Orenburg Shawls

Orenburg Shawls
Russian handicrafts go far beyond Matryoshka doll sets. Consider the shawls from the Orenburg oblast, or state; although these are very large in terms of area, they are made with such fine yarn that it’s possible to pass the shawl through the opening of a wedding ring. These beautiful pieces are eponymously named, with the area’s lace tradition becoming an important part of knitting history.

Geographically, the city of Orenburg lies at the confluence of the Ural and Or Rivers, straddling the “border” between Europe and Asia. Not far from the northernmost route of the famed Silk Road, the city was created in 1735 as a defense against encroaching horse tribes from the east. A four-hour flight southeast from Moscow, this is the home of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Orenburg resides on the Eurasian steppe, or Russian prairie; grasslands and low hills make up the geographical region, with pine forests to the north. The climate is classified as temperate, with warm summers and cold winters. While agriculture and heavy industry make up important sectors of the economy, the abundance of grass makes this ideal territory for livestock. Goat herding, in particular the Guberlinskoy breed, has long been associated with this region. The fiber produced by these goats is extremely warm and extremely light. When blended with silk, the resultant yarn is durable, soft, and aesthetically pleasing; at one time, this fiber was considered more luxurious than cashmere.

Generally square in shape, Orenburg shawls are usually knitted on a garter stitch background. Ten lace patterns are associated with the craft, ranging in difficulty from “Diagonals”, “Mouse Prints”, and “Cat’s Paws” (patterned on every other row), to the challenging Honeycomb, which requires lace knitting on both sides of the work. A shawl may be constructed from one or more of these elements, with different patterns used to fill in different parts of the shawl.

Galina Khmeleva, named by Piecework magazine as the “doyenne” of Orenburg knitting, has been associated with the craft since the early nineties. At the time, the folklore and patterns were in danger of extinction. Passed down orally from mother to daughter, the style was fading out due to lack of interest by the younger generation. In order to preserve her knowledge, Khmeleva published Gossamer Webs in 1998, followed by The Design Collection a few years later. Both of these books are still in print and remain the definitive works on the subject.

Disclaimer: I am not associated with any of the people or books discussed in this article. I purchased my copies with my own funds.

Khmeleva, Galina. Gossamer Webs: THe History and Tradition of Orenburg Lace Shawls. Interweave Press, 1998. ISBN: 978-1883010416

ibid. Gossamer Webs: The Design Collection. Interweave Press, 2003. ISBN: 978-1883010874

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