History: The Birth of a Textile Legend
Along the fertile banks of the Ural River, located in the Orenburg Region of south central Russia, the southern most steppes of the Ural Mountain range stretch across a seemingly endless expanse of treeless terrain. This terrain doesn’t appear to end until you reach the border of the neighboring republic of Kazakhstan.
The villages that make up this small corner of the Russian Republic, just one of several post-Cold War entities that now comprise what is called the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, give one a sense of going back in time to the late 19th century, a time when picturesque country communities of thatch-roofed houses adorned with shutters of intricate, hand-carved mosaics were commonplace.
The people are warm, friendly and extremely inquisitive. They delight in welcoming strangers into their homes with a sense of dignified hospitality. While enjoying cups of freshly brewed tea, they want to hear of the ‘outside world’, for most villagers will never venture beyond their local borders. In reality, life has changed very little for these simple, but hardworking and proud people.
The Orenburg Region
Once a major stop on the ancient silk route that snaked its way from China to Eastern Europe, the Orenburg Region is still considered the intersection of the boundary dividing Asia and Europe. It is, for the most part, a simple life...on the surface seemingly uncomplicated by the intrusion of the electronic media, post-Cold War politics, and the inevitable enslavement that modern technology leaves in its wake.
Although hardly fitting our modern day definition of cosmopolitan, the talented, creative people that call this region home have perfected a craft literally of which legends are made. For centuries, the ‘women of the steppes’ have been hand knitting exquisite gossamer web shawls from the down of a very special breed of goat indigenous to this area.
As local legend records it, this tradition finds its roots in the 18th century, borne of the desire to end the almost unbearable boredom for the wives of Russian soldiers stationed in this remote section of the expanding Russian empire during the long and bitterly cold winters.
At the time, the Orenburg Region was home to a number of nomadic tribes whose craftsmanship with the locally produced goat down was destined to become the subject of Russian folklore. The soldier’s wives, impressed with both the beauty and warmth of the undergarments made from this fiber, began to perfect the art form themselves.
Orenburg Knitted Lace
Over subsequent generations, the knitting patterns became more intricate, evolving into the legendary spider web designs we see today; shawls so fine that they can easily pass thru a common wedding band, hence the name ‘wedding-ring’ shawl.
Orenburg knitted lace has represented an important part of the Russian character for centuries. For the women of Orenburg, it has meant so much more – a tradition...a legacy...a livelihood that has guided generations from adolescence to adulthood, providing a basic sense of personal achievement and dignity.
The breakup of the former Soviet Union was inevitable, and the enormous disillusionment and economic chaos that resulted, although somewhat surprising in its depth and intensity, was not altogether unexpected. But the unabashed fervor with which so many of Russia’s treasures, particularly her art, found their way to the open market, available to the highest bidder, was beyond comprehension.
For many Russian citizens it represented the loss of a piece of their soul as they bore witness to the savage rape of much traditional Russian heritage for motives of profit and personal gain. For sure, the Orenburg lace knitting industry could not escape the turmoil that followed in the wake of glaznost and perestroika.
Lace Lives On
The success of this once-thriving cottage industry had depended largely on its modest government subsidy, and the termination of this meager funding ultimately caused the Orenburg lace cooperative, or Kombinat, to close its doors permanently in 1995, effectively rendering the industry obsolete. With no resources, guidance or market strategies available to them, many knitters were forced to abandon their only source of income, most often the families’ sole income vehicle.
As difficult as it was to accept, an art form was literally on the verge of extinction. But with Galina Khmeleva’s tenacity, dedication and focus, today Orenburg knitted lace is in the midst of an unprecedented renaissance, highlighted most recently by the remarkable resurrection of the Orenburg Kombinat Knitted Lace Cooperative, nearly ten years to the day that this Soviet-Era casualty of the Cold War met its demise.