressive towels are from Kalinkavichy, Brahin, Hoiniki districts of Homel voblast, and Luninets, Hancevichy districts of Brest region. In Ushodniaye Palesse, the towel as a ritual, semantic sign object hasn't lost its functions till our days. The evidence of this are different kinds of crosses decorated with up to dozens of tribute towels, that you can see in villages of Mazyr, Palesse. The following types of towels are presented in the album: Luninets towels, Kalinkavichy towels, Hoiniki and Brahin towels, Brahin zakladnyia (overthrow) towels.

Towels of Padniaproue

This is a historical and geographical area that occupies the territory of the Dnieper basin to the Biarezina, West of the Mahilyow and Homel regions and the Southeastern part of the Vitsebsk region

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Easily recognizable traditional ritual towels are determined by historical and ethnographic peculiarities of the region that is a specific outpost of keeping Belarusian genetics, its protector from the influence of the Russian and the Ukrainian ethnoses.

The Dnieper district is the area with the most significant and diverse artistic traditions of ritual towels. This region's towels impress with richness and vividness of the red color, perceptible archaic character and semantic essence of the rhombic-geometric design, variety and invention of techniques and methods of weaving, embroidery, and lace decoration.

The Dnieper district is distinguished by variety and close coexistence of certain artistic and stylistic types of towels. The greatest number of traditional towels and the richest mosaic of their different local varieties are in the Homel Dnieper district or the Sozh river district. Towels of Chachersk, Vetka, Dobrush, Homel, Buda-Kashaliova districts reflect composition-ornamental traditions of folk weaving and embroidery that existed on this territory in the 19th century and their artistic development in the 20th century.

The Mahilyow Dnieper district is characterized by towel types that can be found on a rather large territory. At the same time, artistic traditions are intermixed here, too, and that's why very often different varieties of towels coexist in one village.

The Biarezina part of the Dnieper district that borders Central Belarus has preserved unique local traditions of towel art that formed in the past under conditions of isolation of this forest land.

Such multi-layered artistic craft and technological traditions can be found only in towels of the Dnieper district. Old “branaia” [1] double-weft and “zakladnaia” [2] techniques, “perabornaie” [3] weaving in its various technologies: one-sided setting, imitation rep setting, pressing-warp setting, etc.

One of the peculiar features of towels of the Dnieper district is predomination of the red color in woven and embroidered ornamental patterns over the white cloth The redness of these towels is intensified with trimming of the ends of a towel with red and red-white woven terry, insets of red bunting strips of cloth that harmoniously complete their entire decorative composition. At the same time the Dnieper district is the only one where there one can find towels with black branyia [1] patterns, which were probably meant for death - the funeral rites.

At present, in the Dnieper district, being in the natural ethnographic environment, towels go on fulfilling their ritual function as nabozhniki in wedding ceremonies and funeral rites. Even now artistic traditions specific for this district are still being considered in their making.

The following types of towels are presented in the album: Rahachou zakladnyia towels, Kirau towels, towels of the village of Madora, Dubrouna towels. Kasciukovichv and Khotsimsk towels, Slauharad and Byhau towels, Slauharad towels, towels of the region between the rivers Sozh and Besiadz, towels of the village of Zakruzha. towels of the village of Amelnaye, Homel towels, Dobrush branyia towels, Buda-Kashaliova towels. Prysno towels, Dobrush perabornyia towels, Chachersk towels, Krasnapolle towels, Nehliubka towels.

Towels of Paazerie (the Lakes district)

This is a historical and geographical area of Belarus that occupies the biggest part of the Vitsebsk region

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Old techniques of ornamental decorations of ritual towels, that were once common for all the Eastern Slavs are preserved in the Lakes district. At the same time, in the 19th - the beginning of the 20th centuries, towels of this district were exposed to a great influence of external factors, and to a great degree they lost ethnic primary nature of their artistic language.

A traditional towel of the Lakes district is not big in size. The decor of its rather narrow borders is concentrated at the ends. Metrical characteristics of these towels result from the habit to decorate the red corner with only one towel; that habit is widespread in the Lakes district and echo traditions of central and Southern regions of Russia.

The Lakes district is an area of inter-ethnic contacts and migratory movement, its population consists of heterogeneous ethnic groups, and the district borders the Pskov and Smalensk regions of Russia. It's not by chance that along with geometric patterns on woven and embroidered towels you can see vegetative-seedling motives, subject antroph-amorphous images, ones of birds, life tree, that are rarely found in other districts of Belarus. They are typical for ethno-cultural traditions of Northern Russia, where they are most brightly reflected in embroidery of the archaic type. An old technique of two-side sewing, or “painting”, that is called “Russian sewing”, is used for embroidering towels in the Lakes district. Towels embroidered in this way are found in settlements of Russian Old Believers [4], and there’re lots of them in Western districts of the Vitsebsk region.

In the milieu of Old Believers as a result of their interrelations with cultures of the neighboring ethnoses - Belarusians, Lithuanians, Letts, Polish people, a unique artistic phenomenon appeared, i.e. towels made in the technique of pattern weaving that are distinguished by a great number of enlarged ornamental motives, polychromy, emphatic decorativeness.

Traditions of making towels have almost died out in this district.

The following types of traditional towels are presented in the album: Ushodni (Eastern) Vitsebsk towels, Polacak towels, Vitsebsk towels, Old-Believers embroidered towels, and Old-BelieversVybarnyia” [5] towels.

Towels of Central Belarus

This is historical and geographical area, that occupies the biggest part of the Minsk voblasc’ and Western remote area of Mahilyow voblasc’

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Old ethno-genetic information is practically erased in towels of Central Belarus by posterior historical and cultural influences, coming of civilization, which pace of development in the 19th-20th centuries was fastest in Belarus.

The most ancient features are preserved in towels made in techniques of picking embroidery and branaie double-weft weaving, which come from the Biarezina local area that includes Cherven’ and Biarezina districts of Minsk voblasc’, the Asipovichy district of the Mahilyow voblasc’.

There are some unique local varieties among towels of Central Belarus. Those were formed under the influence of factors, typical for certain areas. Towels of the Kapyl and Slucak areas are characterized by craft accuracy and high quality of the production, variety of weaving techniques and methods, which provide evidence of continuous succession and stability of local traditions of the weaving craft. Even ten or twenty years ago, weavers of the Kapyl area wove towels according old patterns.

Patterns of perabornyia towels show the last step in the development of local artistic and technological traditions. Present-day perabornya towels keep functioning as an attribute of the wedding ceremony. But they have also turned into decorative objects, which are assigned to be an interior decoration, provide evidence of weaving skills and inventiveness of their creator. Geometric vegetative and zoomorphic motives form the ornamental patterns of these towels. You can often see images of birds, lions on them. In their general features perabornyia towels of Central Belarus are similar to those of the Nioman river district. Their development was subordinated to general laws of the development of folk arts, that at the beginning of the 20th century mastered actively new, artistic-ornamental, composition and technical methods of handmade patterned weaving.

The following types of towels are presented in the album: Kapyl towels, Asipovichy towels, Cherven towels, Staryia Darohi perabornyia towels, Slucak perabornyia towels.

Towels of Paniamonnie (the Nioman-river district)

This is a historical and geographical area that occupies the upper basin of the Nioman and its tributaries, the area of the Hrodna voblasc’ and the Western districts of Vitsebsk and Minsk voblasc’s

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Towels of the Nioman district are noble; their decorations are not garish. They have a mark of the land where Baltic and Slavic traditions from time immemorial were deeply intertwined, where the glorious Belarusian state - the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has developed. Something special, deep-rooted in mentality, sub-consciousness makes local women to entwine distinctive patterns and color combinations, that are genetically special to this area and its descendants, in towel cloth for hundreds of years. In their style and technologies, towels of Nioman district are similar to folk cloths of neighboring Lithuania and Latvia. There are no flaming red patterns on them. Towels of this area, made in pure white color or soft hues of natural linen color, stand apart from the rest of white-red-white Belarusian towels.

As for spiritual and religious culture of the Nioman district's inhabitants, towels play a less important part here in comparison with other parts of Belarus. Unlike Orthodox population of the district, Catholics use less traditional towels in rituals. Towels are not used for decoration of the interior of Catholic churches. At home Catholics don't put towels on icons. Very long wedding towels are typical for the Orthodox culture in that area. “The towel on all the icons”, that was specially made for a wedding, ran up to 450cm (14’) or even 600cm (18’) in length.

Towels of the Nioman district are characterized by harmonious combination of techniques and fabric. They are distinguished rather for richness of fine-patterned texture, interweaving of towel cloth and high quality of work, than for original decor. Ornamental repeated compositions of towels are mainly vertical in direction, which is also typical for towels of neighboring Lithuania and Latvia. The most widespread technique of towel making is four-heald and multi-heald weaving. The weaving traditions of the district were undoubtedly formed under the influence of West European crafts, and they have a distinctive mark of Western European artistic culture.

In many villages of the Nioman district, towels are still being woven. Traditions of woven and embroidered towels live due to the function of an obligatory attribute of the wedding ceremony.

The following types of towels, distinctive in their artistic features formed at different times, are known: Vilna towels, Vilejka and Miadzel towels, Hrodna white towels, Hrodna perabornyia towels.

Extra-regional patterns of towels

A great number of Belarusian towels of the end of the 19th - the beginning of the 20th centuries are towels, embroidered in cross-stitch. Such towels are not marked by distinctive regional or local features. The weaving technique itself and most patterns were taken from prints that had been widespread among people since the end of the 19th century. These things mark changes in people's World perception, that were taking place at a rapid rate at the beginning of the 20th century in connection with destruction of an archaic principles of the traditional culture.

Thanks to printed sources, there appeared red and white coloring, vegetative patterns, images of wreathes, crowns, baroque flowerpots, various birds, dogs, butterflies, and other animals, as well as inscriptions, monograms, sayings, letters of different types and subject pictures in towel embroidery. Brakarauskiya patterns are peculiar, thoroughly pressed conglomerations of European authentic folk and various iconographic sources of different time origin. Almost all components of Brakarauskiya variety can be found in Belarusian embroidered towels of the end of the 19th - the beginning of the 20th centuries.

Mainly, brakarauskiya embroidered towels are found in those parts of Belarus which had good trade ways leading to the industrially developed centers of Russia and the Ukraine, where countrymen often moved from one village to another in search of work - in Mahilyow area, around Homel and Vitsebsk. This technique of embroidery in cross-stitch and corresponding patterns has spread later in Zahodniaye Palesse in the 1920s. 

Brakarauskiya towels compose the biggest layer of towels of the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th centuries that have survived till our days. The best samples of Brakarauskiya towels are gathered in museums. A great number of these towels are still used in everyday life. They were made almost one hundred years ago, so at present they are taken as samples of old times, and it's not by chance that they have acquired the status of family relics.

Presenting this part of Belarusian towels in a special last section of the album we wanted to demonstrate the difference between basic corpus of artistic and ornamental traditions of Belarusian people and later layer of folk art, where features of national artistic originality were almost lost under the influence of adoption of various cultural origins. The process of deletion, annihilation of ethnic-regional traditions was going on during entire 20th century. In the first half of that century, that ornamental variety developed in folk art, was adapted for weaving towels, bedspreads, carpets, and laid foundation for modern traditions of Belarusian folk textile fabrics. In the middle of the 20th century, folk art experienced a new, very powerful wave of fashion for flower embroidery in arbitrary- polychrome satin stitch which, in its turn, almost forced out the previous tradition.


[1] Branaie  weaving is a weaving technique with help of which openworklike, texture fabrics (one-weft weaving) and figured fabrics with geometric ornamental design (double-weft weaving) are made. The fabric is woven with one or two shuttles. The ornamental design is resulting from corresponding draft made with a special small board and a shuttle with pattern weft.

[2] Zakladnoe weaving is  one of the oldest weaving techniques with help of which patterns are made. Every element of a pattern is made with separate threads by hand. The pattern is the same on two sides of the fabric.

[3] Perabornae weaving is weaving technique with help of which different two-color or multi-color fabrics with geometric or geometric floristic ornamental design are made. A pattern is made by means of pattern weft picks all over the fabric width alternately with background weft at corresponding draft.

[4] “Old Believers” or “Starovery” in Russian and Belarusian languages – is a Christian Orthodox sect that was formed somewhere around XVI century during a reform of Russian Orthodox Church. Those who did not followed the new reformed way of Russian Orthodox Church – Old Believers - were severely prosecuted, and often executed. This triggered the migration of Old Believers into hidden wooden areas of Russian empire and abroad – America, China, etc. The Old Believers were conservative traditionalists and they have preserved an old Eastern Slavic way of life and crafts.

[5] Vybarnae weaving is a kind of “Branaie” weaving. In this case a pattern weft is run not all over the fabric width but put in separate parts with respect to the rest of ornamental design.

[6] Voblasc’ – is the unit of administrative and geographical division of Belarus. Belarus is divided into 6 Voblasc’ with their respective administrative centers in the cities of Minsk (the capital of Belarus), Hrodna, Vitsebsk, Brest (Biarescie), Homel and Mahilyow.


Related Literature and Literature Used In This Page:

Front_cover.jpg (28270 bytes)This page is entirely based on the English introduction to an exquisite photo-album by Vol'ha Labacheuskaia:

Vol'ha Labacheuskaia "Poviaz' Chasou - Belaruski Rushnik" ("Link of Times - Belarusian Ruchnik")
Minsk, publishing house "Belarus" 2002, ISBN 985-01-0351-5

The album Link of Times - Belarusian Rushnik introduces reader to traditional and modern towels of Belarus. Color photos of 221 towels of the end of the 19th-20th centuries from the collection of 11 museums of Belarus show artistic achievements of Belarusian countrywomen. For the first time Belarusian towel is shown in its entirety of regional and local artistic-composition and fancy peculiarities. 44 local types of towels of all the historical and ethnographic regions of Belarus, as well as later embroidered towels, are represented

Kacar M.S. "Bielaruski arnamient. Tkactva. Vysyuki"("Belarusian Ornament, Textiles, Embroidery")
Publishing house "Bielaruskaja Encyklapiedyja" named after Piatrus' Brouka, Minsk, 1996 - 208 pages.
ISBN 985-11-0066-8

Sahuta Ja.M. "Narodnaje mastactva Belarusi" ("Folk Art of Belarus")
Publishing house "Bielaruskaja Encyklapiedyja" named after Piatrus' Brouka, Minsk, 1997- 287 pages.
ISBN 985-11-0075-7

"Etnahrafiia Belarusi" Encyclopedia ("Ethnography of Belarus")
Publishing house "Belarusian Soviet Encyklapiedyja" named after Piatrus' Brouka, Minsk, 1989.
575 pages.
ISBN 5-85700-014-9

"Encyklapiedyja historyi Bielarusi"(Encyclopedia of the history of Belarus") in 6 volumes, Volume 1 Publishing house "Bielaruskaja Encyklapiedyja" named after Piatrus' Brouka, Minsk, 1993 - 494 pages.
ISBN 5-85700-074-2

This file is a part of the Virtual Guide to Belarus - a collaborative project of Belarusian scientists and professionals  abroad. VG brings you the most extensive compilation of the information about Belarus on the Web.
Please send your comments to the authors of VG to Belarus

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1994-04 VG to Belarus


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