Delicate sheer shawls have been made in the region of Orenburg, southwest Russia, for centuries.

Highly sought after handmade Orenburg shawls from Russia. August 21, 2020.
Highly sought after handmade Orenburg shawls from Russia. August 21, 2020. (AP Video screenshot / AP)

Handmade Orenburg shawls have been highly sought after in Russia and across the world.

But local artisans now fear that an increase in mass, machine-produced garments could destroy the traditional methods of Orenburg knitting.   

Delicate sheer shawls have been made in the region of Orenburg, southwest Russia, for centuries.

A combination of silk and down yarn from goats, Orenburg shawls are known for their fine knit.

"Everybody (in my family) knitted. My mother, my grandmother, my grandmother's sister all (would knit) outside when we were growing up," says Rosa Gumerova.

Some of her earliest memories were at her home during the summer, watching her relatives knit in the garden.

"Women would come to the yard in the summer. A woman would come outside, throw an old jacket on the ground and sit in the shade. Other women would join her sitting in a circle to knit. I absorbed all of this in my childhood," she says.

A symbol of Russian handicraft, the shawls were first produced in the 18th century by Cossack women.

Museum of Downy Shawl

At the Museum of Downy Shawl in Orenburg, an exhibit is dedicated to the knitted craft and its history.

"The Orenburg downy shawl has a very rich history, it is almost 300-years- old," explains historian Irina Bushukhina.

"That's why everything about the shawl is ours, our Orenburg, and we will always be proud of it and promote it."

"It was a craft that helped Cossack women survive and work. In 1914, the first cooperative was setup in our Cossack village. About 60 percent of its workers were widows of Cossacks. (They were) young, around 33-years-old, but nonetheless it was their livelihood."

According to museum worker Nadezhda Savlova, the knit of good Orenburg shawl needs to be so fine that it can be pulled through a wedding ring.

"If a shawl couldn't be pulled through the ring of a certain size, it was considered lower quality," she says.

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Factories shuttered after fall of USSR

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, many factories were closed, unable to compete with the international textile trade.

"(The factories) closed in the early 90s, around 1992. All of our manufacturers went bankrupt and closed down," explains Gumerova.

"There was a plant called the Orenburg Downy Shawls Plant, which had in total 35 factories in 23 areas (of the Orenburg region)."

Since then, some old factories have sprung up again, reviving production of the shawls.

Prized across Russia and the world, the industry continues to be a source of employment for many local women.

A dying craft

"This is still mostly handwork, and everything depends on the person, on me. I make sure I do everything carefully. I need to make sure the machine works well and that the speed is right," explains Maria Haybullina, who works at Orenburg's downy shawl factory.

But Haybullina adds that she's concerned the traditional way of producing the shawls may be forgotten – younger generations are reluctant to carry on the trade and there's stiff competition from mass-produced, machine-made shawls.

She also says shawls are sometimes falsely advertised as Orenburg in other regions of Russia, which also dilutes the traditional trade.

They do use machines, but Haybullina says the shawls are still mostly handmade.

The demand for local handicrafts remains high in Russia, so for now, the old Cossack tradition continues to flourish.

"(I bought the shawl for) my relatives, because it's thin, elegant, and nobody else has it. It's very beautiful, weightless and light, I really like it," says shopper Irina Ivanova.

It's perhaps the exclusivity of the Orenburg shawl that will keep it alive. The price for a small, handmade shawl starts at around $150.

Source: AP