Crafts of Russia: wedding ring shawls of Orenburg

Orenburg shawls are one of the world famous symbols of Russia. These lacy hand-knitted pieces of art are beautiful, warm and so light, fine and delicate that can be pulled through a wedding ring. They are so loved in Russia that there is even a song dedicated to this piece of clothing.

Tonight, when there's frost and there's blizzard
When the snow storm is roaming the road
Will you cover my shoulders, sweet darling,
With an Orenburg downy shawl.

The story of the Orenburg shawl started in the second half of the 18th century, when two older crafts were joined together. One of the predecessors of the fluffy shawl with its cobweb pattern was the thermal Kalmyk or Cossack shawl, which was worn under light clothing in fierce frosts, and knitted in plain stitch from the softest goat's fleece. The other was the fine lace shawls made by Ural Cossack women.

The knitter's skill and the quality of the fluff are two important components of the traditional Orenburg shawl. It is the icy wind and the dry air of the Orenburg steppes that facilitates the growth of a soft thick lining under the goat's coats which is combed out in February and March. This down hair is the thinnest in the world – 16-18 micrometer. And it is for this reason that the industry could not be developed anywhere else. And you can't say that attempts have not been made to breed this capricious strain of goats elsewhere, the first one as long ago as in 1818, when a vast herd of 1300 goats was brought to Marseilles. But no matter where they tried to graze these unique Orenburg goats - in France, England or America - after a few seasons they turned into ordinary coarse-haired goats and lost their fluffy linings forever. In the whole world the Orenburg goat has only one rival - the wild Tibetan Kashmir goat.

The process of creating a shawl starts with removing all the hairs and bits from the fluff. It is quite laborious and tedious work pulling out all the seeds and grass stuck in the fluff. And it has to be done only by hand. Then the fluff has to be carded by running it several times through the two rows of sharp needle-length steel teeth of the wooden comb. After washing and drying the shapeless ball of fluff is gradually spun into very fine even thread. This requires much experience. Now the yarn is ready to be knitted.

The art of Orenburg knitting is taught from early childhood and passed on from mother to daughter through generations and each master has her own secrets and patterns. One shawl takes at least a week to knit and then it has to be carefully washed and dried on a special frame.
Traditional Orenburg shawls are made entirely of goat fiber but blends of fiber and silk are also available nowadays. Such shawls are cheaper. Also the price depends on the complexity of the pattern and on the size of the shawl. But you should realize that even the smallest shawls with the simplest patterns just can't be cheap considering that they are hand-knitted and made of material that is specific to this region only. There are also other products that are knitted today in Orenburg in traditional style: sleeveless jackets, ponchos and sweaters.

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