Several years ago, my aunt gave my mom and me a starter kit to make Ukrainian Easter eggs, knowing that the two of us enjoyed art and working on detail-oriented things. Included in the package was this book, which contains a great history of the tradition as it evolved in communities around the US through the work of Ukrainian immigrants. The book also, of course, explains how to make the eggs and includes many fantastic photos of eggs that the authors or their friends have created over the years, in countless patterns and color schemes. These exemplary eggs have served as perfect inspirational diving-boards for my mom and me as we create our own pysanky every year (when we have the time).
The process always starts with creating the dyes. In Croatia, on the island of Koločep where my family lived for a year, we learned that villagers use a boiling water bath of red onion skins, walnuts, roots, and herbs. This creates a reddish dye that stains the egg a reddish color. The problem is that the boiling water also removes the wax that covered the egg before it was placed in the dye, so you only get two shades on the egg, but that’s getting ahead of myself.
The dyes that we’ve used the most have been chemical ones that are toxic to ingest but create brighter colors, but we’ve also used several non-toxic dyes successfully. For both of them, you basically just pour powder from a little packet that you’ve purchased at a traditional pysanky supply store into boiling water and let it cool, that’s it! Now that I have the extensive gardens of Xandari at my fingertips, though, I’m thinking I might be able to make my own dyes at some point. Whereas in the Croatian one-dye system you only have two colors — the original egg color and the dye color — pysanky typically involves at least three dyes to make a more detailed and intricate egg. And this is where the wax comes in. The pure beeswax that is used on the eggs is impermeable, so anything that you cover with the wax stays its original color.
Let’s say you take a white egg, like the one on the left. With your beeswax at hand and a lit tea candle on the table, you heat up your kitska, or stylus, and scoop out some wax with the heated metal funnel. Placing the kitska’s head over the flame melts the wax in the funnel and you can now place the tip of the stylus against the egg, where the wax will begin to flow as you move over the shell’s surface, leaving a thin trail of almost instantly hard wax protecting the white shell below. Once you’re done drawing wax over everything that you want to be white at the end of the whole process, you are ready to place your egg in the first dye. Come back tomorrow for Part 2!