Friday, 10 February 2012

Folk needlecraft in ancient Russia

Part 1. General information
Needlework has always been one of the favorite and widely spread woman’s crafts in Russia. It required no special tools while every peasants' household had tissues, threads, needles and needlecraft frames.
Rural needlewomen
Girls began to embroider at the age of 8-10. And they had a long list of thing to be done before the day they get married as traditionally the bride has to stuff not only her own wardrobe, but also to do with her own hands a huge lot of household linens, sheets, towels, table clothes and so on and to give presents to the numerous groom's relatives as well.
Girls were stitching every spare minute as they had a long list
of items to be conpmleted before their wedding day.
Hope chest (their size and number depended on the well-being of
the girl's family and the girl's hard working)  
So girls were embroidering 10 hours a day, mainly in winter and spring – at the low season of fieldwork.
Peasant needlework had a traditional set of items to be decorated with embroidery. As I've already mentioned it was clothes, headwear and household objects: linens (bedding), towels, curtains, etc. Such items as chemises and towels had a great ritual meaning and played essential roles in such rituals as wedding, birth giving, praying and funerals.
Everyday peasants' garment 
Embroidered peasant costume and towels
(North-West of Russia) 
Bed cover embroidered with scarletwork
For example, a large - up to 2 meters long - luxuriously embroidered ceremonial towel was specially worked out for the wedding day. The wedding towel was a complex construcion of red and white stripes with exquisite embroidered ornaments full of sacral meaning, and it took up to a half-year to finish such a thing. Before the day of its' direct use it was stored neatly in a special coffer together with other trousseaux items, was taken out for the wedding day and used to frame the main icon at the bride's house, and during the wedding ceremonials it was used to connect (tie the arms) the bride and the bridegroom as bare hands were considered to be promising poverty and lack for a new household. Thus, the wedding towel embroidered with the symbols of prosperity, well-being and fertility was regarded as a guaranty and a new family successful life.
The bride's home decoration for the wedding day
Ceremonial wedding towels, surviving items, North-West of Russia,
second half and the end of the XIX c.
(letf to right: Olonets region, Tver region, Karelia) 
Echoes of ancient atrditions in modern wedding rits
The color solutions for folk embroidery varied from region to region. But in the North-West of Russia traditional colors were strictly red and white – either white ornament on the red calico or scarlet embroidery on the white or natural linen. The red was a symbol of the Sun and heavenly fire and was a crucial element of Slavonic and later Russian peasants' beliefs, the remnants of which (especially concerning agricultural needs) rested among peasants even after the establishments of the Christianity in the late X century.
Slavic pantheon 
Next time I'll tell about embroidery tips and techniques (stitches) and the symbols that were widely in use in the traditional Russian folk embroidery.


  1. I love your article on this type of embroidery. There is not a lot of information in English to read about these traditions. Those red work aprons are beautiful.

  2. You realize that several of the images are not Russian.
    The first one is of the indigenous peoples of the Volga,
    Mordvin [ Erzya-Moksha ] and Mari, the second is Ukrainian, the sixth is Karelian, the seventh again is Ukrainian, and the one after that shows one piece which again is Karelian, the piece from Olonets is most likely also made by Karelians, and the Tver piece may well have been as well.
    It is true that Russians which have settled in the area around Olonets and Karelia have picked up the same style of embroidery in the last couple hundred years, but it most likely originated with the indigenous peoples.
    It is very good to see people writing about traditional arts, and i am a great fan of 'blackwork', both the Russian style and our Ukrainian style.

    1. Dear Roman!
      Thank you for your comment and your interest!
      It's nice to meet devoted people on the web, who shares your interests!
      May be we can discuss some details by mail and in Russian - that'd be nice.
      I plan to write a series of articals about Europeen and Russian (in a broad sense) blackwork and I think we can have smth to discuss :)