The Orenburg Warm Shawl: When a ‘Gossamer Web’ Becomes a ‘Mink Coat’

Unless you are an aficionado of lace knitting, you probably haven’t heard of Orenburg, Russia. Located on the steppes of the Ural Mountain range, it’s a long way from anywhere and not likely to be on your bucket list. If you are a lace knitter, though, you probably know of the region’s famous lace shawls. These delicate “gossamer webs” are large but fine enough to be drawn through a wedding ring. Handknit from handspun yarn, these lace shawls were the basis of a thriving cottage industry for generations.

This pattern is in Galina’s workshop, courtesy of PieceWork magazine.

The Orenburg “warm shawl” is a lesser-known, sturdier version of traditional Orenburg lace. While not nearly as ornate as their gossamer cousins, these “warm shawls” are far more luxurious. They take a whopping one and a half pounds of cashmere-like fiber from Orenburg goats, and Russian women considered them fuzzy versions of mink coats due to their warmth and expense.

Galina Khmeleva has devoted much of her life to preserving and teaching Orenburg lace knitting, from the history of and techniques for knitting gossamer webs to handspinning yarn for the shawls using traditional Russian methods. Her newest workshop, The Orenburg Warm Shawl, is more than just a how-to-knit-lace tutorial; it’s also a paean to the shawls, the women who knit them, and the land that produced them.

Meet Galina Khmeleva

Orenburg warm shawls are luxurious and utilitarian at the same time. They are knit in garter stitch, so they are less complicated to knit than traditional Orenburg lace. They are also designed for maximum warmth. Knit as a large square, they are meant to be folded and tied around the body (double layer!). The center square often uses simple lace motifs, but just as often uses plain garter stitch (fewer drafty holes!). Galina acknowledges such shawls may be too warm for climates outside Russia, so in the workshop she also teaches a smaller, lighter triangular version that is quicker to knit and uses less yarn.

One of the shawls you can knit in this workshop. Courtesy of PieceWork magazine.

The shawls offer a window into the rural Russian economy. Shawls were expensive exports, and the Soviet government subsidized their production, creating a cottage industry in the region. The small stipend Russian women earned by knitting these shawls could help support a household.

In the workshop, Galina begins most lessons by discussing a cultural aspect of shawl production. The motifs and techniques—several hundred years old—were not written down until the 1990s. Specific elements of the shawls evolved to suit production knitting, while the warm shawl construction itself derived from the heavy weight of the fiber used to knit it.

Watch a preview of The Orenburg Warm Shawl.

In addition to 12 video lessons, The Orenburg Warm Shawl has archival photos, maps, text, and diagrams throughout the workshop. Downloadable materials include lace charts and two patterns for full-sized shawls. By registering for this workshop, you are not only getting fabulous instruction and lots of supporting material, you are also keeping alive a tradition that until recently was passed down only from mother to daughter—and was in danger of disappearing.

The Orenburg Warm Shawl is a new streamable course you can watch at your own pace, anywhere, any time, on any device. Want more bang for you buck? Subscribe to Interweave’s online workshops and tackle new techniques without leaving the house. For $9.99 a month, you can binge-watch to your heart’s content. Knit, crochet, spin, weave . . . hone a craft, or learn a new one. Watch videos from great instructors and access and download plenty of supporting materials like charts, photos, and worksheets. Interact with other students via our chat boards, and post your finished assignments to a shared gallery so others can see your work. We’re adding new workshops every month, so why not sign up today?

Never stop learning,

(Featured Image: Photograph by Nadezda Denisova and courtesy of the Galina Khmeleva.)

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