Stitching During Wartime

Lesia Pona, Master Ukrainian Embroiderer

Mary Anne Wise Mar 6, 2024 - 6 min read

Stitching During Wartime Primary Image

Delicate hand embroidery created by Lesia Pona in silk and cotton on linen fabric. Photos by Lesia Pona

On February 23, 2022, Lesia Pona gathered with other parents at her daughter’s high school to plan the upcoming graduation ceremony, called Last School Bell. Parents signed up to decorate the hall, to gather bouquets for tabletops, and, of course, to discuss the event’s dress code. Throughout Ukraine, finely embroidered clothing is worn to mark special occasions; the upcoming ceremony would maintain this tradition.

At 5:20 the next morning, Lesia suddenly awoke. Something was wrong. The windows were rattling; the house was shaking. She soon would learn that Russia had fired 160 missiles into Ukraine. Trustworthy information was difficult to access. Across the country, people watched and waited as businesses and offices closed, mail deliveries stopped, airspace shut down, and daily life came to a standstill. A collective sense of anger replaced an initial sense of hopelessness as the people of Ukraine wondered: Why?

Lesia joined an army of volunteers, explaining that pitching in and working together helps ward off feelings of despair. Refugees fleeing combat zones were provided with basic supplies and settled in temporary shelters. Her daughter’s school, where graduation ceremonies had been cancelled, became a shelter. Months later, after the refugees left in pursuit of more permanent lodging, local parents returned to the school. They found notes scribbled on chalkboards and on bits of paper on which the refugees had marked their journey by writing their names alongside their hometowns.

Reflecting on what she’s learned as a civilian during wartime, Lesia starts with the practical. The winter of ’23 was bitter cold, and access to heat was unpredictable and scarce. This winter, she’s better prepared, having gathered a stockpile of firewood that’s stacked outside her door. She continues with a lesson on post-missile attacks: Even if your building has not been directly damaged, stay away from the windows, because the wave created by the blast can blow them out, and the flying shards of broken glass can cause serious injuries or death.

But the lesson Lesia returns to again and again is the importance of her artwork. As soon as the war began, the domestic market for her embroidery disappeared, yet Lesia continued working. In pursuing her craft, she seeks, and receives, a sense of normalcy and control. Stitching is where she goes inward and finds calm in a world gone mad.

A hand-embroidered table runner using wool thread on linen fabric with combinations of merehka or meshwork.

Lesia’s designs are painstakingly created from inspiration found through meticulous museum research as she pursues “the best of the best sources.” Her embroidery utilizes a variety of techniques, but her favorite is merezhka, or meshwork, resulting in open lace-like patterns. Each stitch is named: the single rod mesh, spider stitch, lyakhivka, and numerous others. Her practiced hands intuit which direction to pull the needle, to the left or to the right, and where to pierce the needle among the previous stitches. Her artful eye decides what stitch to employ for a flower, a tree, or, perhaps, a repeating geometric motif. She favors monochromatic work, likening this approach to telling her story with “just a few soft colors.”

From Lesia’s studio

Lesia’s story began when, as a child, she learned embroidery from her mother. She went on to study at Lviv Academy of Arts. A mentorship with a Ukrainian master embroiderer solidified her commitment to her craft, and her passion grew. She has participated in numerous exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States, including an exhibition last summer at the Lacis Museum in Berkeley, California, and a lecture at San Francisco’s School of Needlework and Design.

I first met Lesia at Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market where, for the past eight years, she has presented her collection of embroidered clothing and home décor. A friendship between us grew. As we spoke again in preparation for this article, war was never far from our minds. Our communications were frequently interrupted. I’d receive WhatsApp text messages saying, “I will send answers to your last questions if network be fixed” or “Our biggest mobile provider was under cyberattack, disconnected, now network very slow.” And lastly: “Did my email go through? Do you have answers?”

Mary Anne Wise cofounded Multicolores, a Guatemala–based nonprofit offering artistic development to Maya women. She co-authored an award-winning book about this work, Rug Money: How a Group of Maya Women Changed Their Lives Through Art and Innovation, published by Thrums Books. She is cofounder of Cultural Cloth, a company selling global artisan-made home décor and personal accessories online and at their shop in tiny Maiden Rock, Wisconsin.