One of the benefits of living in the ‘dale for the past six months has been reconnecting with old friends, people with whom I went to high school and maybe kept in touch with via social media but hadn’t actually seen or spent time with in years before we got here last fall. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know some of my old friends as adults, and found at least a few kindred spirits. Two of those folks are Karen and Andriy, who live in the house where Karen grew up along with Karen’s sister Amy and her son. We’ve had them over for tasty meals and games, and they’ve had us over for tasty meals and games, but hadn’t seen them in several weeks due to bad weather and general busyness until last weekend. Karen had messaged me on Facebook, asking if I or we would be interested in participating in a traditional Ukrainian Easter craft that she had started doing since not long after she and Andriy, whom she met when he was an exchange student from Ukraine at our high school, began dating.
The craft is called Pysanka, a style of decorating eggs for Easter. The technique involves several layers of dyeing and wax resist/batik to create amazing multicolored designs on the shells of eggs. Traditionally, pysanka is done on raw eggs, but Karen and her family blow the middles to only dye the shells, as they last much longer that way. Karen has been creating pysanky for more than a decade, and she’s saved many of the eggs she and her family have created to display in the spring.
I was super excited to try my hand at the pysanka method, as I’ve seen photos of the gorgeous Eastern European eggs since I was a kid and always wondered how they were made. I even went so far as to try to make one when I was a teenager. I got as far as blowing out an egg and painting half of it with watercolor paints before getting bored. So in preparation for our afternoon at Karen’s house, I looked them and the process up on Wikipedia and drooled over the photos I saw.
This is how you make a pysanka. First, you blow the raw egg out of the shell, either the two-hole method or a one-hole method that involves some sort of a tool that Karen has. Then, you soak the egg shells in vinegar to make them more susceptible to dye. You acquire the special dyes you need and prepare them according to directions. You also acquire the various tools you need, like wax and special styluses in a variety of line widths. You light a tea light candle, and you put down some paper towels or newspaper, and you’re ready to begin.
The important thing to know about pysanky is that you have to plan your design out in advance if you want it to look cool. You have to think about the colors you want to use, and the designs you want to use, and you have to figure out the order in which to make your designs in order to have the colors show up in the right way. First, you fill the stylus with wax and heat it in the candle flame, and you fill in the hole in the shell to seal it. Second, you use the stylus to draw on the egg any part of your design you wish to remain white, refilling and melting as you go.
When that is finished, you decide which is the lightest dye you intend to use (yellow, orange, light green) and dip the shell in the dye, turning it and holding it down long enough to create the color you want, and then you pull it out of the dye and wipe it off with a paper towel. Next, you use the stylus and wax to draw any part of your design on the egg you wish to remain that first light color. Repeat as necessary, dying your egg progressively darker colors, adding wax to preserve each color according to your design, and finishing with the darkest color dye (black, dark purple, dark blue, red) depending on which color is the darkest in your design. You can use q-tips to spot-dye areas along the way if you don’t wish to dye the entire egg that color, and there’s always one dye that isn’t made with vinegar (in this case, it was orange) in order to have a neutral dip between colors to help preserve color integrity.
When you’re finished with all of the dying and all of the layers of wax, you have two options. When the egg has dried or rested a bit, you gently scrape or pull the wax plug out of the hole in the egg that you made at the beginning of the process so it doesn’t blow up in the next step. Then, you get to decide: oven or open flame? If you have a board with very small nails sticking out of it, you can prop the egg up on a nail and put it in the oven until the wax melts off. If you don’t, you can use a gas stovetop or a fireplace and slowly turn the egg, wiping it on a rag or a paper towel, until the wax is all melted and you’re left with your pretty design.
During our pysanka adventure, Dan and I each made two eggs. I was much happier with my second egg than my first (I looked at the first egg as a practice run, just to learn the techniques), but I still like both of them. For my second egg, I tried to really plan out what I wanted to do, and modified my design because of the few times the stylus dripped wax in an unintended place.
Karen tends to follow a pattern in a traditional Pysanky book with traditional motifs like bees, oak leaves, and flowers, while Andriy does similar things but he freehands them out of his own imagination.
Amy made the prettiest egg of all, in my opinion, and she spent hours working on it. Amazing!
Making pysanky is definitely both interesting and challenging, and I’m already looking forward to my next pysanka adventure on Wednesday. I can’t wait to put the designs in my head onto eggs!