Origins of the Russian Shawls

THE SEPTEMBER’s  editions of the glossy mags in the North Hemisfere all agree that when planning your autumn wardrobe your first concern should be luxury and that can only mean one thing: cashmere. Possibly the designers’ favourite fabric, soft, silky cashmere is synonymous with status and wealth and has been seducing consumers for centuries.

Cashmere comes from the fleece of the cashmere goat, found in Inner Mongolia, China, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan and the earliest documented usage dates back to the 14th century.

It takes a single goat one year to produce enough cashmere for a scarf.

The fibres, which are longer, smoother and straighter than sheep’s wool, are removed with a comb from under the goat’s chin, then spun into a filament ready to be woven or knitted.

In the late 18th century, cashmere shawls were being exported from Kashmir and India to the West, particularly to Britain, Russia and France.

Woven with a paisley-like traditional design, they were bought by women from the wealthy upper classes, who draped the shawls around their shoulders, keeping themselves stylishly warm as they dressed in the Neo-Classical style of short-sleeved, high-waisted dresses.

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The shawl craze which swept Western Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th c. occurred in Russia too. Shawls became status symbols even before the close of the 18th c. as can be seen in portraits by Borovikovsky, Argunov, and others3 and documented by shawls dated 1790 and 1794 at the State History Museum in Moscow.

The Eastern shawls that were the first fashionable in Russia were rectangular and were imported from Kashmir, Turkey, and Persia.

By 1810 it was apparent that shawls were more than a passing fad, and that huge sums were going to continue being spent for shawls from India. Scarves or stoles of French or English manufacture were being imported, and Russian textile manufacturers were producing shawls domestically.

Shawls soon acquired ceremonial significance, becoming a requisite part of dowries, to be handed down from mother to daughter, sometimes unworn. The influence of the shawl was as pervasive in Russia as elsewhere. A dance called “pas de chale” is mentioned in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.5 The shawl appeared as an essential accessory in

The shawl craze which swept Western Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th c. Occurred in Russia too. Shawls became status symbols even before the close of the 18th c. As can be seen in portraits by Borovikovsky, Argunov, and others3 and documented by shawls dated 1790 and 1794 at the State History Museum in Moscow.

The Eastern shawls that were the first fashionable in Russia were rectangular and were imported from Kashmir, Turkey, and Persia.

By 1810 it was apparent that shawls were more than a passing fad, and that huge sums were going to continue being spent for shawls from India. Scarves or stoles of French or English manufacture were being imported, and Russian textile manufacturers were producing shawls domestically.

Shawls soon acquired ceremonial significance, becoming a requisite part of dowries, to be handed down from mother to daughter, sometimes unworn. The influence of the shawl was as pervasive in Russia as elsewhere. A dance called “pas de chale” is mentioned in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The shawl appeared as an essential accessory in popular prints, folk songs, poems, and contemporary prose.”

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Some insight into the importance of shawls to the Russian aristocracy may be gained from the journal of Lady Londonderry, who traveled to Russia with her husband in 1836- 1837.9 With access to the Russian Imperial family, they were quickly at home and lived like privileged Russians during their visit. Lady Londonderry wrote of her many encounters with shawl merchants in Moscow; for instance: “My first sortie was to some of the Bukhara merchants where I saw piles of magnificent shawls, one finer than the other, of every shade and pattern.10 And: “My whole morning was spent among the shawl merchants who made a positive fair of the anteroom. After seeing hundreds of shawls, I finally bought a magnificent one. The merchants flock every morning with heaps of shawls…” After that, she was visited almost daily by shawl merchants.

Although shawls with Indian and Turkish decoration were popular at the beginning of the century, realistically shaded flowers, which were much more difficult to weave than the flat Indian ornament, became virtually synonymous with Russian double-faced shawl design. These naturalistic floral designs survived the transition from the stoles worn in the teens and twenties, to the square shawls worn during the thirties and into the forties. Their persistent popularity may have been due to an appreciation among the aristocracy for that which was distinctly Russian.

With the Russian shawl placed in social and historical context, what follows is new information on the workshops, their proprietors and the methods of production. The proprietor is the word used by most Russian sources for the estate workshop owners, who may or may not have taken active roles in the management of their factories.

Russian shawl production began in the first years of the 19th century. In 1804, a factory owned by Prince Yusupov began making shawls with silk warps and merino wool or goat fleece weft patterning. The shawls had patterned fields, narrow lengthwise borders, and ends ornamented with bouquets. The factory made kerchiefs with the same designs in pure goat fleece12 The Prince had three shops in which shawls made in his factory were sold.

A factory existed on the estate of the Princes Enikeev. Shawls, scarves, and kerchiefs were woven on small vertical looms with bobbins of the finest angora goat’s fleece and silk warps.

By the number of surviving reports about her, Vera Andreevna Eliseeva was the more prominent of the two female shawl factory owners. We know little about her personally, apart from the fact that she was a Second Lieutenant’s wife and that in 1826 or 1827, she was honored by being presented to the Empress Maria Feodorovna. She presented Nicholas I with one of her best shawls and received a jewel-encrusted cross from him.

Although no shawls with Eliseeva’s mark have been found in museum collections, a swatch survives in Russia, appended to an article about her.15 It is woven in the Indian technique. A shawl in Moscow’s State History Museum is in the style for which Eliseeva was known.16 It is woven in double- interlocked 2/2 twill, but with a range of colors and use of naturalistic flowers to form “boteh” shapes that are quintessentially Russian. Eliseeva’s products might be called genuine imitation Kashmir shawls.

The degree to which the mania for shawls impacted Russia’s balance of trade was taken very seriously: a publisher’s note to an article on Eliseeva explains that more than 2 million rubles worth of foreign shawls per year were imported in both 1825 and 1826.17 On top of this there was smuggling. “If one adds to this secret importation, for which these goods are perfectly suited, then the valuation increases even more significantly. One should also not forget the unfortunate circumstance that since the Asian peoples who bring us the shawls and shawl-fabric kerchiefs have little use for our goods, Russia is required to pay significant sums of gold and silver yearly for their products.”1® Russian data places the annual value of imports for that period at 80 million gold rubles19; with shawls representing 2.5% of imports, no wonder the State encouraged a domestic shawl industry. So the reason for Eliseeva’s acclaim becomes evident: “…if the state spends a huge sum on orders of Turkish and Kashmir shawls, and if these shawls could be prepared to such perfection in Russia, then a significant sum would be saved.”20 Unfortunately, as near as can be determined, Eliseeva’s factory never produced enough shawls to impact the import balance.

Here, then, is the context in which Eliseeva persevered for over five years in attempts to produce Kashmir shawls in her factory. She was the first to perfect the use of the down of Saiga antelopes and Vigon sheep or goats which live in the Siberian steppes.21 Also, during this period she analyzed a genuine Kashmir shawl, setting a precedent for future C.I.E.T.A. technical sessions by unraveling the shawl thread by thread, “and according to the arrangement of the threads she tried to discern the construction a loom had to have to weave this shawl.”22 Numerous looms were constructed and destroyed until in 1813 she finally succeeded, and her “full-fledged” shawl factory was established. Prices were structured based on the delicacy of the thread, the complexity of design and the production time; shawls took from six months to 2-1/2 years to make and cost from 500 to 12,000 rubles.

The shawls produced by the Eliseeva factory in 1827 had “wide borders…with splendid bouquets. Some of these articles have European flowers in their design, but the large majority of them are made with genuine Asian patterns since the latter are purchased more readily by the public.

This is an important distinction between most of Eliseeva’s work and that of Merlina, the other woman proprietor. Because Eliseeva was using the Indian twill tapestry technique, it is logical that she would try to compete for head-on with the Indian designs. The article about Eliseeva tells of Bukharan merchants offering her high prices for her cloth to which they would affix Turkish borders so that the shawls might be sold as genuine Kashmirs. This would only be possible if she were producing fine imitations of the Indian style.

Eliseeva’s factory comprised six buildings: one contained the dye works, pressers and pressing machines, and storage; the building next door to it housed carding and combing machines, spinning machines and storage; another, larger building, housed storage for surplus material and weaving looms; spinning and weaving took place in a rather small shed; nearby, 3 rooms were used for factory work. Whether this arrangement is typical of the landowner’s factories cannot be readily determined.

Eliseeva used only her own capital for this venture. “Moreover, combining her business interests and social benefit, she tries to guarantee the well-being of the serf women used in her factory, which number from 36 to 50 in the summer and up to 100 in the winter. Specifically, in addition to full upkeep, all women receive significant extra pay from her, which in 10 years comes to a decent amount of capital. After 10 years each woman receives full freedom and is issued her money.” Considered an enlightened landowner, Eliseeva also founded a home for weavers who were going blind, an all too common affliction for these young women.

To purchase a fine Merlina shawl, one needed not only to be sufficiently wealthy; but apparently also to be Russian. The Marquis de Caulaincourt, who was the French Ambassador to the Russian Court, made the journey from St. Petersburg to the province of Nizhny Novgorod, specifically to visit the famous Merlina factory.3^ The Marquis was so dazzled by what he had seen that he decided to purchase the most beautiful of the shawls to present to the Empress Marie Louise, despite its 10,000 ruble price.  He was astonished when Madame Merlina, who was a fervent patriot, refused to let one of her most beautiful pieces leave Russia.

Plain weave tapestry was particularly well-suited to shaded floral designs. It was unlikely to yield successful designs in the flat Indian ornamental style, which was dependent on the effects of twill weave. Price was another problem. With costs already so high for a typical bordered double- faced shawl, the estimated cost of a virtually allover- patterned field boggles the mind. Most compelling is the fact that each such shawl would have to take literally several years to produce at a time when fashions in shawl design and color changed by the season. And assuming a design so classically Russian that it transcended seasonal fashions, the severely shrinking market probably would no longer support such an enterprise.

At closer glance, then, it is difficult to agree with Yakunina that “estate production, essentially, could not stand its ground before the growing competition of the significantly more powerful capitalistic factory.” The estate factories which made tapestry-woven shawls were not competing with Russian “capitalistic” factories; rather they were competing with the import luxury market: the most fashionable French jacquard woven shawls and the Indian hand- woven and pieced shawls, which themselves emulated the Jacquard designs. In light of this, although it is not immediately evident, neither is it surprising that the demise of the Russian tapestry-weave shawl workshops predates the abolition of serfdom.

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