Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Pysanky and a kystka


On the recent Brilliant with Pattern course at West Dean one of my students had brought along something unusual. It was an Eastern European kystka. These small tools for applying hot wax are used, particularly in Ukraine, for the decoration of Easter eggs known as pysanky. I’d heard of a kystka but never seen one and until I started to research today’s post I knew nothing of the pysanky tradition. Wikipedia has a page on it here; it is a full and fascinating read which explains symbolism in the colours, the motifs and the actual giving of the eggs. It describes the ancient heritage of the craft, how patterns and methods were handed from mother to daughter, and the tools used. The list of pysanka recipients each Easter is especially interesting, revealing ‘life priorities’ of the givers. It includes a gift to the beehive, and eggs to the graves of deceased family members.

A list of natural dyes in traditional pysanky includes familiar names, such as alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Dyer’s Broom (Genista tinctoria) and green walnut husks from Juglans nigra. The Wiki article introduced me to two new words in the language of symbols: scevomorphic and cosmomorphic. To find out what they mean, follow those links to a website about pysanka tradition.

And in case you’re wondering how to pronounce pysanky, this is what the pysanky website says:

Despite what you may have heard on the Food Network or in a local class, ‘Pysanka’ is pronounced ‘PIH-sahn-kah’  (with the plural ‘pih-sahn-KIH’),  with all short vowels.  The term ‘pysanky’ is not, never was, nor will it ever be correctly pronounced ‘pie-SAN-kee’!!!!


My West Dean student (not the lady in the image above!) showed me how she uses her kystka on silk fabric. I was impressed because it was clear that the tool adapts well to applying fine lines to fabric and it doesn’t drip. I have never felt wholly at ease with a tjanting, although it produces beautiful fine lines in expert hands. The reservoir and spout of the kystka is made of brass but looks similar to the ‘rotring-style’ heads I used to use to apply spirit-based gutta resist in pre-wax days. The reservoir is small and the hot wax would soon run out, but one can adapt to this. I am wondering if I could improvise my old, now-unused gutta nibs into home-made kystkas. But brass may be a preferable metal with hot wax than steel ‘rotring’ nibs and I’ll have to try it out.



A greeting to Ukraine  This post sends a special greeting to L, a reader in Ukraine, who has been a regular visitor to my blog until all the current distractions. I send warmest spring and Easter wishes at a time of continuing anxiety.

Update: a reply from Ukraine I had a reply from my reader L, recalling their grandmother using onion skin dyes to make krashanky, which are one-colour-dyed eggs. The skins were collected well in advance of Easter so that there were enough to make deeper colours. In Ukraine, the kystka is called a pysachok.  My Ukrainian correspondent also recommended a great website here. Teresa Mihalko Harbert is The Real Thing when it comes to decorating eggs and the Trypillian culture, which provides some of her inspiration, a source of some superb patterns. Thank you L.


Acknowledgments: The image of Olga Kryway is by Robert L. Stone from the State Archives of Florida which allows reproduction for educational use. Florida Memory,

Thanks also to R for allowing me to reproduce an image of her family’s beautiful collection of decorated eggs and to A for the generous gift of a kystka.


7 thoughts on “Pysanky and a kystka

  1. Hello miss isabella i love your work. my name is joel toussaint from the helena jones robinson high school and i am doing an sba on textile artist and i have chosen you to be in it i would like to know more about your work please.

  2. excuse me miss isabella i hope u got my first post and these are the questions that i would like to ask you please.
    1) At what age did you become interested in art?

    2) Is anyone else in your family an artist.

    3)What influenced u to become an artist?

    4)What mediums do you prefer to use?

    5) Where do you draw inspiration?

    6)Where did you learn about art? .

    7)Is there a message or meaning behind your artwork? If so, what meaning would you like to convey?

    8)How much time a week do you spend on your artwork?

    9)Have you participated in art shows or exhibits out of your country?

    10)What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an artist?

  3. hello miss isabella i am a student at the helena jones robinson high school and i am doing an sba on textile artist and i love your work that is why i have chosen you to be in my visual arts sba. i have sent some questions i hope u get them please answer them miss isabella it is for my CXC.

    • Dear Joel
      Thank you for your comments and for liking my work enough to choose me to be in your visual arts aba.
      I will be happy to answer your questions if I can but I think it would be better if we corresponded by email. Could you please go to the ‘contact’ page on my blog and write to me through that address? I will then get back to you. Best wishes, Isabella

  4. my name is joel toussaint i am 16 years old and i am doing a course in visual arts. the questions sent to you for you to answer is for my sba on textile and design artist that is why i have chosen your work because they are lovely.

    Joel Toussaint

  5. i am 16 years old and i am doing visual arts and after i have seen your lovely work i saw it was fit to have you in my sba . that is why i have sent you these questions. if you want to contact my teacher her email is

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