What is ‘drawn ground’?

‘drawn ground’ – a technique often found in the folk embroidery of Russia and Ukraine, where threads are withdrawn from linen…

This article first appeared in the Autumn 1993 issue of ‘Embroidery‘ magazine.

In Search of Russian Drawn Ground

Copyright: Pamela Smith

‘Of all the different types of embroidery produced by the Russian peasant, there is none, perhaps, quite so interesting and so much in sympathy with English tastes as that in which the background of the embroidery is treated by drawing alternate groups of threads, while the pattern itself is left in solid linen or darned in again with a coarse thread of the same colour and texture as the background. It is hardly surprising that the Russians should be able to do this kind of work so well when we remember that the basis of all their embroidery is a hand-woven linen which lends itself so naturally to pulled and drawn work of all kinds. In our own country we have adapted this work to afternoon tea-cloths and all kinds of household linen, for it is hard to find anything in modern English work which looks so well as a strip of Russian drawn-thread work laid across a mahogany chest of drawers or an oak sideboard.’ From: The Embroideress magazine, c.1922

The technique of Russian drawn ground, as it is usually known, was very popular with British needlewomen in the first half of the twentieth century. Examples of it and instructions on the working appear in many embroidery books and magazines published from the twenties to the fifties. Its main characteristic is that the motifs are left unworked and the background is decorated (and so it is often compared with Assisi work, which has the same basis for design, though the stitch techniques are different).

The square or rectangle in which the embroidery is to be worked is first outlined with buttonhole stitch. Heavy chain stitch is then worked to define the edge of the motif, which can either be left plain or can be filled with stitching in geometric shapes following the evenweave fabric. As in Hardanger embroidery, any decorative surface stitching is done before the threads are withdrawn. A drawn thread background is created by cutting and withdrawing the threads in pairs or threes in both directions, in the area between the buttonhole border and the outlined motif. The threads being withdrawn are cut off as close as possible to the stitches of the border and the motif. The resulting grid is then worked over with Russian overcast filling. This may be done using two or more stitches over each bar of the grid to cover the background threads completely, or with just one for a lighter effect. The stitching is done diagonally across the grid, overcastting bars and intersections alternately in steps.


Heavy chain stitch: Work a short straight stitch. Then bring the needle out of the fabric again a little further along the line to be followed. Take the needle under the straight stitch and back into the fabric, making the first chain loop. Work a second loop in the same position by taking the needle through the straight stitch again. Make the subsequent chains, in pairs, by threading the needle underneath the previous pair of loops each time, without picking up any fabric.




Russian overcast filling: The threads in the drawn thread area are overcast with 2 or 3 stitches over the vertical threads, then 1 over the intersection, and 2 or 3 over the horizontal threads, working diagonally down the grid and then back again.




This is the method generally given for Russian drawn ground in recent books on technique. For those who enjoy hand-stitching it is very satisfying to work, particularly the heavy chain stitch, which you might like to include in your stitch vocabulary.

However, it has surprised me to find during my investigations into Russian embroidery that the majority of examples of Russian drawn thread work seen in collections in Russia and in the UK do not use this technique at all. Sometimes the motifs are outlined not by heavy chain stitch but by a much lighter, more random overcasting stitch, which appears to be worked when the thread overcasting the drawn thread grid reaches the edge of the motif. In other examples the motif is clearly not left unworked in the linen fabric, but the whole area of the embroidery is made into a drawn thread grid and the motif is then worked back in, in such close stitching in self-coloured thread that it closely resembles the background fabric itself. The drawn thread grid is overcast, as previously described, and when the area where the motif is to be placed is reached, the working thread weaves across, filling in the grid and thus rebuilding the background and forming the desired design. The weaving stitch is akin to cloth stitch, as used in filet darning.

Favourite designs are curious figures framed by stylised architecture, riders on horseback, double-headed eagles, fan-tailed peacocks and the legendary human-headed Sirin bird which often appears in Russian decorative art, as well as geometric shapes and the universal Tree of Life. The heyday of this work in Russia seems to have been the late 18th century and early 19th centuries.

It is very rewarding to choose an area of study – a single stitch, technique or symbol, perhaps – and see where your investigations lead you. An intriguing sidetrack for me has been to discover how very similar drawn thread work from Russia is to that from Sicily – so much so that pieces in more than one collection I have seen have been attributed to Russia, although they are almost certainly Sicilian. It would be fascinating to try to find out if in the mists of time the two cultures met. Drawn thread pieces from Russia and from Sicily for which the provenance is not in doubt show an identical technique and very similar motifs. Can the parallels really be pure coincidence?



Embroidery magazine, March 1936, Summer 1978

The Embroideress magazine, Issue 1

Peasant Art in Russia, special issue of ‘The Studio’, 1912

L Yefimova & R Belogorskaya, Russian Embroidery & Lace, Thames & Hudson, 1987

Museum of Folk Art, Moscow, Russian Embroidery: Traditional Motifs, Sovetskaya Rossiya, 1900

E Moiseyenko, Russian Embroidery from the Hermitage Collection, Khudozhnik RSFSR Publishers, Leningrad, 1978

Mary Gostelow, Embroidery of All Russia, Mills & Boon, 1977

Moyra McNeill, Drawn Thread Embroidery, Batsford, 1989

Mary Thomas’s Embroidery Book, Hodder & Stoughton, 1936

Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches, new edition by Jan Eaton, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989

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