When I was in Canada, decorated Easter eggs meant pysanky, the Ukrainian art of wax-resist coloured eggs which results in beautiful and intricately patterned eggs. My first year of college, my friends and I spent hours doing pysanky over the Easter break.
When I came to Slovakia, I realized that there were many more traditional methods of decorating eggs here, including drawing with wax, cutting the egg shell, etching, and decorating with straw.
I first saw the straw method a number of years ago at a local spring fair. Pani Sitarova sat at a small table, gluing minuscule pieces onto an egg. I marveled over her patience working with such small pieces. This year, I asked her to show me the process, and marveled even more.
First, pani Sitarova picks straw in the summer, before the grain is harvested. You can use rye or barley straw, but barley is softer, she says, and easier to work with. Rye straw is more stiff and better for making Christmas tree ornaments. The lengths of straw are cut into about three pieces.
That straw is used for making ornaments makes sense in a poor agrarian culture. Fields of grain were abundant, and straw stays good throughout the year without going bad.
When she is ready to decorate the eggs, she soaks pieces of straw in water for about two hours. Then she uses nail scissors to slit a piece up the middle. The inside of the straw has a kind of fuzz, which she scrapes off with a paring knife much in the same way as curling a ribbon.
As I start to take pictures, pani Sitarova self-consciously laughs. “I don’t have nice nails – I chew them,” she admits. She explains that she has chewed her nails since she was a girl and all the deterrents her parents tried didn’t work, from hot pepper to bitter tonics. She finally was able to stop chewing her nails two years ago and was so pleased, but then became ill and started up again. “I was so mad!” she laughs.
When the piece of straw is smooth and shiny, she puts it on a roll from paper towels to dry. She shows me how the colour of straw changes – darker and more matte below, brighter and shinier above. The darker places are where leaves grew on the stalk. When pani Sitarova creates the patterns and buildings on the eggs, she keeps in mind which pieces are brighter, which darker, and which direction runs the grain of the stalk, in order to make interesting patterns and distinctions between pieces of straw.
She used to iron each piece, but stopped. It was finicky work, and it also made the straw more brittle and more prone to breaking.
The next step is to start cutting out the little pieces. She slits the piece of straw in half length-wise and decides what shapes she needs. She has two sizes of circle leather punches to make small circles and crescents, which she makes by punching a circle and then cutting out half the circle with the punch again. The rest of the shapes she cuts out with nail scissors.
Then she puts a little pile of white glue on a piece of carton paper and uses a thick pointed toothpick to dab glue on the right spot and put the chosen piece of straw on top.
Pani Sitarova learned to decorate eggs with straw from her grandmother. Back in the day, they mostly just used shapes with straight sides, like triangles. Decorations mostly featured the sun, a sign of warmth, spring, and the risen Christ, with plants or geometric patterns. They were more simple than hers often are, but hardboiled eggs that would be cracked and eaten were also decorated with straw. (All that work…gone!)
She figured out how to make circles without having to cut them out with scissors and makes up decorations from her imagination, whether or not they are strictly traditional.
She draws decoration patterns out on paper first to get an idea of what she wants but, she says, it’s always different when flat on paper and when curved on an egg. She also likes to do castles and churches from around Slovakia. Sometimes she also gets requests, like one person who asked her to design the church his parents were from.
And how long does this process take? Just counting cutting and gluing and pieces of straw, not including picking the straw in the summer, prepping the straw, blowing out and dying the eggs, one chicken egg takes about three hours, depending on the pattern. A goose egg can easily take six hours.
A goose egg with Orava Castle in straw.
When I ask the prices of various eggs, she tells me but sighs. It seems people have opinions on whether she should sell them and for how much. “One time I was at a fair and a woman asked how much the eggs were. I replied three euro, she said ok, and then picked up the whole carton of ten eggs. When I said that it was three euro for one chicken egg, she angrily asked if I wasn’t ashamed to ask so much. Some people snidely ask if I don’t have enough money, why do I need to sell them, other people ask why I don’t sell more.”
Everyone has opinions, especially about business not their own.
Little matchboxes hold various pieces of cut straw.
She gets invited to a number of fairs and markets, but it’s harder now that her husband needs more care and she has no car. There is an association of artists in Slovakia that sells handmade crafts (ÚĽUV) but she doesn’t sell through them because the eggs have to be naturally dyed. She tried dying the eggs naturally but couldn’t get as even a colour, and the colour fades faster. “I don’t want to sell somebody an egg just to have it fade away in two years,” she says.
Different sizes of eggs: turquoise quail, red chicken, blue duck, black emu, green ostrich
Pani Sitarova’s creativity is in evidence around the living room – handmade dolls and other decorations are scattered about. I ask what she did for work when she was younger, if it was creatively inclined. When she first finished school, she replied, she worked for the trains, opening and closing the train crossing barriers. You had to wind them up and down with a crank. When those became automated, she was moved to a different position, still for the trains, and then was home for some years with children. After that, she worked for years as a librarian. I ask when the library in our village closed, because when I first came here there was still a sign. “Ach,” she clutches at her heart. “In about 2003 or 2004. That still hurts my heart how they closed it, got rid of everything, it wasn’t even done according to the law. But,” she sighs, “you have to let go of these things.”
Now that she is retired, pani Sitarova spends her time caring for her ill husband and creating. “I can only decorate eggs for about an hour, though, and then I have to take a break. My shoulders and back get so sore. I should do exercises, but when I start reaching down and around my head starts to spin.” Half the year she creates for Christmas, then gets creating for Easter. She gives her grandchildren handmade dolls, and eggs to family as gifts.
Pani Sitarova has plans to make a grandfather as well, and set them outside for the enjoyment of children walking past.
When I leave, I again marvel at the patience it takes to do beautiful work. Cutting and gluing each little piece of straw for hours to make one egg of beauty and symbolism. Hours of finicky work to hold onto tradition, which she holds dear. On the one hand, thank goodness there are people willing to keep these traditions alive through such dedication, but on the other hand, how long will younger generations, used to immediate gratification, be willing to toil away to keep a tradition going?
For those interested, she sells them for 2.50-3€ per chicken egg, 4€ per duck egg, 5-5.50€ per goose egg. She prefers to sell in person and reluctantly sends through the mail, as she is always nervous of the eggs breaking. She also does custom work. Let me know if you are interested.
egg: vajce (va-yee-tse) or vajíčko (va-yee-chko)
blown out egg: výdušky (vee-dush-kee)
decorated eggs: kraslice (kras-li-tse)
egg decorator: krasličiarka (kras-li-chi-ar-ka)
Emu eggs are naturally a dark green-black. This one features the local castle.
Optical illusions created with the grain of the straw running in different directions.
Someone asked her to create an ostrich egg with significant Slovak monuments.
Trying new methods, like making multi-layered roses, which need to be made separately beforehand.
Traditional Slovak pottery. I noticed afterwards that the painted textile depicts one Slovak Easter tradition, not my favourite.
Outside dwarves, made by covering plastic bottles with old socks.
A paper maiche egg hangs in the entryway.
Thank you so much for taking the time to show me your art, pani Sitarova!