July 2010

What is the Orenburg Lace Shawl?

Orenburg lace shawls are hand knit in the Orenburg region of Russia located in the foothills of Ural Mountains just north of Kazakhstan. They are famous for being so delicate that a large shawl can pass through a wedding ring and fit in a goose egg. Although very fine, these shawls are also famous for being very warm.

Shawls are knitted from a blend of silk and goats’ down. These goats are indigenous to Orenburg area. Their wool is finer than cashmere. Each goat can produce about one pound (450 g) of fiber annually. People of this region found out about the quality of this fiber about 300 years ago and started creating their shawls with the goat fiber. Later, they added silk from nearby Kazakhstan to increase the quality of the shawl and reduce the production price of each shawl. Adding silk helps the shawl to maintain its shape without needing too much blocking. The shawl color depends on the color of the goat itself and varies from white to gray and brown. Nowadays, you might be able to find other colors as they now dye their yarn.

The Orenburg shawls owe their softness to the goats of the region that produce the finest fiber in the world due to very cold winters. When Russians moved to the area they realized that their fur coats were not warm enough to fight the cold whereas the locals were doing fine with their goat skin coats and their thin shawls. The Orenburg goat fiber used to be exported to Europe and the shawls were sought after in Europe before the Iron curtain. In the Soviet era, the shawls were not exported and the shawls fame suffered a decline. But there is a demand for these shawls again.

The knitters in the region do not use written instructions or charts, but they knit by heart. The patterns are mostly geographical using their regional embroidery patterns as a guide. Each village has its own set of patterns that is handed down from generation to generation. A good knitter is able to knit one large shawl or two medium-sized ones in a month. This should give you a sense of how intricate these shawls truly are.

For more information check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orenburg_shawl

And to see a beautiful sample, check out: http://www.heirloom-knitting.co.uk/orenburg/orenburg_shawl.html

Nazanin S. Fard

Needlecraft University

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