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Knitting Gossamer Webs

Apr 12, 2013

Last November at Interweave Knitting Lab, I saw several genuine Orenburg shawls. They were simply exquisite, and expensive. The one I wanted was $400, and the one I thought I might "settle for" was $250. I didn't end up getting one, but I want you to know that they would have been worth every penny. Next time, I'm going straight to the shawls before I spend a dime on anything else!

Some of the shawls were huge—as large as about 5-feet square, and some were scarf or wrap size. The lace work was superior and the yarn was soft and lofty. Simply lovely and perfect.

The shawls were brought to the USA by Galina Khmeleva from Orenburg Russia, where shawl knitting with yarn spun from goat down (called gossamer), has a rich tradition. Galina is an expert on Orenburg knitting, and she teaches the techniques of Orenburg spinning and knitting throughout the world. Here's a bit about the history of Orenburg knitting.

Orenburg shawls from Galina Khmeleva's collection. (Photograph by Joe Coca)
Knitting in Orenburg

Orenburg shawls always have been the stuff of legend with a very special, very Russian emotional appeal. The origins of down knitting in Russia are shrouded in the mystery that permeates the Russian steppes themselves, a windswept, wide-sky expanse of great distances; of hills and mirror-surface lakes; with the Ural Mountains, blue, floating on the horizon. It is a natural world that dwarfs the small villages dotted across it.

According to a popular legend, the first gossamer shawl was knitted by a Cossack woman and sent to the Russian Czarina, Catherine the Great (1729–1796). The Czarina so loved this unique shawl that she paid the woman more than enough money for the woman to live on for the rest of her life. But, because the Czarina wanted no other woman to ever wear the same shawl, she also had the woman blinded. The Czarina's plan backfired, however, because the woman had a daughter, also an excellent knitter, who could duplicate the design. It is said that all Orenburg shawls originate from this one Cossack family.

Actually, Russian historian and scientist Peter Ritchkov (1712–1777) documented that shawl knitting first arose in the seventeenth century, at a time when Russian Cossacks were consolidating their hold on the steppes and beginning to trade with the local nomadic population. The Cossacks found their fur coats inadequate for the harsh winters, so they borrowed the habit of wearing lightweight but extremely warm handknitted shawls of goat down gleaned by the local population. Orenburg itself was founded by one of Peter I's diplomats in 1735 as a military outpost in an area already known as a center of trade and communication, being at the confluence of eastern silk roads and western thoroughfares, a link between the West and Asia.

During the mid- to late eighteenth century, the down knitting industry experienced a boom. Ritchkov, a member of the Russian Academy of Science, and his wife, Elena Denisievna Ritchkova, who lived in Orenburg for forty years, are generally credited with encouraging the local inhabitants to properly breed and raise the goats for shawl-quality downs and the development of shawl knitting as a viable cottage industry in the region. Passed from generation to generation and first learned by girls as young as five to seven, shawl knitting soon became the most popular form of needlework in the entire Orenburg area. With the help of the Ritchkovs, down knitting was officially registered on the national list of peasant handicraft industries, and thus sanctioned as an official art form by the Russian government.

The beginning of the nineteenth century brought new developments for down knitting. Because the shawls themselves were prohibitively expensive abroad, efforts were made to export the down. In 1827 a French firm imported down from Orenburg to make the beautiful shawls known as "Casha." At the same time, based on information provided by, among others, a soldier, Frederick Barnaby, in his book, A Ride to Khiva, published in 1875 in England, a large English import-export firm had shawls made of Orenburg down that were called "Imitations of Orenburg."

Shawls made abroad of imported Orenburg down still, however, proved too expensive for the market. This led to efforts to export the goats themselves to England, France, South America, and Australia. Ultimately these efforts failed, because once removed from their native climate and food, the goats' down lost its special qualities of softness, strength, thermal conductivity, and suppleness.

Even so, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Orenburg shawls were better known and more widely recognized as an art form outside of Russia, a phenomenon that has persisted to recent times. The finest examples were shown at international exhibitions such as the London Exposition of 1862, in which M. A. Uskova, an Orenburg Cossack, won the gold medal and 125 silver rubles for her six gossamer shawls. Uskova again won a prize in the All-Russian Exhibition in Moscow in 1882, with nine different shawls, both single and multicolored, with geometric and vegetative motifs. Local Orenburg women also received six medals for their shawls at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.

—Carol R. Noble and Galina A. Khmeleva, from September/October 2000 PieceWork magazine

Here's Galina to tell you a little about her new video workshop, Orenburg Knitting: Knitting Gossamer Webs:

Isn't this all fascinating (I love that Galina's cat is part of the video!)? And it's just the tip of the iceberg—to learn more about the history of Orenburg knitting, and to learn how to knit in the Orenburg tradition, get yourself Orenburg Knitting: Knitting Gossamer Webs. You can download it like I did, or pre-order the DVD. It includes an Orenburg lace scarf knitting project as well as an Orenburg lace sampler. It's just amazing.


P.S. What do you think about Orenburg knitting? Share with us in the comments!

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Join Galina Khmeleva in an exploration of the rich tradition of Orenburg lace knitting.


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Join Galina Khmeleva in an exploration of the rich tradition of Orenburg lace knitting.


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marion63 wrote
on Apr 19, 2013 12:45 AM

Please get that book back in print?

julpul wrote
on Apr 13, 2013 9:03 PM

Wow - I actually have one of these shawls, given to me by my Russian mother-in-law a few years ago. I think she bought it from a market, and I doubt she paid a lot for it. She also gave me a hairy shawl - it is knitted but resembles a sift dog coat with lovely curls. There is one in the video. Old women especially wear them, around their heads, or around their waists. It's nice and soft but I don't really know what to do with it. I haven't worn the shawl either. I guess I should wear it around the house in winter, as they do in Russia. Thanks for the history of this. Now I know what it's called, and that it's uniquely Russian.

DavidaK wrote
on Apr 13, 2013 5:08 PM

This was so interesting!  It's been awhile since I read anything so fascinating on KD and I'm not particularly into lace knitting.  I can't wait to see one of these shawls.  Thank you, Kathleen.

jbenknit wrote
on Apr 13, 2013 11:07 AM

Beautiful! This is so inspiring!

BitsyCohen wrote
on Apr 13, 2013 9:03 AM

I took a workshop with Galina over a decade ago and never looked back!  Dozens of lace shawls later (Orenburg style and more), lace knitting is now my passion. I had done some lace prior but it was really Galina that initially inspired me to go further. I can't say enough about her, this is a video that should be a part of any serious lace knitter's library.

syrjamer wrote
on Apr 13, 2013 7:37 AM

OMG, I own one and never knew what it is!  I got mine as a gift from a friend who lived in Russia. Mine has a small hole in it and I have been intending to mend it but the shawl is so intricately made I never had the nerve to try.

Kdrfgg wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 12:40 PM

Several years ago I attended the Sheep and Wool festival in Rhinebeck, NY. There was a vendor selling Orenburg shawls, absolutely gorgeous! I wanted one in the worst way! I am a beginner spinner and marveled at the work. I did not splurge but later did find online a site to buy Orenburg shawl directly from a sort of fair trade type place considerably less... I bough several in different colors and love them . I felt great I got a beautiful shawl and supported local mountain women that make them.

MegC@2 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 10:58 AM

Just a quick additional comment for those with questions about yarn.  The cashmere from Orenburg goats is actually classed here in the US as cashgora, longer, more lustrous, and not quite as fine as fibers classed as cashmere.  There are plenty of yarns that fall into that category.  When Galina teaches, she uses Jaggerspun merino/silk (50/50) Zephyr lace yarn.  In the spinning DVD she illustrates a point with Buffalo Gals bison lace weight yarn.

When I took her class, she had an Orenburg shawl spun out of qiviut.  *gasp*.  You could spot it the second you walked in the room as being unique.  

As for picking up an Orenburg shawl, I encourage it.  Get two.  I believe Galina always has them with her at the NY sheep and wool show in Rhinebeck every October, and I believe also at Estes Park Wool Market in June.  Otherwise, contact her via her website,  

chris@59 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 10:41 AM

Carol H - look further on the order magazine page. Somewhere on it should say download video or have the picture again with an error that you just push to watch the video.

dominique@4 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 10:14 AM

I bought one of this shawls in Russia about three years ago. I absolutely love it! It is so soft, so light and very warm (a least when there is no wind or under a coat). And I am actually able to pull it through my wedding ring! It is an amazing knitting.

CaroleH@13 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 10:03 AM

I gathered from your email that there was a PREVIEW video of Khmeleva telling about her workshop.  It doesn't download.  When I click on the arrow to run it, it goes straight to the site to order the workshop.

MegC@2 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 9:40 AM

I'm delighted to see this DVD becoming available.  Galina's Spinning Gossamer Webs DVD is simply enchanting.  Orenburg lace is my Grail, and I've worked steadily on skills to achieve one.  I've had Galina's class in person, and recommend any knitter interested in lace or traditional knitting in general have these in his or her library.  Can't wait to see the rest of it.  Congratulations to Galina and to Interweave.  And pats to the cat.

on Apr 12, 2013 9:32 AM

I adore Orenburg knitting, and I'm Galina's biggest fangirl! I've done simple patterns on scarves; I've just started my first full shawl, the Pine Tree Palatine.

I enjoy working the edgings, which go very fast once you get used to them, and I put them on everything I knit!

I reread Galina's first book all the time just for the stories. If anybody is worried about materials, she tells you what you can use that is more readily available where you are, and remember that "goat down" is basically what we call "cashmere".

There are no complicated stitches in Orenburg knitting as there are in Niebling lace. It's all garter-stitch based so there's not even any purling! The most difficult stitch you will do is K3tog.

Joleen Knits wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 9:26 AM

Kathleen, Thanks for the comment about the Orenburg shawls. I did the same thing--saw those beautiful works of art, walked away, regretted the decision. A reminder to trust myself in the moment. Have a great day.

on Apr 12, 2013 9:14 AM

Goat down? Now what kind of yarns today use goat down today? I'm completely intrigued. Might be bison expensive (and you know any yarn with bison is truly a luxury yarn). But goat down. Maybe I could add a tiny skein to my collection, but don't expect me to knit gossamer webs. I have hard enough time with knitting worsted weight cotton in a lace pattern. I've got a WIP that i just started and I'm almost ready to toss it out of the window. Had to make too many corrections and I fear more.

on Apr 12, 2013 9:13 AM

How long is this video?

Kidskills wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 8:58 AM

What a passion to discover, pursue and admire...heavenly!

Deb Sims wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 8:55 AM

Absolutely amazing! I cannot imagine knitting one of these beautiful shawls! Worth every penny of $400, go buy one! I would!

Deb Sims wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 8:55 AM

Absolutely amazing! I cannot imagine knitting one of these beautiful shawls! Worth every penny of $400, go buy one! I would!

ehannif wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 8:32 AM

This book looks great!  I'd also love to learn about spinning the yarn for these projects, that's a great companion piece.  I hope to one day have some goats of my own and make everything from start to finish!

chris@59 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 8:19 AM

I would love to have this as a book.  I have done some lace knitting, but nothing as complicated as this.  Dr.  Nancy as long as you can knit and pearl and make a yarn over, you can knit lace. It looks really complicated but you have to take each row at a time and not focus on the whole.

MargeC@2 wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 8:13 AM

Wonderful!!  How about a KAL for this?

Dr. Nancy wrote
on Apr 12, 2013 7:56 AM

I would like to know a little bit more about what I'm getting into before I order .

What equipment do I need?  will I have access to  yarn?  Any special skills required? is it at all like regular knitting?