Decorative embroidery stitches

Embroidered decoration on Bulgarian folk costumes was worked using homespun woollen, silk or later cotton thread, in predominantly red, with black, blue, green or yellow, and occasionally gold thread. The richest embroidery was worn in the north, northwest and south west, with the patterns and colour thread used, and extent of the decoration being linked to the wearers marital status and age. In the north the embroidery became darker from the west, where red predominated, towards the east where the main colour was dark brown or black. In the south west dense red and dark red thread was used.

Stitches were worked along the edges of the fabric, for joining seams, and for decoration, making linear, plant or geometric motifs.

Techniques used

  • Stitches worked across counted threads making geometric designs.
  • Free form embroidery, following a pattern outlined on the material. This style of embroidery only appeared in the first half of the 20th century.
  • Stitches tightening or drawing the woven threads (drawn thread work).
  • Smocking

Motifs made by using counted thread

Counted thread designs were known to have existed from earliest times. This form of embroidery was mainly worked on course weave hemp or linen fabric making geometric designs representing stylised animal, birds, people, or plants. The colours used were considered to have magical properties, for example red gave protective qualities. Counted thread embroidery worked on woollen fabric was done by shaving off the nap of the woollen cloth first using a knife or piece of glass.

Embroidery Stitches Bulgarian name
(English name)
Description (region found)
(Running Stitch) The simplest and most important stitch. It forms the basis of many other functional and decorative stitches.
(Back Stitch) Used for joining 2 piece of cloth, and as an ornamental stitch to outline motifs. It was worked in a horizontal line from left to right.
(Hem stitch) This stitch can be used either as a functional or a decorative stitch, or as the basis for making other stitches. It also can be used with drawn thread work along the edge of the ‘gap’ after the threads have been removed. It is only worked in white thread.
(Straight stitch) Basic stitch used for outlining or edging certain embroidered motifs. Straight stitch is a double running stitch which can be used to make straight lines, zigzags or wavy lines. It is worked by making a row of running stitchs from left to right, then returning from right to left filling in the gaps.
  Tsepen bod (Split stitch)


This stitch is considered to be characteristic of Slav people. It imitates the decorative weaves of kussane and brane. Each stitch is worked straight across the fabric with the thread moving in two directions across the entire width of the surface, with the stitches usually set parallel to the weft threads. It is mainly used to decorate chemise sleeves around Kula, Vidin, Belogradchik, Pleven and Lovech, and for shirt and chemise sleeves and neck edges around Trun, Tetven, and Troyan.
Purteno krusche
Oblique stitch
This is worked on the wrong side of fabric, so it gives straight stitches on wrong side, and slanting stitches on right side. It is used on the hem and side slits of white manofili (festive or summer sukman) in the west around Sofia, Trun, and Pernik. and on the sleeves of old alavitsi (womens chemises) from Trun,
krustche (Cross stitch) Cross stitch is made with 2 straight stitches crossing obliquely. It is usually worked over 2, 3, or 4 threads. Cross stitch is the basis of geometrical motifs and the most widespread embroidery stitch found in Bulgaria.
  Polovin krustche

(half cross stitch)

Stitch made using a row of single oblique straight stitches.
  Polegat bod (slanting stitch)  


  Koumanian(horizontal and inclined cross),  
Chain stitch Chain stitch is made by forming a loop of thread and passing the needle through the top of the loop. It is used mainly as filling between other stitches as it can follow a curved design.


Specific motifs

Motifs made of a number of stitches arranged in a specific way were given names, some showing how long they took to work:

  • Godlinak – the year long
  • Messetsite – the months

Around Sofia, the embroidery patterns on the sleeves of women’s chemises were called chorapechka, chorapana, or kouka chorapechka (the name deriving from ciorap meaning stocking)

Around Samokov the embroidery was often worked from the wrong side of fabric, using up to 24 different stitches. White strips of embroidery were worked on the collars and sleeves of women chemises from Sofia, Belene, Ihtiman, and Svistov.

In the northeast, dark embroidery on costumes worn by the kapanci was considered to have originated from the Proto-Bulgar people.

Non-geometric embroidery

Non geometric motifs were based on a fixed pattern drawn onto a piece of paper which was used as a transfer. These patterns were worked using a variety of stitches, including satin stitch, knot stitch, stem stitch and hem stitch to both outline and fill the motifs. Non geometric embroidery was found on women’s chemises in Samokov and Stanke Dimtrovo, on sukman in Ihtiman and Pazardjik regions, and from 1920s-1930s on the hems and around the necklines of litatsi (a form of sukman) from around Gabrovo and Tarnovo.

Open work

Openwork, where the weft threads were either cut or drawn out and the stitches were made on the “drawn threads” of the warp was widely used. This form of decoration was found on sokai headscarves (worn with a metal headband) in Gabrovo and Tarnovo regions. Sokai motifs were made of drawn thread with free form openwork with rounded outlines decorated in gold thread. This style of embroidery was thought to have a Slav origin.

Open work made by firmly tightening an equal number of threads, held in a small square, was also used on the ruchenitsi (headscarves worn in the Smolyan district) and on messali (scarves) worn around Provadia, Varna and Pomorie.

A variant of the openwork stitch called izkidach was used on chemises from the Sofia region. Oopenwork strips worked in white and black thread which formed tiny squares were found on white summer sukman and the hems of women’s chemises in Strandzha region.


Smocking was used on the front and back yokes of burchanka style chemises found in northern Bulgaria. The fine homespun linen or cotton cloth was pleated into narrow pleats using 2-4 threads for each pleat, which were held in place using straight stitches perpendicular to the pleats to form geometrical motifs.

Bulgarian history of costume decoration

  Greek writers say Thracian women, especially those from the Phrygian tribe, were famous for their skills in weaving and decorating fabrics made of flax and hemp. (Herodotus)
1st Bulgarian Kingdom Kapanski embroidery of Razgrad was considered to be Proto-Bulgar
14th C Portraits in the church in the village of Kalotino, show embroidery patterns
1493 Portrait at Kremiklovtsi monastery shows motifs similar to those found around Sofia,
15-19th C Diaries of travellers refer to the embroideries on Bulgarian costume
1533 In Sofia region ‘women, men and children wore garments and chemises embroidered in silk […] they wore chemises made of linen cloth, but decorated with varied brightly coloured stitching’ (Traveller’s account)
1591 ‘The maidens and young matrons of the region around Ihtimanm dressed in white chemises made of thick cloth but decorated along the edges with silks of all coloured (Traveller’s account)
Ottoman period to 1878 Bulgarian costumes still decorated while under Ottoman rule
Published on 7th June 2018