Stitching Together a Lifetime of Memories

By Olena Wawryshyn

The embroidered rushnyk, or ritual cloth, has played a central role in Ukrainian culture since pre-Christian days.  It is present in everyday life as a decorative object and, as an important symbolic talisman, at various events that mark the stages of an individual’s lifecycle– from birth, to marriage, and at death. 

Though beautiful embroidered rushnyks are found in many Ukrainian homes, the one that hangs in the apartment of Toronto artist Sophia Lada is unique in its size, scope and symbolism.  A commemorative tribute to Lada’s mother, Marusia Lada-Uhorczak, the rushnyk contains embroidered symbols that reflect significant elements of her mother’s life as well as the creative impulses of Lada.

Spanning about six feet in length, the rushnyk also has deep personal meaning for Lada because she and her mother created it collaboratively.

“We began this collaborative project in the summer of 2005,” says Lada.   Not long before that time, Lada-Uhorczak, then aged 96, had just moved in with Sophia.  Lada-Uhorczak had been living in Philadelphia with her husband.  But, after he passed away, she could not remain in her home alone as she was suffering from age-related memory loss.

Having her mother move into her small studio apartment where Lada not only lived but created her art was a big adjustment.  It meant Lada had to take on the responsibilities of a caregiver and find ways to occupy her mother who could not leave the apartment on her own.

“I wanted to spend this time with my mother in a creative way,” says Lada. A painter, she originally thought of painting her portrait, but discounted that idea as her mother would “have to sit there and do nothing.”

“A rushnyk to commemorate my mother’s work in folk embroidery seemed like the perfect project for us,” says Lada.

Born in Krakiv in the 1940s, Lada, who grew up in Philadelphia, was sent to art school by her mother when she was 9.  Her interest in art continued in high school, and she later completed a design program at Moore College of Art School and graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

With her fine arts credentials under her belt, she began drawing on her personal reflections into the folklore of the ancient spiritual culture of Ukraine, painting mythological forest creatures in egg tempra, oil, acrylic and gouache. Later, she painted a series of works inspired by the goddesses of Old Europe, in gouache on paper or acrylic on canvas. Most recently, she has been fashioning goddess figures out of paper, thread and twine.

As an artist, she is interested in taking objects she finds and giving them new life. This interest in recycling objects is evident in the rushnyk commemorating her mother. In its design, Lada incorporated pieces of table runners, embroidered in complicated stitches by her mother years ago.  A pillow Lada-Uhorczak had embroidered at the age of 82 is also incorporated into the design.   Other sections of the rushnyk were embroidered by her mother in 2005, using the simpler cross stitches that she is still able to remember, with threads that Lada found lying around in her apartment. 

The overall design of the rushnyk was created by Lada, who plotted out sections of it on a paper grid. She drew a picture of her mother’s face and hands, and then guided her mother through the embroidery. Around the edges of the rushnyk, the surnames Lada-Uhorczak had during her lifetime (her maiden name and her two husbands’ name) and the year of her birth and the year she completed the rushnyk are embroidered with black thread.  
Other symbols specific to her life that are incorporated into the design are butterflies, representing her butterfly pin collection, and a string of corals with a Hutsul cross, like the one she used to often wear.  In the four corners of the rushnyk are embroidered squares that represent the four seasons.

The project not only appealed to the interests of Lada, who is a former curator of the Oseredok Art Gallery and Museum in Winnipeg, it enthralled her mother. Lada-Uhorczak worked on it daily for four consecutive months.

In her early years, Lada-Uhorczak, who was born in Bolekhiv in Western Ukraine, was a master dressmaker in Lviv, where she managed a shop and had 8 other seamstresses working under her.  During the Second World War, she suffered through the death of her husband, Sophia’s father, Markian Lada, and ended up in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany.  Even in the camp, she continued to embroider, sending her cushions and ritual cloths to be sold at a store run by Ukrainians in Philadelphia.

When she immigrated to the United States, as a young widow who had to provide for her family, she embroidered only in what little spare time she had in between raising a family, working in a factory and sewing dresses on order for clients.

Now, decades later, after a lifetime of productivity, she still feels the need to keep busy. Every day, as soon after she gets up, she goes to her worktable to embroider. Sophia's apartment is decorated with the many hanging embroidered ornaments her mother makes.  Boxes of embroidered toys, including building blocks covered with colourful stitching, are ready to give to Lada-Uhorczak's great-granddaughter Aurora, when she turns one later this year. 

For the baptism of Aurora, the daughter of her grandson, the award-winning photographer and digital illustrator Mir Lada, and his wife Leda, Lada-Uhorczak embroidered table decorations for the reception.

These lovingly made objects and the commemorative rushnyk will allow Aurora to learn about her great-grandmother. Through these innovative keepsakes, an ancient Ukrainian tradition is not only being passed on to a next generation, but reinvented for a new century.

To learn more about Sophia Lada and her art, visit.

To learn more about photographer Mir Lada visit.

Photography by Mir Lada,