Pysanky & Dyed Easter Eggs

I am one of those people who like to try a lot of different crafts (hence the name of this blog-A Little Bit of Everything!), and a number of years ago I decided to try making those really decorative Easter eggs called pysanky (all the pictures on this post and in the Gallery are eggs I have made). There are actually a lot of eastern European cultures that decorate Easter eggs, and the word pysanky is particularly Ukrainian. I have tried a number of other ways to decorate Easter eggs, and I’ll describe them below. Pysanky are one of the most elaborately designed forms, and it takes more time and equipment than many others. First, let me give a short history of coloring eggs for Easter. Eggs as a symbol of the renewal of spring goes back centuries, and while it is now associated with the Christian Easter, the tradition predates Christianity. Dyeing those eggs different colors also has a long history, and scratching a design into the dyed surface probably dates back just as far in time. It would be hard to document when exactly decorating eggs with multiple dyes in patterns using wax began, but it also has a long history. There was even an early form of the Easter bunny in Germany, called the Osterhase (Easter hare); a painting of the Osterhase carrying a basket of dyed eggs has been found in Pennsylvania from 1810 (link to image). PAAS egg dyes weren’t sold until 1893, when new dyes could be produced and sold in tablet form, and dissolved in water and vinegar. Like many traditions that were done on a smaller scale before the 20th century, the industrialization of materials and shipping allowed Easter egg dyeing to be done on a large scale. While more people were dyeing eggs, the skill and time to create the more intricate designs made that tradition stay confined to a smaller group of people.

The dyes used to color eggs before the mid-19th century were similar to dyes used for other products, using concentrated plant, animal, or mineral colors that could be made at home or purchased in the store. The production of the modern aniline dyes using coal-tar as a base began in the 19th century, but the wide use of them for most dyes didn’t really take off until the second half of the 1800s. Some of the commonly purchased dyes for eggs were cochineal, madder root, and turmeric. Other colors came from cooking at home, such as red cabbage juice, spinach juice, and onion skins. Some of these colors are ‘fugitive,’ meaning that they fade over time (sometimes a very short time if left in sunlight). Others last a long time if they are protected from strong light. I have tried all of them, and there are different techniques to using each dye to get the best results. Some work better hot, others work best cold after aging overnight, and many need vinegar as a mordant (a substance that allows the dye to stick to a surface). You can also get good results from combining certain colors to get others, just like you would with paints. For instance, red cabbage juice actually gives you a wonderful blue (as long as it ages 24 hours before use) but if you add yellow turmeric to it, you get green eggs. When I worked at the museum, we would do egg dyeing for Easter, and over time I experimented with many of these dyes.

The easiest one to try without too much effort is to use onion skins. You need a lot of yellow or red onion skins, but if you are using onions regularly in cooking just save the dry skins in a bag. You can dye the eggs by boiling them with the onion skins for a deep orange, or add vinegar and iron (just put in an iron vitamin) to get a dark brown. Or you can soak the onion skins and wrap them around the egg in layers, using string to hold them on the egg, then simmer for up to 1 hour or leave in the dye overnight. After the eggs cool, unwrap the onions skins and you will have a tie-dyed egg!

If you boil the egg for at least 30 minutes to an hour, and make sure it is stored where air can get to it (not in a plastic or styrofoam container), it will usually dry out inside over several months to a year, and can be kept indefinitely. The inside will gradually become a hard center, so you need to be careful not to shake it (I have broken them by not being careful, as the hard center acts like a little marble inside). I have seen decorated eggs, kept carefully, that are over 150 years old.

If you want to try something that takes a bit more time, you can scratch off the dye to create a picture on the egg. This works best with a single dye color, and the darker the dye, the better the design will show up. This can be done with most dyes, because the dye sits on the surface of the egg and scratching it with a pin will reveal the white of the egg below the dye. You want to make sure to boil the egg before doing this, and you need to get the feel for how hard to scratch with the pin, but you can get elaborate designs if you are willing to take the time. (This egg is dyed with red cabbage juice.)

Another technique is to use a straight pin to apply beeswax to a boiled egg, by heating the head of the pin in a candle flame and scooping up a small amount of beeswax, then creating a design on the egg before dyeing it. The wax will preserve the white color below it, and you melt off the beeswax to reveal the design. (This egg was dyed with madder root.)

Pysanky uses multiple dye colors with beeswax to preserve sections of each layer of color. In this technique, you gradually apply the dyes starting with the lightest color, then proceeding through to the darkest to create a finished design that can be very elaborate. The wax is applied using a tool called a kistka, which is a small funnel attached to the end of a handle. The funnel is heated in a candle flame, then used to scoop up beeswax. You then use the narrow end of the funnel to apply the wax to the egg, creating simple to elaborate designs with the wax. Any dye under the wax will not be dyed with the next colors. Other than the steady hand needed to apply the wax, the main skill with this technique is planning the design. You have to create the design knowing which color each part will be, and make sure to apply the wax in the order of the dye colors. You can’t go back to a lighter color once the darker dye has been applied. Pysanky design books give the instructions for which designs to apply with wax after each dye bath. At the end of the process, you gently heat the wax to melting point, and wipe it off to reveal the design (I’ve done this with just a candle flame, but you can also put it in an oven set on 100 degrees). If you would like to try to make pysanky, I recommend this website by a family who originally came from Ukraine and now sells dyes, design books, equipment, and even finished eggs.

Scherenschnitte-The art of paper cutting

Scherenschnitte–one of the final words of the 2015 National Spelling Bee, and probably the only time I have ever been able to spell a word from that contest. (I am notoriously bad at spelling; I give myself comfort that Einstein is rumored to have been a bad speller, but it is definitely cold comfort!) Scherenschnitte is a word I had to spell frequently when I worked at a living history museum, where we would demonstrate the technique of decorative paper cutting from Germany and central Europe. There are a lot of different traditions of paper cutting and folding in many cultures, such as origami from Japan and the original paper cutting of China, but scherenschnitte is one of those that many people think of today, probably because it reminds them of cutting out paper snowflakes in elementary school. The technique was often used as gifts, or to decorate other items. Many people who practice it today will use an Exacto knife for very fine cuts, but I have always used small scissors. It doesn’t have to be difficult, just as making paper snowflakes can be very simple, but there are plenty of examples of very intricate designs that take skill and patience to complete. I am going to include several pictures of designs that I have cut, but it is fairly easy to copy a design for someone who wants to just try it out for fun.

This is a quarter fold pattern with writing space in the center. If you look at the featured image of this post, you can see the cut design mounted on red paper.

The first thing to do with paper cutting is to make sure you pick the right type of paper. Very thin paper, while it is easier to cut, won’t hold up to the pressure that comes from cutting away much of the structure. If it isn’t strong enough, you will end up tearing the design, especially if you are doing a very intricate one. Stronger paper will also give a crisp finish, which looks a lot better for the amount of work you are going to be doing. The paper available in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the practice was popular, was generally rag paper, which means that it was made of cotton, linen, or a blend of the two. Wood pulp paper became more common after the 1820s, but if you want to get an idea of how much stronger rag paper is, pull out the one that most people are familiar with, money. All US paper money is made of rag paper, 75% cotton and 25% linen. Linen provides a lot of strength to paper, and is why your paper currency can be put through the wash and still stay intact! All of this is to say, the best paper for making scherenschnitte has some rag content. I recommend a general 25% cotton, which is what good quality resume paper is made with. Even a thinner weight paper with this rag content will provide stability for the design. After that, it depends on how thick you want to cut through. If you just want to try this for fun, get some good quality resume paper and give it a try.

If you want to do much paper cutting, I recommend getting a small light board for tracing purposes, but you can also use a window for this (I always used a window when I was working in the museum), it will just get tiring if you want to do more than one or two of these. As for designs, you can find a lot of them online or purchase a book of designs, but you can also make up any design you want. The main thing is to remember to look carefully at your design so you know what paper is going to stay, and what is to be cut away. If you want, you can shade one part, and leave the other white; just make sure you know which is which! You will need a small pair of scissors that are very sharp and pointed. Do Not use scissors you keep for cutting fabric to cut paper. Cutting paper will dull scissors much faster than cloth, and will ruin good fabric.

This pattern is from a set of cards I received for Christmas one year. I just took the design and traced it onto paper, and cut it out myself. This is a single fold design, with some intricate details. You can see where I started tracing the design for cutting in the bottom image. Before you start cutting, make sure you have firmly in mind what is cut away and what stays; you can’t put the paper back on if you make a mistake! You can also change these designs however you want. Leave out the middle details to gain a space for writing, for instance, or just use the very outer design to create a lacework edging.

Most of the designs I have done are traditional styles, which usually means they are folded once or twice, and then opened up after cutting to reveal the repeated design. You will find paper cut designs that are done without folding, often of scenes, and these are often done with a knife rather than scissors. If you like those, feel free to try them, but I won’t show any of them here, since all of the originals that I have looked at are folded designs. You can paint or color the designs after they are done, but I like the plain color ones, with a contrasting color of paper for mounting to show the design. Many of the original ones were given like we give cards today, including as Valentine’s greetings, so many of them would include a space left for writing, but I have also seen them with writing on the delicate edges of a filigree heart.

The technique for drawing and cutting is to start by tracing or drawing your pattern. I am not an artist, so I will always trace a pattern. If using a window, just secure your pattern behind your paper (making sure to allow room to fold the paper you are cutting, i.e. place the pattern at the top of a page to fold in half, not in the middle of the paper). Hold or tape the paper and design to a window at a comfortable height to draw, and then trace the pattern onto your cutting paper. Once you take off the pattern, fold your paper in half or in quarters along the fold edge of the design, then look closely at your design for where to start cutting. The best technique is to cut from smallest areas to the largest areas. This gives you the most stability, keeping the bulk of the paper intact while you work, and leaving cutting out the biggest portions until the end, which lessens the risk of tearing the paper. The outside edges of the design are the last thing to cut away. There is also a trick I learned that you might find useful. The amount of pressure to push the scissors through the paper can cause tearing even when you are being very careful. I take a straight pin and poke a hole in the middle of all of the cut-out areas before I start. This takes a little more time, but makes it much easier and safer to cut even the smallest areas, because you have created an opening for the tip of the scissors without much pressure being applied. The tip of a straight pin is much finer than the best scissors, and takes much less pressure to pierce the paper. The other trick to remember is that the paper moves forward, not the scissors. This may sound strange, but try it before you start. Take your scissors and push them into the center of a piece of paper. Now start the cutting motion with your scissors, but don’t move them forward or back. Instead, use your other hand holding the paper to push the paper gently into the motion of the scissors. This is what you want to do with paper cutting. You will only be using the very tip of the scissors to cut with, so there really isn’t much point to trying to push the scissors forward into the paper. It may seem a little strange at first, but if you practice, you will find much more control by pushing the paper into the scissors, instead of the other way round! Just remember, this isn’t like cutting large pieces of paper in half; you will be making very small cuts with your scissors, so you want to control the motion much more than usually done with cutting.

This is a Christmas design that I have cut out numerous times to frame and give as gifts. It is also a single fold design. Again, changes can be made, such as leaving the top medallions solid for painting or writing in. On something like this, cutting the smallest areas first is best, to keep as much stability as long as possible. It would also be a good idea to color in the areas to cut out, so you don’t remove parts of the design you want to keep.

When you are finished with the Scherenschnitte design, you can either give it to someone as is, or more commonly, mount it on a contrasting color paper backing to frame. I have used dark jewel tones of cover weight paper to mount designs on before framing, but you can also cut the design out of a darker paper and mount it on a light backing if you want. (Seeing the design to cut out is easier on light paper, but using a white lead pencil on dark paper is also possible.) When putting the design onto its backing, it is best not to put the glue onto the design, which will cause it to tear or wrinkle. Instead, use a drier glue like a gluestick to put the glue onto the mounting paper, and then carefully place the design onto the glue area. This is a tricky part of the presentation, because it can be easy for the delicate design not to lay flat if you are not very careful. I recommend using a low heat iron to flatten out the Scherenschnitte design before mounting it. This is also where using a good quality paper will help, since it is less flimsy, and won’t twist around easily when placing it on the glue. Make sure you have the design centered on the paper before applying glue, and marking the area for the design before applying the glue on the mounting paper is often a good idea. Be very careful not to pull in any one direction as you place it gently down on the glue covered mounting paper; one technique is to have a center line to use as a guide, and set the cut design centerpoint gently down on that first, then allow the two sides to just fall to the paper. This will keep you from shifting the design from top to bottom or side to side, which can cause it to bunch up onto the glue base. You will have a few minutes to make any adjustments to small points on the cut design while the glue is still moist; using a straight pin to shift small points is the safest way. Press gently with your hand to ensure it is stuck on the glue, and you could put a slick covered book on to press it for about 30 minutes. DO NOT put a piece of paper or other cover that could stick to the glue on top of the still wet glue-and-design. There is no way to remove other paper getting stuck to the glue on the mounting paper without destroying the cut design. That is a lot of work to destroy at the very end! If in doubt, just let it dry completely without any weighting, and press after the glue is dry. Frame and enjoy!

This is a quarter fold pattern. Quarter folds are a little bit more difficult to cut, since you have four pieces of paper to cut through at once, but they are usually less complicated. They also take less time, since you are creating twice as much of the design area with each cut.

Carving Gingerbread Molds

I started carving Gingerbread Molds while working at Old Salem. The history of Gingerbread was something that I had to answer a lot while I worked there. I would be the person to call whenever there were media requests about that history, so I eventually wrote a paper on the history from the Middle Ages until the modern day, just so I would be able to pull up information whenever I got a call from a TV station or magazine, or had to appear on a TV feed for Christmas. (This happened all the time during the Christmas season, the last one I did for Our State can be seen here.) The more I researched, the more I understood that molded Gingerbread was commonly made for Christmas in Europe since the Middle Ages. The Moravians continued the practice until sometime in the mid-19th century,so I decided to carve some molds for us to use when we did Christmas baking at Old Salem. We had some original molds from the early 19th century in our collection, so I started with those designs. I am not good at creating original artwork, at least not drawings, but I can copy most things. So I took pictures or drew copies of the original molds, and then transferred the design onto wood blocks and started carving. I have also carved printing blocks for making paste paper (the adult version of finger-painting), so I had some practice with carving. The main thing to remember with carving things like this is to take off small amounts at a time, because you can’t put the wood back on if you take off the wrong piece. I make knife cuts around the parts I want to remove, so that when I am carving, the wood chip will stop at the cut, which makes it less likely to remove wood you want to keep! One of the more difficult things to remember when carving a cookie mold is that you are making a reverse image, so what you want to project up you need to carve deeper. It requires a little thinking before starting to carve.

The wood I use is generally either poplar, maple, or pear if I can get it. Pear wood was the traditional for professional wood carvers in Europe to use for carving printing blocks for industrial purposes. Professional wood carvers would make designs for different industries in Germany. Printed paper makers, such as those making colored and paste paper, printed fabric makers, and book printers would all buy carved wooden molds for their shops, so the mold carvers were highly skilled and made extremely detailed carvings. Pear was the wood of choice because it is a hard wood that has a very fine grain, which allows for the fine designs. Oak has a coarse grain, and isn’t really good to use, and pine and other soft woods are also bad choices. Many people who do carving as a hobby today will say to use basswood, but I have tried it and found it too soft to get good detail (actually, I really dislike using basswood for carving, it is better for less detailed figurines). Poplar is easier to get, though maple will make beautiful molds. I have ordered pear wood from specialty wood suppliers, and I really like using it. It is also possible that other fruit woods would work, such as apple or cherry, but I have no experience with those. (In a later post, I’ll show the molded gingerbread cookies made with these designs. Also see the Gallery section for more carved molds.)

The first step is to put the image on paper, tack it to the wood block, and then use a pen or pointed stylus to impress the image into the wood. (Someone more skilled in drawing could draw the image directly onto the wood block. I like using the paper because I can adjust the image as much as I want without affecting the wood block I want to carve.)

My next step is to trace the impression with a pencil. I don’t need to put in lines that are going to be lower than the surface. Here, there are several elements on the snowy hills that will be carved, but the snow will need to be higher (which means deeper carved) so I pencil those in once I reach that level.

The carving is done using the pencil drawing as the base. I cut around the parts I want to be careful of with a knife, so that the carving tools don’t take off more wood in delicate spots. When I am finished with all carving, I will do a little sanding to finish some rough spots.

Back to Top