Apprentisheship: Illumination by Liudmila


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Embroidery Technique

Foreign travelers to Russia in the XVIth- XVIIth centuries such as German Adam Olearius, Englishman Sir Giles Fletcher, and Frenchman Jacques Margeret all commented in their notes on Russians’ love for pearl embroidery on all kinds of clothes, from boots to hats (quoted in Iakunina, see below for details).  Archbishop Arsenii Elassonis describes the opulence of Tsaritsa Irina Fedorovna outfit (1588-1589), that included a crown adorned with gems and pearls. Surviving examples of ecclesiastical wear and rare secular items, as well as wills and other period documents also attest to widespread use of pearls in garment decoration.  Iakunina cites wills that refer to pearl embroidered voshvy (cuffs for a letnik*, a loose light dress with wide triangular sleeves), hats, collars, and other items. Thus, the presented technique fpr pearl embroidery relies both on surviving period examples of pearled garments and post-period examples of similar headdresses.

          The technique for late period pearl embroidery is described in detail by Iakunina, who made an extensive study of artifacts and archive documents virtually inaccessible from outside of Russia.  Available photographs, such as those of items from Zagorsk Museum Collection in Manushina’s book (Appendix), provide for better understanding of the technique. 
First, depending on the complexity of the pattern, either the embroiderer herself or a special artist known as “znamenshchik” (usually male) would draw it onto the chosen fabric with chalk, coal, or ink. Since I am not certain of my drawing, I begin by making a pattern on paper and transferring it to iron-on interfacing, which I use to stabilize the fabric. In period, according to Iakunina (p. 45), flour paste was used for the same purpose.  Experienced embroiderers prepared the paste using secret recipes, now lost (the paste they made was not prone to be eaten by bugs), though it was basically just flour mixed with water or kvas and simmered until ready.  The paste was spread on the back of the embroideries by hand while still stretched tight on the frame, to prevent it from puckering after removal.  Since my embroidery is not subjected to such treatment, it does pucker a little.  
The next step in this project was transferring of the pattern to the front of the work.  This was done by sewing through it with white thread in running stitch.  That thread becomes completely covered by later work.
Before laying out the pearls, period embroiderers usually laid out a foundation of white cord or thick threads, in single or double line (Iakunina, p. 35).  A shroud “Cross at the Golgopha” from Zagorsk Museum collection, dated to 1550, clearly shows the lines of couched white cord where the pearls had been removed (from Manushina). Such linen or cotton cord or threads, known as bel’ was used since at least early XVth century as foundation for pearl embroidery, as evidenced from documents. For example, Iakunina (p.35) quotes a 1509 will that listed pearl embroidery on various items made “na beli” (over the foundation).  For this project, I used white 100% cotton yarn, doubled.  After the pattern was prepared, the yarn was couched down with strong white thread everywhere there was to be pearl embroidery.
In period, pearls meant for embroidering were sorted according to size and quality and gathered on a long thread using a needle.  The thread was then wound around a special wand (“viteika”) which was used to store the pearls and to keep the thread taught during embroidering (Iakunina, pp. 37-37, fig. 15).  Most readily available were freshwater pearls from Russian rivers, but the most valued were imported Persian pearls _Iakunina_ p. 26.css).  Most surviving embroideries were done with relatively small, oval or potato-shaped pearls drilled horizontally.  The hat used as an example here was made to fulfill a promissory, and due to time pressure I had to use the fresh water pearls that were easily available at the time, which were rice-shaped pearls drilled vertically.
Once a viteika with the pearled thread was prepared, the end of the thread was taken with a needle to the back of the fabric at the beginning of the foundation, and secured there with a knot (Iakunina, p. 38).  Then, it was laid along the pattern and couched with a different white thread, silk or linen, with stitches after every single pearl going into the foundation. The pearled thread and the couching thread were pulled very taught, so that when pearls on some embroideries were lost or removed later, one could count how many there were by indentations (Iakunina, p. 41).  I used this technique for the presented headdress as well, though without utilizing a viteika.  Instead, I gathered as many pearls on a separate thread with a beading needle as I needed for a continuous design element.  I used nylon beading thread to ensure that the embroidery could stand up to SCA wear. 
Finally, pearl embroidery was outlined with gold cord, usually twisted.  Embroideries in Appendix A, such as 1592 phelonion and, on which such cord is clearly visible evidence this, showing how gold cord both hid the foundation and enhanced the overall effect.  That cord was not secured by couching over it, but sewn to the foundation with the stitches going through the middle of the gold cord and into the edge of the foundation (Iakunina, p. 42).  Since pearl embroideries were highly valuable, this technique allowed saving the complete embroidery if the background fabric wore out by cutting it out whole and appliquéing it to another fabric.  
Since real gold cord is beyond my means, I used a synthetic cord which resembles the way period cords were made. This cord was also couched alone to make the design stand out better from the distance and due to time constraints on the commissioned work.  Phelonion dated between 1641 and 1674 and a 1635 sticharion in Appendix  illustrate how this was done for small details.


Giliarovskaia, N. V. Russkii istoricheskii kostium dlia stseny.  (Russian historic costume for the stage) Iskusstvo, Moscow, 1945.

Iakunina, L. I. Russkoie Shit’ie Zhemchugom (Russian Pearl Embroidery). Iskusstvo, Moscow, 1955.

Ivanova, O. Y. (ed.) Rossia XVII Veka v Vospominaniyah Inostrantsev. (Russia of 17Th century in memoirs of the foreigners). Rusich, Smolensk, 2003.

Manushina, T. Early Russian Embroidery in the Zagorsk Museum Collection.  Sovetskaia Rossiia, Moscow, 1983.

Medieval Russian Ornament in Full Color from Illuminated Manuscripts. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1994.

Postnikova-Loseva, M. Russian Gold and Silver Filigree. Isskustvo, Moscow, 1981.