Decoration and Ornament in Early Rus

by Sofya la Rus, Mka Lisa Kies
Updated 1 April 2007


    Russian clothing was usually decorated with embroidery, silk and pearls. Peasant clothes, particularly the rubakha, were embroidered with simple geometric and plant forms, usually in red, but sometimes in unbleached white. (Stamerov) and (Kireyeva)

    The decoration included silk embroidery, metal thread of gold or silver, and couching (esp. of silver wire). Batik, jewelry, embroidery and other applied folk arts were also highly developed. (Kireyeva)

    In period of the 13-17th cent. clothing was decorated with embroidery at the neck, shoulder, chest, buttonhole/loop, duff, and hem, and with sewn on plaques, alamami. For this was also used edging of galloon and buttonhole/loop strips of silver and gold cords, with pearls and stones. The edge of the clohting was trimmed also with lace - metallic hammered, braid [card weaving?] or strung with pearls. [The "lace" was, perhaps, for very late period, or else is meant to mean "edging" not lace in the modern sense.]

Clothing Trim:

    Still, the clothing was not as heavily ornamented and embroidered (known as nepodvizhni decoration) during the Kievan period as in the Muscovite period when clothes might be completely covered. More emphasis was placed on "navesni" decoration - ornamentation worn over the clothes as accessories such as separate collars, cuffs, voshvy. [The Muscovite period was when the "podniza" appeared - openwork lace-like decoration made of pearl strands..] (Kireyeva)

    An edging of colored fabric was a characteristic finishing of Russian clothing in all periods, however. (Kireyeva)

    On frescoes of St. Sophia's in Kiev, the women were dressed in edged cloaks (plashi). Often, the edge or border was sewn on and represented itself as a wide silk braid, embroidered with gold. Galloon/braids of such type are found in burials. (Pushkareva89)

    In a miniature from the Izbornik of Svyatoslav of 1073, one princess wears a dress with a belt conforming in color to her naruchej [cuffs] and the belt appears to have been "zatkan" (woven?) with gold embroidery. The bottom of the dress is decorated with a border, and the top - with a wide round collar. A dress with a shoulder collar (ozherlya-oplech'e) with such decoration can be seen in other miniature portrayals, and in a 1270 Gospel. (Kolchin)

    Since such ornament was such valuable work, it was often done on panels of cloth (voshvy) so that it could be recycled onto new garments. Such decorated panels often appear in bequests to daughters and daughters-in-law. (Pushkareva97) Besides all that, there were silver gilded buttons from womens shuby, and lace on "portishche" (?), sewn with gold and silver. (Pushkareva89)


    Embroidery richly decorated the garments of all levels of ancient Russian society. (According to superstition, unclean forces could not go in or go out across openings protected with embroidery. Therefore in Rus garments great meaning was given to the decorated edge - cuffs, polochek (front flap?), hem of skirt and collar.) Circles ("diski") and crescent moon-images ("lunnitsy"), motifs of nets (pletenki), interwoven strands, and heart-shaped figures under half-circular arches are distinctive. The design of embroidery was various; most often of all were found intricate/whimsical curved stems, stylized flowers, circles, geometric figures. [These motifs are a major distinction from Byzantine style.] (Pushkareva89)

    Those parts of the undershirt which could be seen were decorated:  in the 14th century for the more noble ladies, even with pearls and drobnitsami (small metal plates in the form of sequins, paws or leaves); and for representatives of lower social strata - linen plaited openwork.  (Pushkareva89)

    Are met plaid fabrics with openwork bands, formed at the expense of pulled out paskonnykh threads (Levinson-Nechaeva M.N. 1959 p 25); plaid fabrics with openwork bands, formed during weaving. One example of such fabrics was embroidered with a fat needle [tolstoj igloj]. The embroidery ornament is the meander. In the same kurgans are discovered smooth woolen cloths with tabby weave with embroidery made with an additional weft - "branoy" technique. [Sounds a bit like “brocaded” tablet weaving] The preserved pattern was in the form of a chain of rhombs [diamond-shapes] of red color against the dark background. In the kurgans indicated are found many patterned bands, which were being used for finishing the clothing, belts, and for fastening of adornments. Furthermore, in them are found the remains of cloth and diagonal cloth [?], under which in the burials were located the tight-woven fabrics of tabby weave. (Kolchin)

    The nepodvizhni decoration included silk embroidery, metal thread of gold or silver, and couching (esp. of silver wire). Batik, jewelry, embroidery and other applied folk arts were also highly developed. (Kireyeva) Scarlet-red, blue, brown, green-yellow, green colors were added to gold and silver embroidery in clothing. Embroidery with metal thread distinguished the costume not only of women of princely origin, but also representative of the affluent village population. Domestic workshops wove "spryadyvali" fine spun gold thread with linen. In 11-12th cent. most often of all sewed "v proem" (pierce/punctured fabric, running stitch?), long stitches were on face, while short - on reverse side. In 12-13th cent. gold thread was arranged/laid on fabric and fastened with silk. (Pushkareva89)

    A special group was formed by fabrics with needlework, executed with metal threads (gold and silver) by ancient Russian mistresses [female masters]. According to written sources such work is known already in the 11th cent. In the monasteries/convents existed “schools”, and in the royal domain “home workshops” in which the technique of gold embroidery was trained (Novitskaya M.A. 1965, p26). (Kolchin)

    The technique very closely resembles opus anglicanum.

Pearl Embroidery:

    Pearl embroidery was widely utilized in boyar clothing. Small freshwater pearls came from native rivers or were imported from Iran and known as gurmitski or burmitski. Cultivated pearls were used in the 10th-13th centuries. By the 10th century, the pearl embellishment was lavish. Seed pearls were sewn onto the fabric widely spaced, outlining a pattern sewn with thread, or "in dots" formed by the pearls themselves. Clothes saturated with pearls were not unknown and independent patterns of pearls began to appear. (Stamerov) and (Kireyeva)

    Notes from SIG about gems and pearl embroidery

Metal Plaques:

    Decoration with "alamami" - with silver and gold engraved/embossed badges/plates - gave clothing special splendor and festiveness. Mentions of "pearl alamax" are met in various documents. Such clothing ornaments were very expensive and, of course, passed down in inheritance. (Pushkareva89)


    As an important decoration of clothing in the 13-17th centuries served buttons, which for the rich were silver, gold, pearls etc. Such use was gerenal for all Europe. In Russian clothing were even buttons of Lithuanina and german make. (Rabinovich, 13-17th c.)

    According to Rabinovich, Savvaitov gives the following information about the number of buttons on different items of clothing in the 13-17th centuries.

      Kaftan - 13-19 buttons
      Opashen - 11-30
      Odnoryadka - 15-18
      Feryaza - 3-10
      Chuga - 3-22
      Zipun - 11-16
      Armyak - 11
      Terlik - up to 35
      Epancha - 5 (as a type of kaftan, rather than cloak?)
      Kozhukh - 11
      Shuba - 8-16 buttons
    But dandies could apparently sew onto their clothing rather more buttons "kaftan broadcloth... 42 buttons..." Instead of buttons sometimes were sewn on special kostyl'ki (little spikes?), klyapyshi, also beautiful and expensive. (Rabinovich, 13-17th c.)

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