Sew What?

That's All, Folk: Eastern European Folk Dress Traditions

October 21, 2021 Isabella Rosner Season 3 Episode 2
Sew What?
That's All, Folk: Eastern European Folk Dress Traditions
Show Notes Transcript

In the first mini episode of season 3, Isabella explores traditional Eastern European needlework. She examines the stitched aspects of folk dress from Albania to Ukraine and everywhere in between. 

Images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website,, and a Patreon,

Whatsup stitches!! Welcome to Sew What’s episode two of season 3, the first mini episode of the season. I am Isabella Rosner and I am here to guide you on a mystical, magical journey through historic needlework. Specifically a mystical, magical journey through eastern European textile traditions. This is the first of this season’s mini episodes, which will be a bit shorter than the standalone, non-interview episodes of the past two seasons of the pod. Each mini episode will focus on an indigenous textile tradition from a different continent, and this episode’s continent is Europe. So yeehaw! Let’s delve into the folk dress of eastern Europe, from Albania to Ukraine and everywhere in between.

Before we do that though, social media shpiel! Images and sources have been posted on the Sew What? social media accounts, @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And on the pod’s website, at Aaaanad if you’re feeling generous and you like the work that lil ol’ me is doing, the pod has a patreon! It’s at Okay, now back to the subject at hand. 

I’ve chosen to get into eastern European needlework and weaving today for several reasons. One, my ancestry is purely Ashkenazi Jewish via Eastern Europe and I know woefully little about my family’s textile heritage and wanted to use this opportunity to learn more about it and share it with all of you! Two, my area of expertise is Western Europe and that’s what many past Sew What? episodes have focused on, so it’s time to broaden that scope! 

Needlework was and is really important across eastern Europe, so I’ll go through the various traditions region by region as much as that is possible. But before that, lemme briefly give some historical context. And before that, I’m here to give a really big shout out to a really lit and well researched and cited article called “Eastern Europe Folk Dress” by fashion historian Linda M. Welters on a website called LovetoKnow. Linda’s article has given me and this episode a super solid foundation so thank you, Linda! Okay, now let’s get into it. So, for a long time, eastern Europe was MESSY because it had a whole slew of ever shifting borders, thanks to various rounds of political upheaval. To go waaaaay back in time, tribal groups lived in many northern and central parts of the region until Germanic crusaders rolled through in the Middle Ages. After that, once things settled down, a classic lord-serf situation developed which is unfortunate but deeply unsurprising. So for centuries, landowners oversaw serfs who farmed the land. 

 During this serfy period Ottoman Turkey ruled most of southeastern Europe and stretched as far north as Hungary and Russia was vibing on the edge of Europe, blending ideas from the east and west. And then for centuries after borders between eastern European countries shifted and people worked and lived and dressed in traditional garb, which is what we’re here for. That traditional garb, what we call folk dress, was what those serfs, those peasants, developed. Distinctive clothing styles for peasants popped up as early as the sixteenth century, with influences coming from the “west,” via Europe’s fashion capitals and the “east,” via the Ottomans. 

 A lot of eastern European folk needlework began being collected in the late 19th century, at the same time as lots of other forms of historic textile and costumes. I could talk about that whole collecting craze at length but to summarise, the second half of the 19th century saw a lot of textile and costume collecting partially because people were freaking out about the loss of these handcrafts as technology and machinery were taking over big time. To put it simply, it was in reaction to the Industrial Revolution. A good example is Natalia de Shabelsky, a Russian noblewoman who wanted to preserve what she saw as the vanishing folk art traditions of Russia. From the 1870s to 1902, she travelled extensively throughout the region and collected a huge variety of textiles and costume from the wealthy peasant class. Shabelsky amassed a huge collection, parts of which are now at the Met, MFA Boston, Cleveland Art Museum, and the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St Petersburg. Good ol’ Natalia de Shabelsky is just one example of this huge trend of ethnographers or people who thought themselves ethnographers collecting eastern European folk dress. And, alongside this general freak out over the possible loss of traditional art traditions, typified by Shabelsky, came some real Romanticism and nationalism and this nostalgic desire to collect and treasure the material evidence of “traditional” folk material. 

 So yes, there you are, a veeeery speedy and simple overview of the history of folk dress and its collection. Now let’s actually get into the needlework from all these regions. I’m going to go in alphabetical order by vague region, going through the Balkan countries, Baltic countries, and what I call Russia and co., which is Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. I’m not including Central Europe or the Caucasus nations because both are kinda in liminal zones, with Central Europe being a little too central to be east and the Caucasus being a little TOO far east, ya know? So yes, I’ve needed to air on the side of simplicity. We have a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time so this is gonna be a SPEEDY ADVENTURE. 

 Okay, Balkan countries. The Balkans are in southeastern Europe. Countries that are entirely within the Balkan Peninsula are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Countries that are mostly or partially within the Balkan peninsula include Croatia, Greece, Italy, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey, but we’re not really gonna focus on those latter countries because we already have so much to discuss and learn! The Balkans include a pretty wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, but the Turkish influence is strong throughout, as the whole region was once part of the Ottoman Empire. Even though there are different silhouettes, the embroidery remains the same throughout the region and across other areas once under Ottoman rule. The embroidery motifs that can be seen again and again are adaptations of Islamic forms of carnations, tulips, and roses. These flowers are usually stylised and geometricized and are typically made of cross stitch. And at the risk of oversimplifying too much, embroidery in folk dress traditions across the Balkans includes A LOT of red thread. That’s actually a theme across eastern European needlework. A lot of red thread and a lot of cross stitching. It’s a visual delight, to be honest. In the case of Balkan-area needlework, there is a fair bit of that, but additionally, professionals stitched couched threads of gold and/or black silk on high quality wool or velvet. For those of you who don’t know, couching involves laying threads across a ground fabric and then fastening them down every so often with tiny stitches. Non-professional stitchers also embroidered, using silk or wool threads to create very dense geometric motifs. 

 The high-quality wool I mentioned a minute ago was spun by Balkan women on two-harness looms. Those gals also wove linen, hemp, and cotton. The wool was fulled, which means cleaning the cloth to get rid of oils, dirt, and other impure bits in order to make it thicker, and then used for coats, trousers, vests, and jackets. The lighter fabrics were used for men’s shirts, women’s chemises, and various head cloths. And also, as a lil fun fact, many different folk dress traditions across the Balkans involve metal coins made into necklaces and headpieces. Clink, clink, bling, bling, etc. 

 And now, onto the Baltics. The Baltic states are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This is the region most of my ancestors came from. I visited Latvia a few years ago to see my great grandmother’s homeland and while there I developed a really intense love of and devotion to dill flavoured crisps, which I had not seen before and have not seen since and which I miss every day. The Baltic states involve a whole lot of embroidery, with decorative borders on shawls, shirts, coats, vests, blouses, skirts, and various headdresses and some very complex weaving used for belts, sashes, and trims. When it comes to the Baltic region, it’s importante that I speak about knitting, which does, as we have discussed on this podcast previously, involve needles and which therefore I consider a form of needlework. Anyway! Knitting is really important in the Baltics so we’re gonna get into that. 

 Knit mittens are a huge deal in the area, especially in Latvia. Mittens were given as wedding gifts – historically, every bride to be was expected to fill a hope chest and the most lavish of those chests contained several hundred pairs of cute handmade mittens. Aaaand mittens were given to the family of the couple and anyone involved in organising the wedding and they’re still given on special occasions today. How cute!! There are several known archaeological fragments from between the eighth and thirteenth centuries that show that knitting was important in the region before the Teutonic crusaders, a German group, who overran and brought Christianity to the area in the 13th century. The pre-Christian origins make a lot of the symbols on the Latvia’s knit mittens make sense. The motifs are related to mythology – in ancient Latvian mythology, God was both the father of the other Gods and the essence of them all. I’m going to describe a few of the symbols you can find on Latvian mittens. I’m including images of all the symbols I’m about to describe on the Sew What? social media pages because describing this stuff is hard. The symbol of God, or dievs, is a lil triangle or upward facing carrot. Mara, the diety of earth, water, and all the creatures within, is a downward facing triangle. Laima is the goddess of destiny and on mittens her symbol is an arrow that points to the left. Auseklis is the morning star and is indeed an eight pointed star. Zalktis is the guardian of weath and wellbeing and is like a sideways, geometric S. These symbols are still actively used in Latvian mittens, which means each knitted mitten tells a unique story! How cool and fun. And yes, when I was in Latvia, I saw lovely knitted mittens as often as I saw dill flavoured crisps and it was a delight. 

 And now, let’s get to our last group, Russia and co., or more specifically, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Embroidery is the name of the game in all three countries and we love to see it!! Embroidery has been important in Russia for a whole lotta centuries. Garments, usually made of linen, were stitched with embroidered hems, as were towels. Embroidered towels are a big deal – according to the Museum of Russian Art, towels have been long regarded as a unique source of historical knowledge about times from which no written records have survived. The towels are covered in outline, satin, and cross stitches in red threads. The Russian word for the colour red, “krasnyi,” actually derives from the Russian word for beauty, “krasa,” which, cute!!! The use of red thread symbolised the warmth of the sun and the energy of human blood, which is so metal and I love it. What is absolutely wild is that, according to the Textile Research Centre, the cross stitch I personally so associate with Russian stitching was only introduced in Russia from western Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and was actively promoted by a soap manufacturer named Henri Brocard?? Um??? Henri set up a perfume and soap company in Moscow and in order to attract customers he included free cross stitch charts with his products. That truly blows my mind. Anyhoo, Russia is obviously a massive area so there are lots of regional needlework traditions, but there are some general trends. Those in the upper classes used a lot of gold thread in their embroidery and that goldwork was really distinctive. It was applied to women’s outer clothing, headdresses, and religious vestments. 

 There are also two major traditions in Russian embroidery, coming from the north and centre of the region. Embroidery from the north has many figures and a limited range of colours. Red is obviously the main one – it tends to be red thread on a white ground or white thread on a red ground. Motifs include the Sun Chariot and horses and riders. In the centre of Russia, needlework includes a wider range of motifs, including stylised plants, birds, animals, and diamonds with swirly projections. Northern Russian embroidery uses a lot of back and double running stitch, while central Russian embroidery is all about satin and herringbone stitches.

 And now, briefly, Ukrainian embroidery! Some Ukrainian embroidery traditions are related to Russian ones, while others are more connected to embroidery from eastern and southeastern Europe. Ukrainian embroidery has A LOT of regional variation in motif and technique but generally, red and black threads are the most common and sometimes blue gets in there too. If I went through all the regional variations of Ukrainian needlework I truly would be here all day so I will drastically oversimplify it by saying there are a lot of different styles, some floral, some geometric, some neither, and some both, and there is a whole slew of embroidery stitches. There’s also quite a lot of needle weaving and white on white cutwork as well.  

 And last but not least, Belarus. Belarusian embroidery, like Russian and Ukrainian stitching, mostly involves red and, a bit less often, black threads. Belarusian folks embroidered shirts, aprons, headdresses, vests, shawls, outerwear, aprons, you name it. For the most part, it’s the chest and sleeves of garments that are densely embroidered. As we saw with Latvian mittens and as is the case in many eastern European folk dress cultures, symbols in Belarusian needlework are really old and actually come from the pre-Christian pagan culture. A lot of the motifs are meant to be protective or connected to things like fertility, childbirth, and welfare. Also want to give a special shout out to a contemporary Belarusian artist Rufina Bazlova who uses embroidery that looks very much like typical Belarusian folk embroidery to depict moments from the country’s recent pro-democracy protests. Her work is incredibly important and rad and demonstrates how relevant folk embroidery traditions are today.

 So yes, there we are, an incredibly speedy journey through eastern European folk traditions. There was a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time, so I hope I did an okay job of making sense and teaching you a few things. How do I conclude such a widespread tour of needlework? I’ll focus on the universality of the symbolism of the motifs. Not that the stitched symbols are the same across all of eastern Europe. Rather, across so many different cultures, women were embroidering, weaving, or knitting symbols that had been in their community for hundreds of years. Each symbol has meaning, no symbol is merely decorative. And those symbols are pretty ancient in origin, from either pre-Christian pagan religions or brought by the Ottomans. Folk dress came out of a desire to express a national or regional identity and I love that needle arts, which are obviously heavily utilised across all the areas I’ve looked at in this episode, have the power to convey just that. They can demonstrate not only your community, but also the history of that community. The power of needlework strikes again!

 What is leaving me with a lot to think about is the fact that folk dress was historically the purview of peasants, those who couldn’t afford or weren’t up on trendy fashion trends coming from western Europe and beyond, but that those folk dress traditions were coopted heavily because of romantic nationalism and an increasing move toward ethnographic studies. It’s really interesting that these dress traditions were developed and worn by peasants, labourers of low social status, but then by the nineteenth century nations were like “here we are! Our national dress!” and the fact that these traditions originated in pretty marginalised groups is brushed under the rug. Am I thinking about all this too much? Is folk dress purely national costume and should therefore be considered universal or has the development of folk dress come with misjustice for those who crafted it in the first place? Obviously scholars of these dress traditions can speak much more to that than I can. What is clear to me is that needlework is very much tied up in these messy issues and it’s important to not forget that. Not that you would. After all, I’m talking into the ether at people who know just how important needlework is. 

 And on that note, that’s it from me this week! This mini episode didn’t actually end up so mini. There was a lot to talk and think about! I hope that this lil episode has inspired you to look more into folk costume, because even though I just discussed eastern European examples, there are hundreds of folk dress traditions around the world and they’re all fascinating and stunning and thought provoking. So yes.

 Now go out and stitch some stories and think about how cross stitch basically came to Russia via a soap manufacturer. Bye!