The Story of the American Kerchief

What are my first memories about the United States? You may be surprised to know that American culture, at some point in the 20th century, was tangent to Ukrainian folk culture. During the holidays when I was a child, I was proud to wear a beautiful traditional Ukrainian shirt, embroidered with threads produced in the United States, given to me by my great-grandmother. Those threads added value to this gift because the shirt did not lose its colors over time—even while my mom and grandmother were wearing it, too.

My younger sister and myself on my first day of 2nd grade. I am wearing my great-grandmother's embroidered shirt. Photo: Iryna Bilan.

Many Ukrainians moved to the United States during the 20th century, and during the first three emigration waves, many emigrants still had a big extended family back home who they always tried to support with the most important or deficit things. This is how my great-grandmother received her American embroidery threads.

Picture of a Ruthenian woman (1906) on the cover of the Augustus F. Sherman Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920. Ruthenia is the name used for the western part of Ukraine in the historic documents of the XVIII–XIX centuries.

Additionally, the current president of the Ukrainian Museum in Chicago—Lydia Tkaczuk, who grew up in a Ukrainian emigrant family—told me a very interesting fact in one of our conversations: at one moment in time, the most popular item to send to Ukraine was fabric for kerchiefs and jeans.

I was not surprised to find that fabric for jeans was a popular item because it was a true “American” product, and one which was hard to buy in Soviet Ukraine. But the popularity of kerchiefs confirmed the strong connection that Ukrainians have with their distinct culture, not only because entire rolls of kerchief fabric were sent to or brought with every visit to Ukraine, but also because this element of Ukrainian women’s wardrobe has been and remains to this day a very significant one. Even though many years ago it looked and was called differently, headwear in different names and variations has been preserved until now.

This kind of kerchiefs was called "American," but it was produced in Japan. Here you can see modern way of using them. Photo: Vasyl Vladyka.

An interesting cultural note: it's customary that every esteemed housewife should have at least one pair of American kerchiefs in her wooden chest. Ones with big, colorful, square pieces of wool textile with flower designs and tassels are popular even today. This is just one more representation of how the “American kerchief” has been embedded into traditional Ukrainian culture and is still in use today. Note: In my next blog post, I’ll explore different sides of Ukrainian headwear within their traditional folk context.

I traveled to San Francisco with my grandmother's kerchief -- which I wore in my own way, on my neck.

Tradition, Fashion and Art: Headwear Examples

Many years ago, every married Ukrainian woman was expected to cover her head with a namitka or ochipok—a simple, long piece of linen (20х200 inches), tied around the head. The long ends showed her status as a wealthy woman. In some regions of Ukraine, the kerchief gained more popularity and later on replaced the ochipok in everyday use. 

Made from handmade natural linen or hemp cloth, the ochipok was created for comfort and practical use. In the summer, the fabric protects the hair and skin from the scorching sun and allows the skin "to breath" and to not be too hot. In the winter, a few layers with the long ends wrapped around neck help women to stay warm even on the coldest days. 

During public workshop at Ivan Honchar Museum, experts of traditional folk art explain the way to cover the head with a namitka. Photo:

In the pictures below, you can see the historical reconstruction of women’s clothing in 15th century Ukraine—the period of Ukrainian chivalry—which was made according to descriptions found in historical sources. On the woman’s head is a namitka, the oldest kind of Ukrainian women’s headwear.


Artistic character of Berehynia, created using traditional women's clothing from theTernopil region, by Third Roosters Studio.

Recently in Ukraine, there were a couple of interesting art projects where namitka became the key subject. In one of them, Ivan Honchar Museum dressed four musicians of the famous Ukrainian folk band, DakhaBrakha, in traditional clothing with namitkas on the women's heads. They posed for a photo session and the pictures were used for the museum's calendar.


Another project-perfomance, called Shche, was made by Ukrainian contemporary artist Zinaїda Lihacheva for cutlog Paris international contemporary art fair (Atelier Richelie, Paris). Shche is an allusion to the traditional Ukrainian Vechornytsi parties -- rural gatherings with music, songs, jokes, and rituals. According to the artist statement, water was a key concept in the performance, but I also see a connection to the tradition of divination—of fate and of one's future husband—which was a common activity for girls at such parties in the past. The models' headdresses resounded with a new vision of old times, and it had something in common with the old way of wearing headscarves and "namitkas" by Ukrainian women from different regions. 

Here is a specially prepared video of this project, made before the perfomance was done.

Let's go back to our story about the kerchief. Earlier women decorated kerchiefs with embroidery on their own, because at the market, fabrics from Turkey and European countries were very expensive. This fact could be one of the reasons for the high demand for Americans kerchiefs.

Elements of old embroidered kerchieves from the Lviv region of Ukraine, used in the design of envelopes today. On the bottom row are kerchieves from the same region. Photos:

The kerchief is the subject of many folk songs and rites. In times of war, when a fiancee was seeing off her beloved, she would give him a personally embroidered kerchief as a symbol of protection. Likewise, wives carefully kept kerchiefs given to them by their husbands, with the hope of seeing them back alive after the war was over.

And finally, the kerchief was a symbol of changing social status from a girl to a married woman. Before marriage, young girls usually decorated their heads with wreaths or ribbons. At the end of her wedding, her mother-in-law (and more rarely, her father-in-law) would cover the bride’s head with a kerchief, symbolizing the end of her childhood. This tradition is common today, too.

The team of photographers and stylists from Third Rooster Studio work with authentic traditional clothing, which are gathered from people in a villages through expeditions and field research. Here are some of their photos of women—wives, sisters, and mothers of men who are fighting on the East border today—wearing the old Ukrainian clothes and kerchiefs, created for a project, "Letters To The Front".

Photos: Third Roosters Studio.

In my next blog post I will talk about the folk context in which headwear exists, according to traditions of different territories of Ukraine, because the style of clothing differed from village to village. Also I'll show you how modern designers are inspired by authentic traditional culture.

By Iryna Bilan on