MOSCOW—Since Russia’s “special operation” began in Ukraine, Western brands have been exiting the country rapidly, making it much harder to find cars, furniture, phones, and clothes. But the change has also affected more unexpected businesses. In early March, after PayPal announced shutting down its services in Russia, Etsy suspended Russian shops “due to expanding business restrictions, including multiple payment processors and credit cards ceasing operations in Russia.”
This is how many American fans of cross-stitch—a needle craft in which you stitch tiny X’s over and over to create a design on fabric—discovered that many of their favorite digital pattern designers are from Russia. Cross-stitchers will pay anywhere from about $3 for small, simple patterns to much more for large, complex designs, all of which can be downloaded instantly after purchase. They can also pay large sums for custom designs. After Etsy pulled the plug on Russia, shops with thousands of five-star reviews and large numbers of sales disappeared at once. “Did cross-stitch pattern makers go through a purge or something?” a Reddit user wondered. In a way, yes—and it’s a fascinating example of how even the digital supply chain can be concentrated in one geographic area.
Once online cross-stitchers realized that the change had happened because of Etsy suspending shops in Russia (Etsy didn’t respond to questions about how many exactly have been closed), many began to wonder why so many were based there in the first place. Because of a Russian tradition of textile crafts? Or, as another theory went, because of Russian Etsy users stealing virtual patterns? We spoke to some of the store owners to find out why Russia is so rich in cross-stitch pattern designers—and what it’s been like to have their shops shuttered.
Maria Demina, the owner of the popular LittleRoomInTheAttic store on Etsy, says, “The saddest part is that all the items got hidden, and nobody can see the patterns I have been working on for the last seven years.” Demina connects the popularity of this hobby and variety of digital designs in Russia not with piracy, but national traditions, which were passed through generations. “I still have two shirts that were cross-stitched by my great-great-grandfather,” she said.
Though Russians have been embroidering for centuries, cross-stitch patterns were not originally created there. The tradition was brought to Russia from Europe in the end of 18th century, said Irina Churina, a historian and a lecturer at Saint Petersburg Technical College. According to her, first it was a hobby of aristocrats, who could buy expensive patterns and supplies for cross-stitch, but soon citizens learned how to copy patterns and dye thread, making the craft more affordable. “Empresses and noblewomen in their entourage cross-stitched, as well as nuns and regular women living in cities,” Churina said, adding that toward the end of 19th century, needlework became available to peasants. In Soviet times citizens continued to cross-stitch despite extreme shortage of supplies. “Cross-stitchers dyed thread with tea, iodine, plants’ juices. Issues of Western Burda magazine, where antique patterns were published, were worth its weight in gold,” says Julia Pushkina, a collector, and a researcher of ornamental stitching of 18th and 19th centuries. In the ’90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, cross-stitch boomed in Russia; according to Churina, one reason was interest in the lifestyles of Russian noble class in the past: “A woman with an embroidery frame is a classic image from Russian literature.”
Now there are about 3,000 cross-stitch groups on VK, the most popular social media platform in Russia. The largest of them has almost 200,000 members. Designers, embroidery influencers, and cross-stitchers, many of whom are young people, have recently started to combat the stereotype that needle craft is a hobby of elderly people. They have launched an Instagram campaign under the hashtag #вышиваютнетолькобабушки (“not only grannies embroider”), and about 1 million posts have been published using it. According to experts, there are hundreds of Russian freelance designers, who sell their exclusive patterns online. One reason for the popularity of this profession is the availability of tutorials for pattern makers. Kseniya Adonieva said that she and her colleague Natalia Orekhova have trained more than 800 designers since 2010. Another instructor, Lyobov Vodenikova, who runs her own cross-stitch patterns school, stated that she has had foreigners among her students along with Russians: “Some of them know basic Russian, some use the dictionary. I don’t know any other countries that offer such workshops.”
All of that supports the idea that there were so many cross-stitch shops on Etsy because of Russia’s history. But now, the rest of the world has been cut off from that rich ecosystem of cross-stitch patterns, kits, and training. Olga Lankevich, the founder of ParadiseStitch shop on Etsy, also said that she now feels that the time and money she invested to build her store have been wasted. Another designer, Alyona, who runs Stitchingland shop, told me that her account got blocked even though she has left Russia. “Our store was registered in Russia in 2018, but now we live in Montenegro. Many Russian sellers who are currently located in France and other European countries complained that they were suspended, too,” she said.
But what about the accusations of piracy?
Because patterns are often sold as digital files—pay a few dollars and then you can just download them—they can be easy to pirate. How widespread that is now depends on who you talk to.
According to authors of cross-stich courses, over the past 10 years Russian needleworkers have become more aware of the importance of respecting property rights, and piracy is not an issue anymore. “We pay artists for their illustrations. Most of designers use licensed software. It is hard to find communities now where copies are sold without the consent of the maker. So, everything displayed on Etsy is an honest work,” Adonieva said. Demina said she has never had problems with piracy.
Alyona, however, disagreed, saying that she sells her patterns only in English, and that her clients have been mostly Americans. “I don’t feel safe selling my projects in Russia, because many Russian needlecrafters share patterns online for free, and you can’t ban them from doing this. Meanwhile, Americans care about intellectual property more, are ready to pay and tend to obey the law.” She also added that she tries to create difficult patterns, which are hard to copy.
It is unknown whether and when Etsy and PayPal will work with Russians again. Vendors who have been suspended by the marketplace and live outside of Russia may consider alternative international platforms like Shopify. Those who are based in Russia, though, don’t see any ways to sell their patterns abroad at this moment. (Mastercard, Visa and American Express blocked foreign transactions for Russian banks; Western Union and MoneyGram announced plans to halt their services in Russia.) The growing isolation of Russia will hardly cause crisis in the cross-stitch business in the country and throw it back to Soviet times, given the number of designers and their knowledge. But as many pattern makers have admitted, the lack of cultural exchange and inability to get the feedback from customers internationally has already affected their motivation. “I feel bad for losing connection with people abroad, because it has encouraged me to keep working. It is about stars, comments, messages from users. It is all gone,” said Alyona.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.