Please excuse me for this article currently represents only Russia’s traditions. I intend to expand it’s scope with traditions of other slavic cultures.
***ALL TEXT HERE IS DIRECTLY FROM TRADITIONAL RUSSIAN COSTUME WEBSITE***
For Russian farmers, embroidery had never been “just a decoration”. Contrary, it was thought as a powerful magic tool for shaping reality and for producing Order from Chaos. From magical point of view, to obtain a desirable result in a physical world, a person must set up a supernatural “cause” for it first. Needlepoint patterns worked as such a “cause”.
Russian tradition compared making embroidery with divine power of creating something from nothing. Goddesses and sorceresses of Russian myths (Zorya the Dawn, Vassilissa the Wisest, Maria the Crafter) were described as needlepoint experts. Their works possessed supernatural properties and powers (e.g., they could heal, or work as communication tools).
Needlepoint patterns used by Russian village people were not pictures, but words of a symbolic language. Each pattern had its own meaning; it was possible to compile a certain message using different ornaments. Some Russian dialects even lacked the word “to embroider” – people said “to write” instead.
Of course, the most obvious application of embroidery was decoration of clothes. Russian traditional outfit must include 3-4 embroidered parts: sleeves, hemline, shoulders, or chest (depending on age and gender of a wearer). Each gender and age group was allowed to wear a particular signs, whereas some other symbols were prohibited (e.g., only married women with children might wear so-called lyagushechka – “a pretty frogs”: a stylized image of a woman in a pose of delivery).
An embroidered cloth was “responsible” for health and good luck of a wearer. Decorated bedclothes magically ensured propagation of a whole community. Symbols of fertility, sexual harmony, and childbearing embellished podzory – extra-wide bedsheets used for special occasions (e.g., a wedding night). Patterns for podzory were the most archaic and lifelike – therefore the Church tried to prohibit them (unsuccessfully).