Spinning Gossamer Threads on DVD

Unlike sheep, Orenburg goats are never shorn; the fleece is combed manually with a hooked tool once a year when they're ready to shed.

If you've been reading PieceWork for a while, you're probably familiar with the exquisite knitted lace shawls of the Orenburg region of Russia. Galina Khmeleva, coauthor of Gossamer Webs: The History and Techniques of Orenburg Lace Shawls (Interweave,1998) and frequent PieceWork contributor, has been a representative and champion of this important knitting tradition for years, teaching around the country (and around the world), working with traditional knitters in Orenburg to market their shawls and scarves and to bring new patterns to the public.

The shawls are stunning. But did you ever wonder about the raw materials, the yarns that make them possible? Galina has created a wonderful video exploring the traditions and techniques. First, there's the fiber. In Orenburg, it comes from the downy undercoat of cashmere goats. These goats aren't shorn, but rather the fleece is drawn out with a hooked tool at just the right time of year, when they're ready to shed. How can you tell when that magic moment occurs? Galina demonstrates.

The fluffy mass of downy fiber resulting from the combing process is handspun on a slender support spindle that rests in a small bowl. The indigenous fiber is plied with commercial silk thread for durability.



Then the fiber is combed. If you've seen American- and European-style wool combing, this isn't it. The triangular combing device with one set of tines used in Orenburg is unique to Central Asia. It effectively removes all the coarse guard hairs, all the short bits, all the dirt, all the bugs. What's left is an unbelievably fluffy, downy, almost weightless mass ready for spinning.

The spinning is faster and more efficient than you'd think possible, and accomplished on a simple shaped stick that rests in a small bowl. This is not a "drop" spindle! The resulting yarn may have the thickness of as few as fifteen gossamer fibers. It's plied with fine machine-spun silk for strength and durability and then lightly steamed to be ready for knitting. 

Orenburg shawls range in weight, from warm and thick to a very fine gossamer. The time and care invested in Orenburg shawls make them well sought-after, whatever the type.


The charm of spending a couple of hours with Galina via DVD goes far beyond learning how the yarn is made, though. You also learn a great deal about the culture of the farthest southeastern Russian province, the merging of Christian and Muslim cultures, and the place of handknits in the family and the economy. You'll learn that all the care and time invested in an Orenburg shawl, be it the "gossamer" type or the "warm" type, make them as precious and sought-after as fur coats. Galina is a great teacher with a great sense of humor. Even though I got to sit through the entire filming, I've watched the results many times just for the pure fun of it. We're looking forward to a follow-up on Orenburg knitting later this year.