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Stitches Used in Traditional Russian Embroidery. An overview.

The cliche of traditional Russian needlepoint is a towel embroidered with tacky red cocks (in the cross-stitching technique). This is not true (at least, not completely true). Speaking of cocks (and their color) there are a couple of paragraphs here at the web-site telling about traditional symbols and color palette, so we do not repeat these info here. This particular entry is about embroidery techniques used by village people.

Let's go backwards and start from cross-stitching. This technique appeared in Russian villages after 1850s only, therefore, it cannot be named neither 'Russian' nor 'traditional' at all. First, Cross-stitching was adopted by farmers from nobility's and city people's needlepoint. And, after 1870s, Genrich Brokar with his 'soap cross-stitching designs' made a fatal hit to the traditional craft.

Genrich Brokar was a Russian-French businessman. In 1870s, he launched his soap-making manufacture in Russia. To increase his market-share by attracting village people, he collected the most popular folk designs, and the team of professional artists 'corrected' these 'clumsy rural pictures' and transformed them to cross-stitching embroidery graphs (of course, that 'correction' distorted ancient sacred signs and turned them into something 'pretty'...). Brokar offered one free graph along with any piece of his product. And, villagers were enticed by these 'corrections' of traditional designs

It needs to be noticed that Ukraine and neighboring regions of Southern Russia adopted cross-stitching significantly earlier than the rest of the country, and in much more natural way. Ukrainians simply borrowed this technique from neighboring European Slavs (Poles, Bulgarians and others).

Despite the non-traditional origin of Cross-stitching, it perfectly fits the group of 'counted stitches' - needlepoint techniques, which use the natural structure of a cloth as a base grid for making designs. Ethnographers know a lot of 'counted stitches' applied by Russian village people. Some stitches were spread widely around the whole country, whereas others were strictly local. Three most commonly used techniques are described below.

  1. Nabor (weaving stitch). Researchers believe it is the most ancient needlepoint technique invented in Eurasia (they date it as the Upper Paleolithic period, 10000 B.C.). The first known pieces of Russian village embroidery (the fifteenth century) are made using Nabor. For this method, stitches of different length go along the weft of a cloth, forming parallel rows. Accordingly, 'red-on-white' and 'white-on-red' designs appeared on both right and wrong sides of embroidery.

    Nabor, right side Nabor, wrong side

    Nabor was mostly applied for ritual needlepoint. It embellished ritual outfits and plats (ritual towel-like heavily-embroidered pieces of fabric) . Talismans for an everyday clothing was made using Nabor too.

    As stitches went only horizontally, Nabor designs consisted of lines and angles only (no circumferences or curves were possible). This fact is also true for any other counted stitch.

  2. Rospis' (painting stitch). For this technique, stitches go straight in both directions, vertical and horizontal (along both warp and weft of a cloth). First, the desirable picture is contoured by any simple stitch. Then, the contour is filled with a net of vertical and horizontal threads (like for a darn). The net's density varies for different parts of the design, so, the whole picture looks like covered by different shades of a base color.

    As the darn net goes over the cloth, the only contour stitches exist at the wrong side of embroidery.

    Similar to Nabor, Rospis' was used for ritual designs. But, it was applied for ritual outfits only, not for plats.

  3. Schetna'a Glad' (counted satin stitch). As for Rospis',, stitches go in both directions (vertical and horizontal), but the density is the highest here (the base cloth is completely hidden by embroidery thread). The stitches' length is strictly equal. So, the whole design consists of small rectangles, and each rectangle is formed by 10-50 stitches.

    This techniques was allowed for embellishing either everyday or festive outfit.

In addition to 'counted stitches', village people used so-called 'free stitches' also (e.g., any type of a contour stitch, regular (non-counted) satin stitch, cross-stitching over waste-canvas). 'Free stitches' allowed making curves, circumpherences, waves, and any other 'free' forms.

In different regions of Russia, various free techniques wer used. And, that is much more interesting, 1) the time of 'free stitches''s appearance varies in different regions, 2) 'free stitches' were adopted from different sources.

The most well-known 'free stsich' is called Tambour (also known as 'chain stitch', 'plant stitch', 'mouse's trail stitch'). In Ukraine and Southern Russia it appeared in the fourteenth century. Researchers believe it was borrowed from a traditional craft of neighboring herders (e.g. Polovtsi Kipchaks). Contrary, Central and Northern Russia's craft learnt this stitch not earlier than at 1790s. Tambour entered village embroidery from the noble peoples craft (nobles brought this stitch from France, along with its name Tambour means spool in French).

Other 'free stitches' were adopted by Russians from traditional craft of Ural / Siberia herders, and of Central Asia peoples. Naturally, these stitches existed only locally (they've never been spread around other parts of the country).

Sources (in Russian)
  1. G.S.Maslova, "Designs of Traditional Russian Embroidery"
  2. N.I.Lebedeva, "Spinning and Weaving Techniques of Eastern Slavs"
  3. S.V.Gorozhanina, L.M.Zaitseva "Traditional Russian Wedding Outfit"
  4. G.P.Durasov, "Designs and Motifs of Treditional Russian Embrdoiery"
  5. I.Ya.Boguslavskaya "Russian Embroidery"
  6. T.A.Kr'ukova "Mariian Embroidery"