The embroidery of Eastern Europe and the Balkans is characterised by a predominance of red stitching with goldwork highlights on a ground of bleached or natural open-weave linen. The fabric is still the most popular ground in the region today. Flax is cultivated in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, eastern Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia and inland Romania. There is some silk farming in western Croatia and Bulgaria and cotton is grown extensively in southern Macedonia, but neither is much used in embroidery.
In the past some embroidery was worked with natural-coloured linen thread on a ground of the same colour linen, often woven by the embroiderers themselves. When natural dye stuffs became available, red was obtained from the florets of madder or the dried bodies of Kermes insects from Mediterranean areas. Yellow was obtained from dried weld or onion peel, blue from woad plants, and black from oak or alder bark,
Embroidery was largely worked by women. They were home-taught, though those living in Christian areas usually received instruction from the convents. Unlike their western European counterparts, they did not practice on samplers. Men did occasionally embroider, producing the wool work of Carpathia, the leather work of the Magyars of Hungary and the costume decoration of the Ghegs and Tosks of Albania.
The stitch most frequently used in Eastern European embroidery is the cross stitch. There are many varieties, including ordinary diagonal cross stitch and long-legged cross stitch. In Hungary particularly, vertical cross stitches are worked on a trellis of laid threads, whereas in Montenegro an exaggeratedly long-legged cross stitch is employed. Other forms include needle or tamboured chain stitch, festoon stitch, slanting Slav stitch, flat or padded satin stitch and needle weaving. Drawn work was practised to a small degree in the Carpathian Mountains and in Croatia, and cut work was particularly associated with Czechoslovakia. Appliqué was found in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. White work was executed in Krakow, Croatia and Wallachia: black work embroidery associated primarily with Bohemia, Montenegro and Transylvania. Metal thread and goldwork embroidery was used extensively throughout the region, and drew heavily on the Islamic and Turkish influences of the area. Today, however, metal thread and goldwork embroidery is only practised in Silesia, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania.
Eastern European embroidery is often worked in band form, in narrow borders of repeating motifs. These are extensively used to decorate the edges of household pieces like towels and table linens. Goldwork embroidery is still used in some areas for costume decoration, mainly embellishing women’s scarves and caps, blouses, petticoats and aprons. Occasionally it’s used to decorate men’s shirts and trousers. Colours often had particular meanings in different areas. Bright red, for instance, signified innocence and contentment with life in Croatia and Serbia, but was only thought to be a suitable colour for younger women in Silesia: older women tended to wear more sombre coloured dresses, although these were often embroidered decoratively with silver or goldwork thread.