I was thinking about ritual cloth while working on a young friend’s wedding gown this past year. The subject had been percolating in my mind for a while, after I read Women’s Work the First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Barber. This book underscored for me women’s attachment to textile, and the significance it has had for millennia. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about my enormous stash of fabric, trims, and buttons. It’s in the mitochondrial DNA.
The wedding took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. The bride’s mother told me about the custom of making an embroidered cloth for the bride and groom to kneel on during the ceremony. This cloth is prominently displayed in the home forever afterwards.
I researched it a bit, and found out about Rushnyk, or wedding towels. These look so familiar to me, living in Manhattan’s East Village. Once a thriving Russian Ukrainian neighborhood, it still has many vestiges of its past, like The Ukrainian National Home, Veselka Coffee Shop, The Ukrainian Museum, and Surma, a shop next to McSorley’s Old Ale House on 7th St. that has a folkloric treasure trove of embroidered blouses, cloths, and painted Easter eggs.
The idea of the Ukrainian Rushnyky morphed into the wedding shawl I wanted to make to go with the strapless gown.
I asked the friends and family of my bride to send me bits of heirloom lace to use for the shawl. They thought I was crazy, and called it “The Ragpicker Girls Shawl”, mocking my idea of using old bits of lace patchworked together.
Hmpf! A lot they know! I had seen something similar on one of my “I get paid to shop” expeditions, and it was hundreds of dollars for a few bits of lace.
Bergdorf-Goodman’s carries the line of shawls on their main floor that had caught my eye, from a British house called Pazuki. I have searched in vain for a photo reference, so I had to rely on my memory of the beautiful shawl with bits of lace in all tones of white and ivory on a silk chiffon backing, with fringed ends. I went back to Bergdorf’s to look again but it was months later, and no sign of my lace patchwork shawl.
Eventually the ladies in the family began to understand the concept, and though no one had bits of lace to donate for the shawl, they all plied their needle at one point or another, working on appliquéing the lace pieces to the silk chiffon backing. The bride’s mother, aunties, grandmother, sister-in-law and 5 year old niece all had a go at it.
I told them ‘long after the gown is gone, the shawl will still be preserved’.
We all know how difficult it is to store a wedding gown, and how much space it can take up. The shawl can be put in a small archival box, and carried anywhere.
I wrote the bride’s name and wedding date in gold Uniball Impact Gel Pen, which is as close to permanent as you can get, on a ribbon label. “Georgene Shelton for XXXX June 2005”