My Path to Pysanky
(pronounced “PIH-sahn-kih” with all short vowels)
Being of partial Ukrainian descent, I learned to make Ukrainian Easter eggs as a child. The process consists of applying wax to eggs and dyeing them in various colors. The wax acts as a resist, like in batik dyeing, to protect the color below it from the color that follows.
Many years ago, my mother picked up all the necessary supplies for making pysanky, at our local Ukrainian bookstore, along with an easy to follow how-to book. As kids and teenagers, my sister and I would sit for hours at the kitchen table, during the Easter season, creating intricate designs on eggs. At some point, our lives got too busy and we stopped making eggs at Easter. It has been years since I made my last pysanka (this is the singular form of pysanky, pronounced “PIH-sahn-kah”).
A few times over the last decade or so, I have bugged my mom to make eggs with me once more, but we always seem to let life get in the way. This year when I asked her again to make eggs, she said she was too busy, but I was welcome to come get the supplies and make them on my own. I did, and I am so glad I did!
From the moment I started to apply my design to the eggs, I remembered why I liked making them so much. For one, the process connects me to my roots and the past. It feels good to keep an old tradition alive. Second, as I began to concentrate on the design and use a steady hand, I was instantly absorbed into the process and felt a wave of relaxation fall upon me. Finally, as I became more relaxed and absorbed, a feeling of happiness and joy came over me. In that moment, I realized why I had enjoyed making these wonderful eggs as child, and why I had longed to make them once more as an adult.
The History of Pysanky
I sat downwith the book: Eggs Beautiful: How to Make Ukrainian Easter Eggs, by Johanna Luciow, Ann Kmit and Loretta Luciow, the one my mother had bought so many years ago, to learn a little more about the tradition. I was surprised to learn that the tradition of decorating eggs is well over 2000 years old and pre-dates Christianity. Once a Pagan symbol of the renewal of nature and life in the spring, Christians adopted the craft and merged the Pagan meanings with the Christian beliefs of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Easter celebrations.
Traditional patterns are made up of symbols from 3 general categories: plants, animals, and geometry. By combining various symbols and layouts, one can create a multitude of eggs in varying designs. Traditionally, one chooses the design and symbols with the recipient in mind. For example, if a woman were having difficulty conceiving a child, you would give her an egg with the symbol of a chicken on it, as the chicken represents fertility. For myself, I usually find a pattern I like from the book and copy it, because there are just so many patterns to choose from.
I started by unveiling the dyes I had picked up from my mom to see what I had to work with. It turned out that almost half the dyes were all dried up, and I was left with yellow, orange (which wasn’t looking so hot), red, pink, and turquoise. I decided not to use the pink, but tried using the other colors. I found a couple designs that I thought would work with the dye colors I had and got to work. In the end, the orange turned out the same as the red, and the turquoise like black, but thankfully, the designs looked good anyway.
- Eggs: I used large chicken eggs from the supermarket. Make sure you get ones that are not stamped because the ink will bleed through the design. Check them over for cracks and thinning shells – you want to make sure they are in great condition because if the shells are free from blemishes and imperfections, the finished pysanky can last a lifetime. Also, bring the eggs to room temperature before starting, to prevent condensation from forming on the shells.
- Kistka (stylus): this is what you use to apply the wax to the eggs. You want one that has a small opening so that the wax comes out slowly and in a fine line for more intricate designs. You will heat the kistka in the flame of a candle and add small amounts of beeswax to it to use for the resist.
- Candle: any candle will work. I would suggest using one of decent size so that it lasts for the duration of the project (a good few hours).
- Beeswax: you want to use beeswax because it has a high melting point. This helps create even lines that do not smear. This is important because you do not want the dye to seep under the wax and ruin your carefully applied design. Do not replace beeswax with candle wax.
- Dyes: make sure to use dyes designed for pysanky. Regular food dyes will not give you the same results. Search your area for a supplier. In Edmonton, visit The Ukrainian Book Store (10215 – 97 St)
- Spoons: used to gently lower the egg into the dyes.
- Paper Towels: I suggest covering your worktable with paper towel. This is helpful incase you drip wax on your way back from the candle with your kistka, and to try out your kistka and make sure the wax is flowing well. You will also use paper towel to blot excess dye from the eggs after there time in the dyes. They will be used again to wipe the wax off the eggs when the design is complete (or you can use a soft cloth).
- Gloss Coating: required if you want to varnish your eggs – I never have. Use a clear gloss varnish, shellac, or art spray.
- Pencil: to apply the basic design lines to your egg before the wax. Use a hard lead (H or #3) in order to apply a fine, faint, line to the egg.
- Egg Rack: to set the eggs on while working, in the oven to melt the wax and to rest on while the varnish is drying. Mine is made from a piece of 2×4 wood with nails partially driven through the top, leaving about 1 inch out, creating a grid of egg supports.
- Start with a clean egg (how they come from the store is fine). Make sure your hands are clean too – no hand cream allowed – this will keep oils away from the egg, which can prevent the wax and dyes from adhering properly.
- Using your pencil, mark the egg with the basic design lines. Divide the egg into symmetrical sections and then use these as guidelines when you apply the wax.
- Warm up the kistka and get the wax flowing. You will start by covering all the areas of the egg that are to stay white in the final design. This is often your design lines and a few other symbols and patterns.
- Once all the white areas are covered with wax, you will lower the egg into the yellow dye, or whatever dye is the lightest in your design. The egg sits in the dye bath for 5-10 minutes. When ready, remove the egg and blot dry with paper towel – do not rub.
- Next, apply wax to all the areas that you want to remain yellow, just as you did on the white egg. When finished, place in your next color of dye, in my case, orange.
- Continue this process, working from lightest to darkest dyes, until you have applied the entire design to the egg.
- The dyeing order is generally: yellow, gold, light green, light blue, turquoise, orange, brown (if you want it lighter), brick (if you want it lighter), pink, bright red (scarlet), red (cherry), brown (if you want it darker), brick (if you want it darker), dark red.
- Finish off with the final color of your choosing: black, purple, royal blue, or dark green (dark red can also be used as a final color). This last color does not need to be covered in wax, as it will not go into any other dye bath.
- Of course, not all eggs will use all these colors, but if you follow this order, omitting any not used, the colors you do use will turn out the way you would expect them to.
- Once the final color is applied, remove the egg from the dye and allow it to dry for around 15 minutes to ensure the color is set.
- Next, you will remove the beeswax and reveal you beautiful, colorful, egg. There are 2 options for this.
- The first option is to use your candle to heat small sections of the egg. After a few seconds next to the flame, the wax will become shiny and melt. Use a clean paper towel and gently wipe the melted wax off the egg. Continue this process until all the wax is removed. Be careful not to hold the egg in the flame for too long as this will darken the colors on the egg.
- The other option, which is best if making many pysanky, is to heat the eggs in the oven to melt the wax. Place all your eggs on your egg rack and put them in the oven at 180°F. Allow the eggs to heat gently for 15-20 minutes, watch that they do not overheat. Once the eggs are warm and glossy, you can take them out of the oven, one at a time, and remove the wax by gently rubbing them with paper towel or a soft cloth.
- If desired, varnish you eggs.
http://www.learnpysanky.com – great resource for basic information about pysanky, as well as an extensive list of suppliers inCanada, the UnitedStated,Australia andGreat Britain
http://www.pysanky.info – a fairly extension site with lots of great info about the traditional and modern pysanky
Where to buy the book: Eggs Beautiful: How to Make Ukrainian Easter Eggs, by Johanna Luciow, Ann Kmit and Loretta Luciow
New & used: http://www.amazon.ca/Eggs-Beautiful-Make-Ukrainian-Easter/dp/0960250239/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1333918461&sr=8-1
New & used: http://www.amazon.com/Eggs-Beautiful-Make-Ukrainian-Easter/dp/0960250239