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Orenburg shawls: a classic of Russian folk art

Gossamer or spider web shawls have been knitted in Orenburg for generations. The tradition nearly disappeared, but folk crafts are in the ascendant again — there is money to be made from them, after all, says Elena Strelnikova

Elena Strelnikova
4 March 2013

Legend has it that Catherine the Great was once presented with an Orenburg shawl.  The Empress was apparently so thrilled with the beauty of it that she ordered a large sum of money to be paid to the Cossack woman who knitted it, so that she should be able to live in comfort all her life. But she also ordered her to be blinded, so that no one else could wear a shawl like the Empress’s.  Happily for the world, however, the woman had a daughter, so the tradition has survived.

A real Orenburg shawl is first and foremost fine, soft and silky. The down hair of our Orenburg goats is reputed to be the finest in the world, at 14-16 micrometres thick. Angora goat (mohair) down by comparison, has a thickness of 22-24 micrometres.  This is a statistic we Orenburgers are very proud of. An Orenburg shawl is also highly ornate. Cossack women don’t like sitting twiddling their fingers and the patterns on the shawls have often been copied from the icy tracery on the windowpanes: cats’ paws, little serrations, spiders’ webs, fir trees, chequers or chains and big raspberry-like shapes. The shawls make fantastic gifts, and have been presented to people such as Catherine Deneuve, Madonna, Sian Young and Fergie, the singer from the Black Eyed Pears.

‘Orenburg goats is the finest in the world – 14-16 micrometres. Angora goat (mohair) down by comparison, has a thickness of 22-24 micrometres.  This is a statistic we Orenburgers are very proud of.’

The shawls have been knitted in the Orenburg Region for 250 years, though the story can be traced right back to  the nomads, or, to be more precise, the Kirghiz-Kaisatskaya i.e. Kazakh Horde. Russian settlers were said to be initially shocked by the resilience shown dzhigits [skilled horsemen] who used to gallop over the boundless frozen steppe in the lightest of clothes. It was later discovered that under their clothes they wore goats’ wool scarves. The horsemen weren’t concerned about the beauty, just the warmth, so these prototype shawls were thick and had no patterns or elegance.

The species of horned goats which roam over the Orenburg Steppe is quite special. The first person who realised the value of their down was Pyotr Ivanovich Rychkov, who carried out research in the Orenburg district.  His wife was the first to introduce to the world the local goats’ down products, and in 1770 she was awarded a gold medal  ‘as a token of gratitude for zeal in collecting down items for the community’. At the 1862 London International Exhibition, a commission of jurors awarded the Orenburg Cossack woman Maria Uskova a medal for her shawls. All the shawls on show at the exhibition were bought up within a matter of hours.

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Orenburg goats are a unique breed producing wool of exquisite quality. Photo: RIA Novosti/S. Lidov

Once I was talking to a shepherd in the Guberlinsky mountains (south Urals). This is an impressive landscape, with mountain ranges covered with a thick carpet of grass and flowers, and is popularly known as ‘Orenburg’s Switzerland’. The shepherd told me with great pride that the goats of these mountains are all-round healers: their wool, their meat and their milk. He told me that a doctor from Volgograd had visited him once, trying to buy a goat. Apparently the milk, if taken with badger fat, could cure his wife of cancer. The shepherd sold him both a goat and the badger fat; he later heard from the doctor that his wife was fine and well.

But our goats are declining in numbers because no one wants to take on this labour-intensive work. There’s not much profit to be had: the goats have to be properly reared, fed and combed. When the craftswoman starts work, she has first to clean the down and then remove unnecessary hairs, all by hand. Then she combs the goat with a fine-toothed steel comb. 

‘The yield from one goat is 300-500 gr, which is about as much as is needed for one shawl.  But no one buys this unique wool at market any more because the retail price is too high and for the farmers to get into the wholesale market they have to double their production.’

Once my grandmother, who lived in the town, let my brother and me do this job, because, as she said, the devil finds work for idle hands.  She lived in a private house, so my brother and I sat in the long grass surrounded by heaps of goat down and, giggling, got down to work.  We thought it was going to be so easy…we managed the first pile quite well and took it to her for checking.  She sent us back to do it again, and then again. My country granny, on the other hand, was far from pleased when she heard about it.  What were you thinking of, allowing children to undertake such serious work?  They probably left bits lying around in the grass and every gramme of down is worth money.

The yield from one goat is 300-500 gr, which is about as much as is needed for one shawl.  But no one buys this unique wool at market any more because the retail price is too high and for the farmers to get into the wholesale market they have to double their production.  Even in the villages, where people have been in the business from time immemorial, not every house has a goat. It’s simpler to buy the down than produce it, though what’s on sale in the bazaar is often not from our goats, but from Volgograd, Altai, Caucasus or Uryupinsk (in the Volgograd Region). These are invariably cheaper and the quality’s not too bad either. Factories don’t use local wool for their knitting any more.

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The production of Orenburg shawls is still a matter of small local enterprise and craftsmanship. Photo: RIA Novosti/Ekaterina Chesnokova

The first knitting factory, which was established in Orenburg at the end of the 1930s, has just celebrated producing its 55-millionth piece. The factory has been extensively modernised over the past ten years. If truth be told, it is a bit of an economic miracle in Russia —  probably the only light industry enterprise which has managed independently to maintain production, with no government orders, and to introduce new equipment which satisfies market requirements. The factory has won prizes in the ‘100 best Russian products’ competition and today manufactures 500 products a year: stoles, gossamer scarves, shawls, and even ponchos. The palette of colours the factory produces very varied, though traditionally the scarves are white or grey.

I myself still wear my white stole with great pleasure. My dream is to have enough free time to learn how to knit a down shawl.  It wouldn’t be a work of art, but it would be made with feeling.

 

 

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