Sacred Sewing in Russian Churches

With the advent of Christianity, Russia learned many things from Byzantium — not only icon painting, the secrets of church building, and church singing, but also the craft of sewing . . . 

In the folk tradition of pre-Christian Russia, there was embroidery with “simple” threads of various colors, gold-embroidered Byzantine fabrics (“pavoloks”) were exclusively imported from the East.

In the 10th century, together with the arrival of the Greek clergy, richly decorated church vestments appeared in Russia. Soon we also had masters who adopted the gold sewing skills from the Greeks.


  1. How embroidery was created
  2. Embroidery is a spiritual work
  3. Face and gold sewing
  4. Notable workshops
  5. Four schools

How embroidery was created

The embroidery was created in two stages:

  • formation of a line;
  • the actual embroidery.

At the first stage, men worked - the bannermen, herbalists, word-writers. These masters were icon painters of a special kind, who knew the laws of embroidery, and, as a rule, dealt exclusively with icons on fabric: the flag bearers painted figures, herbalists painted landscapes, calligraphers made the necessary inscriptions on the borders of the work.

For drawing they used red lead and ink, whitewash and soot, and other paints were also used. The sample was usually drawn on paper and then transferred to fabric.

After the completion of the drawing, the women embroiderers began to work. Before the drawing was sewn in, it was outlined with white threads.

Embroidery is a spiritual work

Not every craftswoman could embroider church vestments. This work was not only physical, but also spiritual. The women matched the work with prayer: when the needle entered the fabric, the embroiderer mentally pronounced: “Lord,” and when she stretched out, “bless”.

Face and gold sewing

In Byzantium, the finest metal threads of gold were used for work. In Russia, at first, they did the same, but gradually they began to be replaced by imitating gold (they contained only 2 - 3 percent of pure metal) or silver with gilding - therefore, from the 16th century, embroidery began to be called gold.

At the same time, there was another technique -  face sewing. It was used for embroidery with a special seam of faces and other open areas of the body on a shroud or icon.

Notable workshops

The first Russian gold embroidery workshop is considered the workshop of Princess Yanka, the sister of Vladimir Monomakh, who, in addition to sewing, taught the craftswomen to read and write and church singing.

Also known is Solomonia Saburova (glorified in the face of saints as Sophia of Suzdal), the wife of Tsar Ivan III Rurikovich, forcibly tonsured into a nun, as the founder of one of the most famous Russian church sewing workshops.

Until the XIV century, women craftswomen never put their names on products. One of the first inscribed embroideries belongs to Ksenia Godunova, the daughter of Tsar Boris. In general, due to the high cost of the materials used - gold threads, precious stones, pearls - representatives of the upper class were engaged in gold sewing in Russia. Velvet and silk were imported from Turkey, Iran (Persia), Italy.

Until the 18th century, the most famous were the embroidery workshops that queens and princesses set up in front of their ladies. Depending on the material and official position of the head of the house, the staff of the workshop was formed, sometimes numbering up to a hundred craftswomen.

The wives and daughters of service people headed by the boyars were engaged in embroidery in the tsaritsas' houses, and ordinary peasant women at the service and trade people. The owners of the workshops not only supervised the work, but also did the embroidery themselves.

Girls' education began very early, as soon as they could hold a needle in their hands, and proceeded according to the principle "from hand to hand." At first it was customary to study gold sewing, then personal. The embroiderers, as a rule, had a division of responsibilities: someone embroidered faces, someone - words.

Four schools

Each workshop had its own characteristics and secrets, so the work bore the imprint of the era, and the history of the family, and the history of the state, however, over time, several schools were formed: Novgorod, Suzdal-Vladimir, Moscow and Stroganov.

Novgorod embroiderers worked mainly with silk, adding a minimum of gold; this trend is characterized by the works of the workshop of Efrosinya Staritskaya, the aunt of Ivan the Terrible.

The Suzdal-Vladimir craftswomen made the contours of the images red (in contrast to the generally accepted dark brown), due to which the embroidery acquired a characteristic reddish tint.

The works of the masters of the Moscow school until the end of the 16th century were distinguished by the severity of colors and asceticism; with the coming to power of Boris Godunov, rich colors, pearls, etc. appear.

The Stroganov school combined both ecclesiastical and decorative and applied directions, which significantly influenced the style of the work performed, therefore it was, in its way, unique.

In the 18th - 19th centuries, the decline of the gold sewing church art began. The external decoration of the temple utensils did not always correspond to its symbolic and liturgical meaning. In the objects of this period, there are practically no compositions with embroidered faces, embroidery itself in silver and gold began to degenerate and imitate jewelry techniques. The October Revolution also did not contribute to the development of this type of art, although the absolute oblivion of church handicrafts did not occur, probably due to the utilitarian nature of this craft.

At the end of the twentieth century, a gradual revival of church gold embroidery began. Workshops were created and restored in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and in many other cities, villages and monasteries of Russia: in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Ufa, St. Petersburg, Torzhok, Gordts, Diveyevo, etc. Craftsmen embroider banners, hanging shrouds, indithias, airs, patrons, antimenses, ilitons, eagles, shroud, icons, catapetasms, shroud, schemas and elements of vestments of clergymen (suriciaries, orari, sakkos, etc.)

Source: (Russian)

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