Knitting Gossamer Webs

Last November at Interweave Knitting Lab, I saw several genuine Orenburg shawls. They were simply exquisite, and expensive. The one I wanted was $400, and the one I thought I might "settle for" was $250. I didn't end up getting one, but I want you to know that they would have been worth every penny. Next time, I'm going straight to the shawls before I spend a dime on anything else!

Some of the shawls were huge—as large as about 5-feet square, and some were scarf or wrap size. The lace work was superior and the yarn was soft and lofty. Simply lovely and perfect.

The shawls were brought to the USA by Galina Khmeleva from Orenburg Russia, where shawl knitting with yarn spun from goat down (called gossamer), has a rich tradition. Galina is an expert on Orenburg knitting, and she teaches the techniques of Orenburg spinning and knitting throughout the world. Here's a bit about the history of Orenburg knitting.

Orenburg shawls from Galina Khmeleva's collection. (Photograph by Joe Coca)

Knitting in Orenburg

Orenburg shawls always have been the stuff of legend with a very special, very Russian emotional appeal. The origins of down knitting in Russia are shrouded in the mystery that permeates the Russian steppes themselves, a windswept, wide-sky expanse of great distances; of hills and mirror-surface lakes; with the Ural Mountains, blue, floating on the horizon. It is a natural world that dwarfs the small villages dotted across it.

According to a popular legend, the first gossamer shawl was knitted by a Cossack woman and sent to the Russian Czarina, Catherine the Great (1729–1796). The Czarina so loved this unique shawl that she paid the woman more than enough money for the woman to live on for the rest of her life. But, because the Czarina wanted no other woman to ever wear the same shawl, she also had the woman blinded. The Czarina's plan backfired, however, because the woman had a daughter, also an excellent knitter, who could duplicate the design. It is said that all Orenburg shawls originate from this one Cossack family.

Actually, Russian historian and scientist Peter Ritchkov (1712–1777) documented that shawl knitting first arose in the seventeenth century, at a time when Russian Cossacks were consolidating their hold on the steppes and beginning to trade with the local nomadic population. The Cossacks found their fur coats inadequate for the harsh winters, so they borrowed the habit of wearing lightweight but extremely warm handknitted shawls of goat down gleaned by the local population. Orenburg itself was founded by one of Peter I's diplomats in 1735 as a military outpost in an area already known as a center of trade and communication, being at the confluence of eastern silk roads and western thoroughfares, a link between the West and Asia.

During the mid- to late eighteenth century, the down knitting industry experienced a boom. Ritchkov, a member of the Russian Academy of Science, and his wife, Elena Denisievna Ritchkova, who lived in Orenburg for forty years, are generally credited with encouraging the local inhabitants to properly breed and raise the goats for shawl-quality downs and the development of shawl knitting as a viable cottage industry in the region. Passed from generation to generation and first learned by girls as young as five to seven, shawl knitting soon became the most popular form of needlework in the entire Orenburg area. With the help of the Ritchkovs, down knitting was officially registered on the national list of peasant handicraft industries, and thus sanctioned as an official art form by the Russian government.

The beginning of the nineteenth century brought new developments for down knitting. Because the shawls themselves were prohibitively expensive abroad, efforts were made to export the down. In 1827 a French firm imported down from Orenburg to make the beautiful shawls known as "Casha." At the same time, based on information provided by, among others, a soldier, Frederick Barnaby, in his book, A Ride to Khiva, published in 1875 in England, a large English import-export firm had shawls made of Orenburg down that were called "Imitations of Orenburg."

Shawls made abroad of imported Orenburg down still, however, proved too expensive for the market. This led to efforts to export the goats themselves to England, France, South America, and Australia. Ultimately these efforts failed, because once removed from their native climate and food, the goats' down lost its special qualities of softness, strength, thermal conductivity, and suppleness.

Even so, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Orenburg shawls were better known and more widely recognized as an art form outside of Russia, a phenomenon that has persisted to recent times. The finest examples were shown at international exhibitions such as the London Exposition of 1862, in which M. A. Uskova, an Orenburg Cossack, won the gold medal and 125 silver rubles for her six gossamer shawls. Uskova again won a prize in the All-Russian Exhibition in Moscow in 1882, with nine different shawls, both single and multicolored, with geometric and vegetative motifs. Local Orenburg women also received six medals for their shawls at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.

—Carol R. Noble and Galina A. Khmeleva, from September/October 2000 PieceWork magazine

Here's Galina to tell you a little about her new video workshop, Orenburg Knitting: Knitting Gossamer Webs:

Isn't this all fascinating (I love that Galina's cat is part of the video!)? And it's just the tip of the iceberg—to learn more about the history of Orenburg knitting, and to learn how to knit in the Orenburg tradition, get yourself Orenburg Knitting: Knitting Gossamer Webs. You can download it like I did, or pre-order the DVD. It includes an Orenburg lace scarf knitting project as well as an Orenburg lace sampler. It's just amazing.


P.S. What do you think about Orenburg knitting? Share with us in the comments!

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