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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 2011 Craft Day: Pysanky Ukrainian Easter Eggs

My mother and I named our handmade gift company Creative Tradition because we have such a rich family history of making unique handmade items.  One of the biggest creative traditions we have is Pysanky or Ukrainian Easter Eggs. At this month's craft day we rediscovered our passion for them and shared the tradition with some friends and family.

What is Pysanky?
Pysanky are Ukrainian Easter Eggs, decorated using beeswax and dyes that are applied in layers. Melted wax is applied to the eggshell. This hot beeswax will harden almost instantly. The beeswax covers and seals the shell where the wax has been applied. A special tool called a kistka is needed to heat and apply the beeswax.

Pysanky in different states of completion
First the beeswax is applied to the egg's white shell. The beeswax seals the white color underneath it. Next you place the egg into a light color, usually yellow.  You remove the egg, dry off excess dye, then apply beeswax to what you want to remain yellow. You continue with more colors, going light to dark.  Traditional colors are yellow, green, orange, red, and black but contemporary colors like pink, blue and purple are also available.  Wax is not applied to the final color - usually red or black. Once the final color has dried, the wax can be removed.  The oldest way to remove the wax is to hold a section of the egg along the side of a candle flame.  When the section becomes shiny, the wax has melted, and you can remove the shell from the heat and wipe it clean with a paper towel.  When all of the wax is removed varnish can be applied to the shell to give it a beautiful gloss. After several coats of varnish have dried, a small hole is drilled at the bottom of the egg and a syringe is used to empty the egg from the shell.

My Ukrainian Heritage
Even though I am a quarter Ukrainian, my Baba (grandmother) says her immigrant grandparents didn't decorate pysanky because they were peasants.  Growing up, celebrating Easter was more important than Christmas for her family. Baba's grandfather built a special outdoor brick oven just to bake traditional Easter bread. For them, the symbol of Easter was the egg but it was usually dyed in solid colors like red or yellow.

In 1983, Baba discovered a Ukrainian Easter Egg class and invited my mother, Jeanine, to attend with her.  Baba realized she had no talent for the egg decorating but she was motivated to reconnect with her heritage so she purchased her first kistky and dyes. Her grandmother was always concerned that the family remember where they came from. This was especially important during World War II and the Cold War when "Russia was the enemy" and there wasn't a difference between Ukrainian and Russian.

The Family Tradition
In 1985, Baba gave Jeanine her Pysanky tools.  She frequently entered our eggs and sometimes her pies, jams or quilts into the Orange County Fair.  Each year she entered she did very well.  Here are her award winning eggs: 1985 First Award, 1986 Second Award, 1991 First Place,  1992 Honorable Mention, 2003 Second Place.

Jeanine's award winning pysanky

Before I was big enough to use the hot electric kistka I would stand near my mother as she decorated the eggs.  She made very beautiful intricate designs and then would make the eggs disappear for minutes into jars filled with bright colorful liquid.  When I was little, it was hard to understand how it all worked and how mom would be so happy to be done with an egg and yet it would be dirty and ugly. Then she would light a candle, hold the egg close to it and wipe it with a cloth. Slowly the ugly dirty stuff would disappear and a beautiful, colorful, amazing egg would emerge.  It had to be magic. How else could you explain taking a white egg, putting it into different potions till it was ugly then revealing something of such exquisite beauty?

Jennifer's first pysanka
Finally, when I was 7 years old she let me decorate my first egg. Looking at the egg I can't imagine not doing a better job. I've always been a very good drawer and colorer. Family legend says I was coloring in the lines before I was 2. I think she must have held the hot kistka and had me guide her hand. Though to be honest, its difficult drawing on an egg.

I made a lot of progress between my first egg and my award winning blue ribbon egg decorated when I was 11. Unfortunately, the fair wasn't very gentle with our eggs.  My egg was badly cracked and my brother's egg didn't even make it through the first week of the fair. Now at the fair there is an entire decorated egg category that includes bejeweled ostrich eggs or hummingbird eggs and everything is stored in glass cases.

Jennifer's award winning pysanka with first place ribbon
Pysanky decorated by Jennifer in her childhood

Though out the years, usually ever February or March, we would pull out the box of Pysanky tools and spend days with dyes and kistka laid out on the table. One year my mother made every extended family member a personalized Ukrainian Easter Egg ornament for Christmas. As we kids grew up and life got filled with more activities the egg decorating faded away. The last egg I had made was 7 years ago.

April 2011 Craft Day
The table set up for Pysanky decorating at April 2011 Craft Day
I remember every other spring asking mom if we could decorate eggs. Every time there was some reason not to do it. I thought this year when I asked 2 weeks before Easter if we could do Pysaky I'd get the same answer. I was shocked when I guessed wrong... she WANTED to decorate eggs too! Within minutes of her go ahead there was a flurry of Facebook posts and eVites sent for our April 2011 Craft Day.  We also had out of town family visiting for Easter later in the week, so just like our old tradition, the table will be set up for egg decorating for a few days.

Simple Crayon Pysanky
Another way to do a Pysanky-like easter egg with younger children is to use crayons instead of hot wax.  Hard boil eggs and make dyes, either your own with food coloring and vinegar or store bought boxed egg decorating kits.  Using white or light colored crayons, draw on the hard boiled eggs then place them in the dye.  You can draw flowers or stripes or dots or even write a message to a loved one. I don't know if you can do multiple dye colors but even white and one color will add some variety to the standard solid color eggs.

Like to know more?
If you are interested in learning more about Pysanky or getting supplies to start decorating your own, visit the Ukrainian Gift Shop. They are our source for tools, dyes, and books. You can also buy already decorated eggs from the Ukrainian Gift Shop or on Etsy. At this point in time we are not selling our eggs online but may have some available at our craft shows.

Pysanky photographs captured by my father, Jeffrey Bass. Check out his Flickr lightbox to view more of his photography.


  1. Too much FUN!! My multi-color juices weren't flowing.Can't wait to see them after the wax is removed.