Many years ago, when I was in eighth or ninth grade, there was a family who came to my church to talk about their experiences as being missionaries in Eastern Europe. They had a presentation, and later had a small Russian/Ukranian faire in Fellowship Hall. There were some of the coolest matryoshka dolls I had ever seen, with fifteen total dolls, the smallest just larger than a pea. They had loads of ornately decorated knickknacks that I loved, but couldn’t afford. And then they had pysanky.
Pysanky are Ukranian Easter eggs, decorated using a batik wax-resist method. They’re generally intricate, absolutely beautiful, and unlike any Easter egg I had ever seen. That evening, I attended their presentation on making pysanky at the local community college. I was absolutely in love. We ordered some of the special dyes and tools and I started making eggs.
Pysanky (pronounced roughly “PIZ-ahn-ky”) is the plural form of pysanka. “Pysanky” comes from the verb pysaty, meaning “to write”. This is why people talk of writing the design on the egg, where “drawing” a design might make more sense to an English speaker. The wax is written with a special tool, called a kistka. The kistka tool is traditionally a wooden stick with a metal cone near the tip. This cone is heated in a candle flame and beeswax is placed or scooped into it. The wax is then written onto the egg, blocking the dye from reaching the shell in those areas. Write onto a white egg and those lines will stay white. Then the writing continues with successively darker colors. Once the final color is added, the wax is removed with a candle, oven, or other heat source and the beautiful design is revealed. It’s such a rush to go from a dingy, lumpy egg to a beautiful finished product with just a little heat!
First, I gathered all my tools. The kitchen table is covered in several layers of newspaper. The dyes used for the brightest pysanky designs are most often aniline dyes, which are derived from coal tar, are also used for textiles and woodworking. They aren’t food safe, so don’t use these for eggs you plan to eat! I got mine from BestPysanky.com. For the dyes, you’ll need boiling water and a little white vinegar. Also useful are canning jars or plastic bags to hold the dye. The special tools, the kistky and drop tools, are another unusual part. Mine have a delrin handle, though the traditional ones are wooden. You’ll also need beeswax, candles, a graphite pencil (or non-photo blue pencil), and, of course, fresh, room-temperature eggs. I also like having rubber bands to help me draw straight lines.
Prepare the dye according to the directions. For these dyes, this included boiling water and then waiting for the dye to cool. While it’s cooling, wash the egg in a vinegar and water solution, blotting dry with paper towels. Sketch out the design on your egg with a pencil. Graphite pencils supposedly come off for most people, but I have not had that luck with even the lightest of lines. A non-photo blue pencil, being a waxy synthetic, does come off beautifully. Next, heat your kista in the candle flame and draw the wax onto your egg. Also, hold the egg with a paper towel or cotton gloves, as the oils from your fingers can change the dyeing pattern or transfer dye from your fingers to the egg (if you get dye everywhere like I do.) Once done, place the egg in the dye for the recommended time, or until it’s the color you like. Since many of the dyes are acid-activated, it’s not wise to leave the egg in too long or the dye will eat away your egg! Blot the excess dye off the egg, let dry slightly, then continue writing to keep the next color. When you’re done, melt away all the wax for a grand reveal! Here are a couple before and after comparisons of my eggs.
I did encounter a few issues with this process. Some dyes, namely the blues and greens vs the reds and oranges; the two sets of colors do not agree with each other and won’t remove the old dye to cover it properly. While I thought I remembered having a blue that covered everything when I did it many years ago, the green I had didn’t cover much at all. Green over red gave a rather strange forest green, while green over yellow was very pretty. Green on its own was somehow very mottled with yellow sections. When using green with orange, removing the excess dye with bleach or dish soap is apparently preferred.
The other issue I had was with speckles. Due to tiny air bubbles in the dye (I think), sometimes certain spots would not be dyed that definitely did not have wax on them. Agitating the eggs in the dye slightly to remove the bubbles seemed to help with this. When covering large areas with wax, I never could get it to cover perfectly; the subsequent color always seems to leak through. I’ve found a few techniques that may help with that (using small circular motions instead of lines; making sure the wax is smooth so that any gaps are visible; etc.) but I haven’t gotten to test that yet. I do hope they work though; it’s beyond frustrating to put in more than seven hours actively writing on an egg to have it turn out badly.
Still, it’s a great hobby! My husband and I spent three hours one Saturday night decorating one egg each. I spent several more evenings decorating the other eggs. It’s not a fast hobby and I know I’m even slower than most, but it’s very meditative and satisfying to do.
If you’d like to see a collection of different pysanky that all look better than these, I have a Pinterest board with my favorite designs here: https://www.pinterest.com/nightliz/pysanky/
None of the designs are mine, but I may make them someday.
Pysanky is a traditional art going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, and hence has a long, fascinating history. At the risk of getting most of it wrong and being accused of misrepresenting a tradition and cultural appropriation, I instead encourage you to learn more here:
Wikipedia article for a small introduction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pysanka
Designs, some history, and lots of beginner info here: http://www.learnpysanky.com/
A history and legends related to pysanky here: http://www.pysanka.com/the_art.php
Lastly, YouTube has thousands of videos demonstrating pysanky. It’s fascinating to watch and a great way to get a feel for the process.
I am not Ukranian, but I do appreciate this beautiful art and I hope you’ll take the time to explore a bit.
I do want to share a tiny bit of pysanky lore with you. I have heard this story from several places, so it may actually be a traditional story. I know it’s not rational for me to believe an ancient legend about fancy eggs, but I still want to believe, just a little bit. This excerpt is from http://www.pysanka.com/the_art.php :
Another belief is from the colorful Hutzuls from Western Ukraine. They believe that the fate of the world depends on PYSANKY. As long as egg-decorating continues, the world will exist. Should the custom cease, evil in the guise of a monster chained to a huge cliff, will encompass the world and destroy it. Each year the monster’s servants encircle the globe, keeping record of the number of PYSANKY made. When there are few, the monster’s chains loosen, and evil flows through the world. When there are many, the chains hold taut, allowing love to conquer evil.
Make art. Write pysanky; save the world.