The secrets to Orenburg spinning revealed

Traditional spinning and combing in Russia.

Galina Khmeleva demonstrating traditional Russian combing in her video.

Galina Khmeleva spinning an exquisitely fine yarn on her efficient whorl-less spindle.

What you learn on the way to an eclipse

I went to Mongolia with my husband a few years ago to see a solar eclipse. Well, that took about three minutes. I spent the rest of the time looking for fiber work in the vast expanses of the Altai Mountains and the Gobi Desert. Oh yes, one of our guides would say. I know a lady who spins camel down. I don't know where she lives, though, because she moves her yurt every three months. We lived in felt yurts (or gers, as they call them there), which were remarkably comfortable both in the frigid mountains and the blazing desert. Where did these big pieces of felt come from? I would ask. Oh, somewhere in Ulan Bataar, they would say. But nobody quite knew where.

We visited a family in the desert, a family who enthusiastically shared their camel-milk cheese, yogurt, beer, and vodka. (You have not imbibed until you've tried camel-milk vodka.) A huge bale of cashmere was pushed up against the wall of their yurt, big as two refrigerators, enough to buy a brand-new SUV. Where are the goats that produced all this? We asked. Oh, out there, they indicated with a wave of the hand. All we could see for miles and miles was sand and camels. It was a mystery.

So what does this have to do with spinning in the Orenburg region of Russia? Well, Orenburg is just over a couple of mountain ranges from Mongolia. It's as much Central-Asian as European, and while it's culturally more like the West than Mongolia is, there is that fiber connection. Those goats. The spinning techniques you'd find in Orenburg are very much like those you'd find in Khazakstan or Uzbekistan or Western Mongolia, though the finished products are considerably more refined.

So I jumped at the chance to spend a day in our video studio with Galina Khmeleva, a native of Russia who has embraced the spinning and knitting of Orenburg as her own. What a trip! Galina is a terrific storyteller, and she also understands working with fine down fibers, be they cashmere, cashgora, pygora, bison, yak, or musk ox. I'd never seen anything like the combing device that's used in Orenburg and other regions of Central Asia. Homemade from cobblers' needles set close together in two rows on a wooden frame, it's a superb tool for cleaning out guard hairs and aligning the fibers. Her delicate, perfect rolags are to die for.

I'd also never seen the slender, whorl-less spindles used there or imagined how efficient they would be for spinning an exquisitely fine yarn. Or seen the plying technique she used, though it started out like plying in Peru, by wrapping but not twisting two yarns together. Oh, so much I had never seen before.

I have seen Orenburg shawls, the gossamer type with their delicate cashmere and silk plied yarns. I didn't realize there's a whole other style made of a coarser yarn—a style designed for maximum heat retention in endless frigid winters. I didn't realize that Orenburg spinners ply their cashmere with cotton for those "warm shawls," but with silk for the gossamer ones. I didn't know you could condition your hands with kitchen scraps or ward off moths with orange rinds—oh, the whole session was about "I didn't know that!" It was a huge treat to have this cross-cultural spinning experience, and I'm glad we can share it with you.

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