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Monday, April 15, 2013

A Russian shawl description in American magazine

At times there are things lost in translation. At times there are methods of construction and logic lost in translation. I'm came across of one of such cases recently regarding Russian warm shawl method of construction from Orenburg region, Russia.
There are several regional ways.
I'll point 2 most common:

Way of Orenburg warm shawl: lace shawl borer, wide border, solid or lace center.
These shawls are constructed in several pieces and grafted at the end. Why? The weight, the size, the straight needles, the health of the knitter are taken into the account. The center (body) is done first, then 4 wide borders then 'obvyazka' - the connection piece attached to the center, and then all is grafted together.

Way of Rostov, Volograd and several other middle of the Russia regions that make shawl from goat down:
The shawl is also knit in parts starting from 2 borders outer corner and then knit up. the size of these is less at it's maximum compared to the largest shawls of Orenburg and they also may have less lace in them, most of the lace is in the border.

Now, in the latest Interweave's Piecework magazine  May-June issue I discovered an article "An Orenburg Warm Shawl to Knit" and the pattern to go with it. That one did catch my attention as the Orenburg warm shawls is one of my most favorite things to knit. And it was a family thing, and many of my friends knit these for themselves and for living.
The way how the Orenburg shawl is constructed did not change for a very long time. This particular article has several significant differences between how it's suggested to make one of these and how the locals do it for a very long time in Orenburg region. I'd say the article's way I did not see in any of the regions in Russia where a shawl came from and I've collected a good amount for myself or friends or family (they love warm shawls... very practical and very pretty item).

Let's review the way how it's constructed in the Piecework article.
Lost in translation N1: "Notes: All four borders are two-segment borders. The first
segment is worked as a straight piece. ­e second segment is picked
up perpendicular along the ‑rst segment. Slip the ‑rst stitch of each
row (unless binding o) purlwise with yarn in front. Join all four
borders together with right side facing you so that all teeth will
face in the same direction."

Let's talk about that. When someone knits a warm shawl in Orenburg region they start with the body first. the body is done with lace or without. Then they make 4 lace borders. The needles are straight, so the knitter does it this way for speed and o prevent repetitive hands injury: large heavy knit pieces worked 8 and more hours a day are less beneficial. Then they put the wide border again the body and see if they need a join piece due to the design or any other reason. If the body and the wide border knit without a written pattern match, the whole thing is grafted, it's done and washed and blocked. If there is a need to adjust, the 'obvyaska' comes into place, it's called this way because the knitter "obvyazyvaet" (knits around the body) the body. the Obvyaska is attached to the body of the shawl, not to the wide border. It makes no sense to do some extra something on the side of the wide border if one could knit it all as one piece to begin with. it' not the most preferred thing to attach stuff on the left side of the work among right handed knitters. And many do not like to attach something to the narrowest side of the wide border.
The wide borders are not bone in segments in Orenburg region. That's a thing N1 lost in translation between the Russian way of doing this and English description in an American magazine.

Lost in translation N2:
"With separate needles and RS facing, pick up 66 sts
total (51 sts along Section 1 and 15 sts along Section 2)
along diagonal edges of each border. Gra­ sts tog using
Russian gra­ing method, beg at Section 2 and working
toward the outer (CO and BO) edge of Section 1. Secure
last st with safety pin. Tie tog the ends of the CO and BO
and sew tog gap that is created. Use same ends to secure
last gra­ing st that is on the safety pin."

So what is described here is joining 2 corners of 2 wide borders. 2 things are lost in the translation. First is the type of the yarn. It's a lace weight yarn, worsted yarn or semi-worsted in English spinner's vocabulary. This yarn has little to no bounce back. The second is the type of grafting that works together with the yarn. Like many things in folk art the hand spun yarn and the shawl pattern work together in the piece, they are never apart. Plug and play methodology does not always work. Things get lost in translation.
Let’s review what happens when one picks up the stitches from the side and does Russian grafting the seam starts to get tighter and will get rather tight when blocked. It roots in physics. The yarn tension of Russian grafting will increase because the stitches are positioned as X, hypotenuse is longest side of a triangle, they yarn has no give, it does create more tension and tighter seam. What one ends up with if a shawl where corner grafting is tight, the lace is more relaxed and the body-wide border grafted join is also tight. Russian granny avoids this unfortunate event (as the shawl itself will have not a good shape with wear, no returning customer means no good).  They do either of 2 things:

Grafting with yarn. this produces less tight grafting. and this way is not described in the article I'm referencing, but is described in several other sources in Russian for example. the grafting in a way resembles what Western knitter knows as Kitchener stitch. It's is not exactly the same, just similar.

Graft with yarn and create live stitches on the sides. So the Russian grafting (also known as grafting without yarn locally) does not create too tight seam. A granny would “knit” the edge versus picking up the live stitches. One that made the edge looser intentionally would not do that, because she did allow for ‘hypotenuse’ extra length not even thinking about all the math.

Closer the lace in the wide border and in the body comes to the grafting, more attention one would pay to the grafted seam itself, so that shawl has good shape with wear.
Does the shawl pictured in the article have a tight grafting seam? It does, even being made of Mongolian cashmere which has good amount more give and drape when compared to Orenburg hand spun yarns plied with silk or cotton.

Lost in translation N3:
This one is more lost in translation than other 2 if I may put it this way.
Note: To join side stitches to body, knit the last body
stitch together with the next side stitch and return stitch
to le -hand needle, turn.
There are 179 sts each on bottom borders and each
side border. Transfer bottom border sts to cir needle and
each side border sts to separate cir needles. With RS facing,
join yarn to right edge of bottom border sts. Work
Rows 1–34 of Body Chart, then rep Rows 11–34 thirteen
more times, then work Rows 35–46, joining body to sides
with k2tog at end of every row—179 sts rem; all side sts
joined to body.
Join top border with live sts from body


This one is the most interesting, because I've never seen anyone do this or a shawl that was done this way... when body is knit and attached at the same time to the sides (wide borders). Normally a folk knitter makes the body as one piece.
here is the chart and the symbols used in the article to illustrate what am I talking about

  Why would one knit first wide border, then knit on the inner side of it 'obvyaska', make all of these and then knit the body together with 3 sides is quite a bit puzzling for me. For 2 reasons: it's heavier about 3 times than making just the body alone. It's a lot slower.
Now let's think how one would do 2.5-3m wide warm what this way? one has say 1m wide border or 60cm wide border on each side (think 60x2.5m trapezium) hanging on the sides of straight needles and pulling. Does it sound bulky? Does it sound heavy? Why would one not make an entire shawl bottom up if they go into all that knitting together trouble in the first place?
Orenburg knitters have the sequence somewhat wise versa to what is described in the article. The Orenburg way got lost in translation.
Orenburg granny or a younger knitter makes the body first. Its straight needles. Then 1 wide border is made and put next to the body to see if this works (for a new shawl design) or all 4 are made if it's knit in the zone. Then obvyaska is knit to the body if this is necessary. Then the wide borders are grafted to the body like so: 2 wide borders are grafted to top and bottom of the body with obvyazka. Then 2 other borders are grafted in corners and to the sides of the body in the sequence: outer corner towards the body, along side of the body and obvyazka, next corner is grafted from inside corner towards outside corner. 

Main thing lost in translation is the outlook of a Russian knitter, I mean back home things are not made to be very complicated in lace. The method of construction of a small warm shawl 80cm-1m square made by a 7y old child is just the same her mother or granny makes  in 1.5-3meters square range. The way 15cm wide border is done is the same way 1m wide lace border is done for a museum or competition shawl. No one teaches children differently than adults, it makes no sense to have one way of making a small shawl and another of making a big one. Things are a lot simpler than they are presented to English speaking knitters in some magazines and articles. It is a simple in it's core lace and it's logical and pragmatic outlook that did grow into an art form admired by many.
I can see the magazine trying to save on the page space, one could cut one page of chit-chat and story from the beginning of the article to put a wider chart in here and describe the method of construction that is common for the region, the article title is “An Orenburg Warm Shawl to Knit”, it only seems logical to describe the way how it's done in Orenburg versus inventing the own plug and play way...

PS: here is the illustration how a tight grafting looks like
this seam is at the blocking limit tight, the rest if the lace around it is not. I stepped on that one with cashmere myself. Orenburg hand spun yarns are less forgiving than cashmere. If the lace does not bounce back relaxed to the length of the blocked seam, this can be a trouble an lead to the loss of shape of the shawl as one wears it. In Russian this side effect is called "платок ведет", "полотно повело", "платок вспучился", "платок отвис", "середка отвисла", "кайму повело". 


  1. Lily, thank you so much for taking time to write this post.

    I firmly believe that in folk traditions there is no place for inefficient ways to do things.
    Orenburg lace knitting is an example of folk art on it's best. The designs are breathtaking, the use of local resources is very efficient and the techniques were polished by generations of people practicing this art all their lives.

    Yars ago I took a workshop with the author of the design in question and the technique presented in the workshop was the same as described now in Piecework magazine issue, with the only difference - borders were made each in one piece. Back then I thought that the construction method as presented in the workshop was a little strange, but I kept my doubts to myself. Now I'm even more surprised with 2-segment construction of the borders - it's additional work and additional seams; and in lace knitting one does everything to avoid unnecessary seams.

    The construction technique as presented by Lily makes perfect sense and allows for afterthought adjustments. And Lily knows better, she grew up in Orenburg and Orenburg lace knitting is her heritage.

    I wish editors of Piecework would take note of this blog. It'll help them to avoid embarassing mistakes in the future and misleading the the knitters.

    The published designs have long life. The design published in the latest issue of Piecework will continue to mislead lace knitters for years to come. It's very sad situation.

  2. To avoid tight cast one what Russian do is they cast on on more than 1 needle always. they cast on on 2 needles. If someone has tighter cast on, they cast on on 3 or even 4 needles. for warm shawl it's important for the center to make cast on same length stretches as the cast off within about 1cm. otherwise "паток ведет" meaning the knitted fabric does not have the true shape. It is not uncommon to have a platok that is not exact square.
    to be exact I myself was not born in Orenburg. The direct ancestors family moved from there before Red terror time and maybe they were much better off staying there. I have plenty friends in Orenburg and also relatives. I did grow up in Chenterchernozemny region. Basically another large fiber area. One of the reasons why my family was doing not only goat, but worked with wool, plant fibers and did make weaving and spinning tools for the living among other things (kolhoz was made from their property to put it simple and many other things have happen). Great granny's 3m+ loom was one one the things they had for living. So I happen to know shawl making in several regions in the end.