by Sarah Corbett
A ruchnik is a traditional ornamental towel. This towel is a piece of textile which embodies many significant concepts within Belarusian life. In fact the ruchnik are a highly important part of the national culture.
The designs of the ruchnik are a mixture of art and symbolism and are seen as representations of the threads which unite man and god, man with his kin and a man with is ancestors.
In Belarusian culture towels are used within a ceremonial capacity at baptisms, funerals, and seasonal celebrations.
There are names for different types of ruchnik depending on it’s intended purpose, a basic domestic towelling cloth is called ‘Uciralnik'( wiper) The culturally significant towels are richly decorated with fine embroidery and lace and are called ‘nabozhnik’ meaning headscarf or ‘nabozhny platok’ meaning religious headscarf. These pieces of folk art are the representation of the collective art of the women of Belarus. Antique heirloom pieces are believed to embody the spritual energy and maintain contact with the deceased relative who created the piece.
During ceremonies the ruchnik symbolises a path; for a wedding the ruchnik represents the new path which the married couple have chosen to walk together, before the wedding ceremony the bride drags the ruchnik behind her to the altar as a pathway for her girlfriends to follow her in example to their own marriages.
Decorated ruchnik were presented to a bride as a wedding dowry, and custom dictated that the ritual use of these embroidered works of art gave them good qualities which would bring happiness, attract good and virtuous qualities to the home of the newly wed couple, where it would be displayed in pride of place.
A towel would be hung in the window of the home of a recently deceased person representing the start of the path to the afterlife. During the funeral the coffin is lowered into the grave by way of two long pieces of ruchnik, the ruchnik as such representing the path between two states of being.
The most honoured place in the home was known as the ‘red corner’. This name is likely to be derived from the prevalence of red colourings within the embroideries. Red was seen to be a most effective colour to use to protect and to warn away all things considered as unfavourable.
Traditional towels remained an integral part of Belarusian culture until the mid 20 th century.
The designs of the ruchnik varied from region to region.
By the middle of the 20 th century a new fashion for floral satin stitched needlework powerfully pushed aside the generations of delicate red cross stitching, and also many of the traditions which went along with them.
Photos are from the Belarus Guide.
References and researches are from the book by Vol’ha Labacheusleaia