By Anne Coombes
Belarus is well known for its amazing ruchnik cloths – narrow pieces of white fabric charmingly embroidered with delicate red thread. Red was used to represent earthly life and joy. White, naturally, symbolizes purity and goodness. So ‘magical’ were the designs that, less than a century ago, most Belarusians would have relied on ruchnik to protect them. Some were folded and worn as belts. In fact, it was said that the devil was afraid of these belts and not to wear one was an indication that you belonged to the underworld of demons. In Belarusian folk tales, if a magician wants to communicate with those in the spirit world, he always removes his embroidered belt to allow them to come near. Likewise, demons and rusalki (river mermaids) are always described as being beltless. The embroidered designs were also commonly seen on headscarves and other articles of clothing; when the sleeves of a shirt were embroidered this offered protection against accidents while working. In fact, today’s Belarusian fl ag bears ruchnik patterns along one side.
Other ruchnik were given pride of place in the ‘red corner’ of the home alongside the family icons. This is where ancestral spirits were thought to linger. The bread and salt ever present on a Belarusian peasant’s table were always covered with a protective ruchnik cloth. Guests would be offered these symbols of welcome on a ruchnik as they arrived. Traditionally, the first sheaf of a family’s harvest would also be tied in a ruchnik. It was then placed in the red corner to appease the spirits and enlist their help in bringing in the rest of the crop safely. Ruchnik cloths could also be used to ward off disease. They would be laid across the road so that animals could be driven over them for protection. Similarly, people could ceremonially pass under them to find extra protection. During a mourning period, such as a death in the family, the loved one’s ruchnik would be hung at the window to help the soul find its path out of the house and into the other world. If someone was suspected of being a witch or in league with the underworld, a piece of rope would be used instead - leading them to a quite different place.
At birth, each Belarusian baby would be given its own ruchnik - which would be kept for an entire lifetime, later to be buried with the person. These were usually embroidered by the baby’s mother and, as she worked, some of her soul was thought to enter the cloth, imbuing it with powerful protective qualities. Even after her own death, a woman’s love would live on in the cloth – guarding the child with special energy. During the Great Patriotic War, women ensured that their husbands, brothers and sons wore their ruchnik close to their hearts – hoping it would guard them and return them safely home. In some rural communities, this tradition is still preserved. Additionally, special ruchnik were given throughout life – acting as talismans in times of need. During labour, mothers-to-be would always strap on a red girdle. Although this particular use of the ruchnik has fallen out of fashion in today’s maternity clinics, the old traditions survive at modern day weddings. The couple’s hands are symbolically ‘tied’ together with a cloth by their parents, joining them in never-ending love, and during the ceremony, couples are given a ruchnik to step upon. The one whose foot first touches the cloth will rule the roost in years to come. In days gone by, brides walked around the altar, dragging the ruchnik behind with the bridesmaids following in her footsteps, to ensure they too found a husband. Afterwards, the cloth was revered as a good-luck charm – radiating virtue and fortune.
The custom of each woman learning to sew ruchnik from an early age is dying out in our modern times, yet these cloths are still commonly seen in most homes – even if they are only perceived as pretty ornaments. They have far greater signifi cance than this though; they embody the joyous spirit of Belarus.