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Russian Embroidery
December 16, 2010 20:31

Embroidery has long been one of the most favourite and widespread kinds of needlework. In days of old all women in Russia practiced this amazing folk art and craft. Embroidery was closely connected with age-old customs and rites of Russian peasantry. With the help of a needle and various threads Russian women transformed simple fabrics into works of art.

Girl started to prepare their trousseaus from the age of seven or eight, and a 15-year-old maid was expected to have self-made holiday and everyday clothes, tablecloths, trimmings, and towels ready to be used for several first years of married life.

Maids embroidered towels that were presented to the groom’s relatives and guests of honour. Before the wedding the bride’s hand-made items were displayed to demonstrate the skill and diligence of the future wife.

Russian embroidery is very diverse in the character of patterns and techniques. It is known that every region and sometimes even district has its own embroidery devices, ornamentation motifs, and colour schemes.

Russian embroidery differs from embroideries of other countries. Geometrical ornaments and geometrized forms of plants and animals – diamonds, motifs of a female figure, a bird, a tree or a blossoming bush, or a leopard with a raised paw – all these play a great role in Russian embroidery patterns.

A diamond, a circle, a rosette stand for the Sun as a symbol of warmth and life; a woman’s figure and a blossoming tree personify fertility, whereas a bird symbolizes the coming of spring.

The layout of patterns and embroidery techniques were integrally connected with the shape of Russian dress that was sewed out of straight pieces of fabric. The stitches were worked according to the count of threads and were called counted-thread embroidery. They decorated sleeve tops and cuffs, neckline, and hem and also ran along connecting seams.

Speaking about “free” embroideries along a drawn contour, floral designs were preferable.

Ancient Russian embroidery stitches included painting or half-cross stitch, set stitch, herringbone stitch, cross stitch, counted satin stitch, and white small stitch.

Later there appeared colour intertwists, Krestetsky stitch, guipures, chain stitch, white and colour satin stitch.

Russian peasant embroideries can be divided into two basic groups: Northern and Central Russian. The Northern group includes the lands of Arkhangelsk, Novgorod, Pskov, Vologda, Kalinin, Ivanovo, Nizhniy Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Vladimir Regions. The Central Russian group consists of the Kaluga, Tula, Ryazan, Smolensk, Oryol, Penza, Tambov and Voronezh Regions.

The most widespread methods of Northern Russian embroidery included cross-stitch, painting stitch, cut-outs, whitework, openwork on grid, and white and colour satin stitch. In some regions of the Russian North the patterns on pinafores, hems of shirts and towels were embroidered with cross-stitch, usually of one-colour: red stitches against white background or white stitches on red canvass. In designs figurative motifs domineered over geometrical patters. Complex compositions were conveyed in silhouettes and contours, using only one colour and one method.

Peasant embroidery of the Central Russia substantially differed from that of the Russian North. In patterns of the prevailed geometrical forms with a comb-shaped diamond with "marks", i.e. with two projections called “repey” (burdock) or “orepey” at every corner. They excelled in an unusual diversity of patterns and colour palettes. Embroideries of the Central Russia were multicoloured. The background looks like ornamentation as well. Apart from embroidery the items were decorated with patterned weaving, stripes and ribbons, red calico, coloured fabrics, as well as laces and braids.

Clothes in Russia were made of linen fabric that was weaved of linen thread, spun from linen tow. The fabric was mainly canvas of plain weave.

Depending on the thickness of spun thread the fabric could be thin or very thick. Yarn made of sheep wool was used for knitting clothes. Sheep wool was also used for felting woolen cloth and items. The clothes - shirts, sundresses, pinafores, aprons, shawls, trousers, outerwear, and even valenki (felt boots) and boots were decorated with embroidery, laces, and ribbons. Linen, towels, curtains, tablecloths, etc. were also decorated with embroidery and laces.

Girls and women would invent designs themselves, often finding inspiration in ice flowers on the windows in winter. They would make compositions of stylized images of flowers, plants, figures of animals and people.

Patterns were believed to have certain magic significance; some images called “charms” were supposed to guard the house, animals and people from illnesses and troubles.

Needlework was performed by village women mainly in winter time, when they were free from work in the fields, woods and the garden. But days are short in winter, and it was possible to work only in the daytime, in rare exceptions using candle light at night. This is probably why initially embroidery in white thread and on white canvass was more widespread.

The art and craft of embroidery was passed on from one person to another. So, in every province and district local peculiar techniques were developed.

Even cross-stitching embroidery was various in different regions of Russia. Thus, for example, Voronezh designs were mainly embroidered in black threads, the northern patterns were mainly of red colour, whereas the more southern areas had brighter embroideries, just like the nature around was much brighter there. The colours of threads were not many - red, crimson, yellow, blue and green – because the colourants were purely natural, and so their number was quite limited in cold areas. The further to the south, the more diverse the local flora and consequently, the richer colour palette.

With the development of international trade Russia adopted some of the overseas needlework, such as silk embroidery and beadwork. Though, using gems and especially river pearls (that were plentiful in Russia) in embroidery was customary in this country long before. The beads also became known and widespread in Russia long time ago.

Garments of boyars and boyarynias, kokoshniki (headgears) and jackets were very richly embroidered with beads, pearls and jems. Along with the coming of Christian religion Russia mastered gold embroidery.

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