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Rich variety of Russian handcrafts

Published time: March 23, 2010 07:32
Edited time: March 23, 2010 07:32

Russian handcrafts are known and appreciated all over the world for their rich décor and exquisite materials. Learn more about tender shawls, hand-painted boxes and unique porcelain with RT.

Orenburg shawls

Light, warm and fancy, these shawls have had things wrapped up for more than 200 years. A fashion hit then, they are still all the rage whatever the weather.

The name “Orenburg shawls” comes from the region in the South Urals where they are made. The first to sport them were the Ural horsemen, to brave severe frosts. However, when the Russians settled there in the 18th century and learned to make clothes out of local goats’ down, the shawls became a must-have in any woman's wardrobe.

“The down of Orenburg goats is unique. The region has very hot summers and extremely cold winters. So the goats have developed very thin and soft down. The shawls made of it are especially warm and tender,” exhibition organizer Elena Ivanova told RT.

Orenburg shawls boast a great variety of textures and forms.

“There’s plenty to choose from. The grey thick ones to wrap up for warmth, or the delicate creations, dubbed “cobweb,” to dress up in,” Ivanova said. “You can wear it as a scarf, wrap it around your shoulders or just throw it over one shoulder. It’ll keep you warm, and it looks good too!”

They are also often called “wedding ring shawls” because, although they are quite large, the knitting of a traditional shawl is so fine that it can be pulled through a wedding ring.

It is also said to be a sure way to tell a real made-in-Orenburg shawl (costing up to $500) from a fake.

Lacquer boxes

The next craft tradition developed from icon painting. In the atheistic Soviet times, painters looked for new ways of making a living.

Richly hand-painted, the famous Russian lacquer boxes take their name from the multiple layers of lacquer applied inside and out.

Four Russian villages are known for their lacquer painting, each having its own style: Fedoskino, Kholuy, Mstera, and Palekh.

Roger, a Belgian businessman, fell in love with these chefs d’oeuvres when he first came to Russia 15 years ago. Since then, he’s almost lost count of all the boxes in his collection and he keeps coming back for more.

“In foreign countries I never found something of this quality. I once bough one on EBay and I wasn’t disappointed, but in the end I didn’t get the pleasure that I have here to compare and to look carefully. There you receive the box and that’s all,” Roger Greden told RT.

Gzhel porcelain

Another traditional Russian handcraft, coming from a village near Moscow where the painting tradition runs in the craftsmen’s blood, is called Gzhel.

“I was born here and Gzhel has always been here. It’s what our grandmothers and grandfathers did. In every home everyone knows what Gzhel is, and everyone can work with clay or paint it,” painter Natalya Glazova told RT.

The craft flourished in the area in the 19th century. The technique is relatively simple: white clay is baked, painted and glazed. However, designing world-famous tea and coffee sets, figurines, samovars and other blue-on-white porcelain pieces is much harder than it seems, taking from one to three months to make.

Moreover, in the new commercial era, the craft has faced a big challenge.

“Traditional hand-made craft is nothing like factory mass-production. It doesn’t bring profits. But it’s our cultural heritage that we have to care for and preserve. When foreigners come here and we see their amazed eyes, we understand that we’ve got it right,” Viktor Lavrov, Director General of Russia’s Blue Factory, told RT.