For Russian farmers, embroidery had never been “just a decoration”. Contrary, it was thought as a powerful magic tool for shaping reality and for producing Order from Chaos. From magical point of view, to obtain a desirable result in a physical world, a person must set up a supernatural “cause” for it first. Needlepoint patterns worked as such a “cause”.
Russian tradition compared making embroidery with divine power of creating something from nothing. Goddesses and sorceresses of Russian myths (Zorya the Dawn, Vassilissa the Wisest, Maria the Crafter) were described as needlepoint experts. Their works possessed supernatural properties and powers (e.g., they could heal, or work as communication tools).
Needlepoint patterns used by Russian village people were not pictures, but words of a symbolic language. Each pattern had its own meaning; it was possible to compile a certain message using different ornaments. Some Russian dialects even lacked the word “to embroider” – people said “to write” instead.
Of course, the most obvious application of embroidery was decoration of clothes. Russian traditional outfit must include 3-4 embroidered parts: sleeves, hemline, shoulders, or chest (depending on age and gender of a wearer). Each gender and age group was allowed to wear a particular signs, whereas some other symbols were prohibited (e.g., only married women with children might wear so-called lyagushechka - “a pretty frogs”: a stylized image of a woman in a pose of delivery).
An embroidered cloth was “responsible” for health and good luck of a wearer. Decorated bedclothes magically ensured propagation of a whole community. Symbols of fertility, sexual harmony, and childbearing embellished podzory – extra-wide bedsheets used for special occasions (e.g., a wedding night). Patterns for podzory were the most archaic and lifelike – therefore the Church tried to prohibit them (unsuccessfully).
Besides, a specific type of needlepoint talisman existed in Russian tradition. It was a long and wide towel-like piece of cloth decorated with sacred symbols. Each dialect of Russian language used a special word for such a talisman. Northern Russians said “plat”, people of Central Russia knew words “roushnik” and “shirina”, Ukrainians and Southern Russians called these talismans “ubrus”. Plats must be used for ritual purposes only; it was strictly prohibited using them as regular towels (e.g., for wiping tables or drying hands). These talismans could be of enormous size (up to 7 meters long).
Usage of plats for village rituals was diverse. People tied plats around their bodies, hanged plats on carriages, gates, or roofs (depending on a ritual), or exchanged plats as a proof of a pledge (e.g., for a ceremony of engagement). Special type of plats (bozhatka – “dedicated to the God”), decorated with church-approved patterns, embellished bozhnica – a family altar with Christian icons.
Farmer’s lifestyle included many ceremonies and rituals. Any of these rites required usage of plats. Therefore, each village family should possess an array of plats embroidered with different symbols. In the 19th century, villagers told researchers that middle-class family usually had up to 100 plats (for rich people, up to 300 plats).
A set of plats came to a family as a part of a dowry. It was a responsibility of young girls to supply their future families with ritual embroidery. Village girls started studying needlepoint at their age of 7-8. First, their elder sisters taught younger ones in stitches and techniques, which were in use in this particular region. Then, when girls became 12-13, senior women let them into a core part of magic: symbolic meaning of patterns and colors. To their 15, future brides became experts in “needlepoint wizardry”.
Even after 1917, when Russians started to forget ancient knowledge, some details and symbols persisted. For instance, village people remembered that the hemline of a young man’s shirt should be decorated with floral motifs. However, symbolic meaning of such decoration was totally lost. Consequently, embroidered patterns became “modern-looking”, and changed their archaic and magical red-and-white palette to insensible multi-colored mix.