Rare color photographs from the Silk Road taken in 1906 – 1910.
The photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, an offspring of the Russian nobility and an enthusiast of color photos and movies, took color photographs in Samarkhand and Bukhara between 1906 and 1910. Both cities are ancient Middle-Asian centers and were major stops on Silk Road. These photographs were a part of very large photographic project that documented the different corners of the vast Russian Empire. Among the hundreds of scenic photos, there were several portraits of the local inhabitants from the different layers of the society. It is very interesting to see what they wore.
Before you look through the pictures, I should remind you that they are real color photographs.
After the revolution in Russia Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky found his way to United States. He never stopped working on inventing better technology for colored photography and movies.
“Beyond the loom” was an exhibition within the large exhibition of women’s art “Women Take the Floor” in Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Visited in January 2020. It featured the groundbreaking fiber works from the 1950s to 2000sby female artists.Inspirational.
In the 1960s and 70s, a number of pioneering women in America radically redefined textiles as modern art. Coopting a medium traditionally associated with women’s work and domesticity, these artists boldly broke free from the constraints of the loom to create large-scale, sculptural weavings that engaged with movements such as Minimalism and Abstraction. This “fiber revolution” sprang from a new philosophical emphasis on structure in textile art, as well as revived interest in tapestry weaving and the brilliance of the ancient Peruvian textiles.
From the introduction to the exhibition
Anni Albers (1899-1994), Dotted Weaving, 1959
I think [weaving] is the closest to architecture, because it is a building up out of a single element – building a whole out of single elements
Sheila Hicks (born 1934), Linen facets (1988)
Lenore Tawney (1907-2007), The Fountain of Word and Water (1963)
Water is fertilizing and water is dissolving and water is cleansing and water is life-giving… Water is thrilling.
Olga de Amaral (born 1932), Strata II (2007)
In the 1980s Olga de Amaral began to experiment with gold and silver leaf, connecting her work in fiber with a long history of indigenous Colombian metalwork artists.
From the exhibit description
Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), Untitled (1952) Kay Sekimachi (born 1926), Amiyase V (1956)
Everything has its limitations, and fiber does… and of course the loom has many limitations. I love working within limitations.
Sheila Hicks (born 1934), Bamian (1968)
All of the threads are actors on stage and none of them are hidden. They’re all part of the oevre
I envisioned the pattern on my Komi vests to start right away at the bottom, without ribbing. Ribbing is a necessary evil of every knit garment: it keeps edges from curling up. The goal was to kiss good-bye to ribbing.
I wanted the pattern start from the very edge of the garment without ribbing, that keeps edge from curling up. Judy’s Magic Cast On which I found in my trusty little book Cast On, Bind Off by Leslie Ann Bestor was just the technique that accommodated my design.
Basic recipe for bottom-up sweater/vest on circular needles
Overview: The idea works for garments knit bottom up. You create a counter-tension of two fabrics knit in opposite directions from the cast-on rows without adding too much bulk. First you knit up and down, fold the fabric, gather the stitches onto another pair of needles and knit together. Continue knitting the garment in a round, as usual. Press the fold when the garment is done.
Needed: 3 circular needles of your project size, 2 longer and 1 can be shorter. Some quantity of thinner (sports or baby weight) yarn in addition to your project yarn.
Cast on necessary number of stitches using 1 shorter and 1 longer set of needles. If your item requires 220 stitches then eachneedle should end up with 220 stitches. The direction of knitting on one needle will go up and on another – down.
Before knitting, look attentively which side the yarn twists are on. The twists should end up on purl side.
Knit “up” several rows in stranded color work. (I knitted 5).
Knit “down” with a thin and dense yarn fewer rows. (I knitted 4.)
Fold fabric and transfer stitches to the third needle: one stitch from one needle, one stitch from another needle.
Continue the pattern on color work side, carefully knitting each stitch together. Inside fabric should remain as invisible as possible.
The finished edge looks a bit puffy. Carefully press the fold when the project is finished. Avoid stretching the edge. Here is what I ended up with:
If Judy’s Magic Cast On worked for socks and a vest edge and socks, it should work for mittens. My next idea was to knit two-sided mittens: one side – of fine angora, another side – of sock yarn. The success did not come cheap. It took 3 tries to get it somewhat right. Two sided mittens is a fancy idea that you do not have to follow, but the idea of using Judy’s Magic Cast On to knit mitten tips produces beautiful round shape.
Meanwhile… Let’s return to my Komi vest: the edge obediently stays down!
The dark 1990s after the collapse of the USSR were over. The 21st century brought the renewed interest to the traditional arts in the Republic of Komi. The last article in the series is about the modern knitwear artists exploring the rich opportunities of their Komi heritage.
The attitudes of the Komis towards their ancient heritage radically changed in the early 2000s. Now the Komi language is a mandatory discipline in schools. The newspapers, magazines, websites are published in Komi.
There is tremendous interest and support for the traditional folk art, including color knitting. The Center for Education In Folk Arts in Syktyvkar is a lively place where the adults and children are receiving quality instruction in the native arts and crafts.
The Komi women from all walks of life sign up for knitting master classes in impressive numbers. It has become popular among the young to wear legwarmers knit with traditional geometric Komi patterns. The textile artists specializing in traditional Komi knitting are becoming celebrities of sorts.
Three artists featured here have different directions, but one thing in common: they learned the traditional Komi knitting with diagonal geometric patterns from their peasant grandmothers and returned to it in mature years.
Zinaida Mayorova: a retiree turns into a well-known artist
Ms. Mayorova was born in 1953. Her family is from Sysola region of Komi. As a child she noticed a pair of beautiful mittens made by her grandmother in the early years of the 20th century. They were stored in the family heirloom chest. She paid no mind to the old-fashioned mittens then. Many knitters of her generation knitted in a homogenized style borrowed from the Western and Eastern Europe.
After retiring in the early 2000s, Ms. Mayorova had plenty of time on her hands and the idea for a project struck her. She remembered the grandma’s mittens and embarked on serious study of the knitting traditions of her native Sysola. Her research was a truly scientific undertaking: at her own expense she traveled hundreds of miles to study the old knitted objects in to Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg.
The underlying theme of Ms. Mayorova’s work is the preservation of the tradition, however, she enlarged the palette of colors and projects beyond the traditional.
Currently she teaches the master classes, conducts presentations on traditions of Sysola knitting and occasionally does commissioned work.
Watch the segment for FinnougoroVidenie. You might not understand the language, but it shows Ms. Mayorova’s work. You can also see the 100-year-old mittens knitted by her grandmother. Ms. Mayorova explains that in the old days the mittens did not have ribbing because there were worn with complimentary wrist warmers.
Galina Ogorodnikova: the dynasty of folk artists
Galina Ogorodnikova inherited her talent as a textile artist from her grandmother, a peasant woman from Pechora region. When Galina was about 10, she coveted a pair of store-bought mittens. Her grandmother Maria told her that she was quite capable to make the mittens herself. And this is what she did.
Ms. Ogorodnikova’s family moved to Pechora in 1963. She worked as a cook in the rural daycare center. The skills inherited from the grandma Maria came handy: she made clothes for her children. They were not only practical objects made out of necessity, they were products of artistic imagination.
Ms. Ogorodnikova’s career as a folk artist started with macrame. She turned to the traditional Komi color knitting in the mid 1990s when she had already won multiple competition awards for her works in other techniques.
Her designs integrate the traditional Komi knitting patterns, folk costume and the modern knitwear trends. It takes the artist between 1 to 3 years to develop and to execute the larger projects.
Galina Ogorodnikova was awarded the title of The Master of Russian Folk Arts (it is a very approximate equivalent of Living National Treasure in Japan.).
Aside from being a talented textile artist, Ms. Ogorodnikova has a special knack for teaching others, especially children. She taught her daughter Oksana (a well-known folk artist) and her granddaughter Yaroslava. Currently she is a faculty member at The Center for Education In Folk Arts in Syktyvkar .
Granddaughter Yaroslava Malinova is also an artist and a teacher in her own right. Her first pair of mittens she made at the age of 5 under her grandmother’s direction.
Svetlana Turova: a founder of the socially responsible enterprise
Svetlana Turova is in her 40s. She belongs to the generation that came into age during the wild and dark 1990s. Like Ms. Mayorova and Ms. Ogorodnikova, Svetlana learned knitting from her Komi grandmother. She become a skillful knitter by age of 15 and, while in school, knitted for extra income.
In 2007 Svetlana Turova came up with an idea of a socially responsible enterprise that produces machine-knit items with traditional Komi patterns.
She worked as an upper-level manager in the distribution company when she sensed that the company was likely to fold during the next financial crisis in Russia. She started to think of what to do next. Svetlana hand-knitted several toys that her grandmother taught her to make long time ago, took several vacation days and traveled to the Moscow exhibition of folk art. Her toys won a prize. Svetlana understood that she was onto something with her knitting.
As a woman with a solid business and legal background (Svetlana has a degree in law), she understood three things from the very start:
Her knitting studio must be a legal business to qualify for grants, loans and tax breaks. (Many entrepreneurs in Russia prefer to operate in a “gray zone” due to byzantine tax code and scant legal protection.)
There is a revival of ethnic pride among the Komi people. Her studio might become a trend-setter among the young to wear the clothing with the traditional Komi patterns.
Hand-knitting is not the way to make living. It is too expensive for the young people. It is hard to produce on larger scale.
The road was not easy for Svetlana Turova. Her first studio, started in 2008, failed. Her husband was supportive but a bit skeptical. The well-wishers advised her to produce underwear instead of sweaters. But Svetlana persevered. She had a mission: “I want the world to know that Komi stands for beautiful. Komi is cool.”
With a patchwork financing from grants for socially responsible enterprises, public fundraising, interest-free loans and the help from the local authorities, Svetlana Turova reopened her studio Югыд арт (Yugyd Art with better knitting machines. She traveled to Finland to learn from the 200-year-old Saami family business.
In 2016-2018 Svetlana Turova and her husband, who joined her in her enterprise, moved to the village. They build the complex with a studio space and living quarters to accommodate a new branch of their business – knitting tourism. The knitters from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Germany and other places have already booked the first available time slots. (If you are interested in spending a few days in beautiful Russian North, click on logo above.)
Aside from running the business, Svetlana still teaches classes for hand-knitters dedicated to the art of traditional Komi knitting.
The most of the material came from hours of trawling the Russian-language sites for bits and pieces of information. I tried my best to attribute the photos that I borrowed for this post. My apologies for the incorrect attributions. In case if you decide to google the artists presented in this blog, here are the spellings of their names in Cyrillic:
The history of any folk craft is closely connected to the history of the people. The period from the 1920s to the turn of the 21st century was difficult for the Komi and its craft – colorwork knitting. This is the fifth post about the distinct tradition of the Komi, the ethnic minority of the Russian North.
Otto von Bismarck said approximately the following: “The romantics think up revolutions, the fanatics execute revolutions and the bastards are the only beneficiaries of revolutions.” In summary, the losers are the people.
The revolution in Russia in 1917 known as October Revolution did little for the Komi people and their cultural heritage, knitting included. With land so rich in forests, oil, gas, coal, minerals, the Komi would fared as splendidly as their cousins, the Finns. (Finland is a former poor province of the Russian Empire. The Komi and the Finns are both of Finno-Ugric language group). Finland miraculously gained independence from the Soviet Russia in 1919. Never looked back to the days when they were a part of the Empire.
The Bolshevik government, always long on Marxist-Leninist ideology and always short on sound management, started with massive forceful expropriations of “surplus” grain from the peasants. The resisting peasants were severely punished.
In the 1920s the struggling Soviet state levvied exorbitant taxes on peasants. In the land of the Komi, the farming was always a game of chance. Now it was a bad business. The Komi peasants started reducing plantings and cattle herds. It is better to have no “surplus” than to give away the products of difficult labor to the outsiders whose language many of them did not even understand.
In the late 1920s the Soviet state came up with yet another brilliant idea to suck every drop of wealth from the countryside: collectivization. In a nutshell, it was a state-run serfdom which lasted until 1974, when the peasants could obtain internal identification documents and move away.
The collectivization proceeded like this: brigades of brainwashed city youth accompanied by the foot soldiers of the internal security forces went to villages and forcefully organized the peasants into collective farms (kolkhoz). All private farm land became a kolkhoz property along with tools, cattle, planting material and, sometimes, personal belongings. The kolkhozniks could not move anywhere. The better-off peasants, so called kulaks (tight fists), were treated with unimaginable cruelty: all of their property was confiscated in favor of kolhoz. The kulak‘s daughter remembers the 1920s-early 1930s*:
… in 1929 the authorities ordered my father to turn in all the grain. He turned it in. What did they do in the spring? In the spring of 1930 they came and ordered him to plant several acres. But he did not have any seed to plant. He gave up all of it in the fall. He refused to plant. They sentenced him to 2 years in Solikamsk prison. He served the whole sentence. After the father was imprisoned in May of 1930, the internal security people came to our house and evicted us from our own home. No other shelter was offered. They took our home. Our tools and cattle became the property of the kolkhoz. As we were told later, all our personal belongings and household items were laid out in front of the house. Some was sold to benefit the kolkhoz, the rest was given away to whoever wanted it.
The mother had nowhere to go, she was illiterate [in those years many rural Komis were illiterate and did not speak Russian – E. ]. She had three children: my sister was born in 1927, I was born in 1928 and another baby girl was born in 1930. Three kids, ages 3, 2 and 1 and no home. She wandered from village to village and begged for handouts. She was forbidden to leave the area. The villagers gave her shelter and food in exchange for some work. Here she knitted mittens and socks, there she helped to pile logs or to dig potatoes or to gather hay. That’s how we lived until the father returned from the prison.
That’s some story with knitting in it. Not a cozy kind.
The collectivization produced meager results in Komi. The hunger started in mid-30s. To add an insult to injury, the late 30s the Komi ASSR became the home for numerous GULAG labor camps. The impoverished kolkhoz peasants, men and women alike, frequently found a slightly better pay working in logging, construction and mining, sometimes – alongside the prisoners.
Some collective farms that specialized in logging setup knitting groups, but the production was stifled by wool and dye shortages. A woman produced only 15 or so pairs of mittens a year. Compare it with 1,500 pairs that the merchants purchased for resale from the women of just one small cluster of the Komi villages in the late 19th century.
Later the ethnographic researchers wrote that the Komi knitted items from the 1930s-40s were rather unimaginative affairs made of poor quality yarn with addition of cotton wool. There were many re-knits from the older, worn-out pieces. The artifacts of the tragic history, not of the folk art.
When the war started in 1941, the able-bodied Komi men were drafted into the Army. The weight of men’s work fell onto women’s shoulders. The overworked, underfed Komi women knit mittens with two fingers for soldiers. But the output was small. It was not a good time and place for fancy diagonal patterns, really.
After the war more of the same: shortage of men, poor pay for hard work in kolkhoz. The alcoholism, predominantly among the rural Komi men, was rampant during the Soviet era. The men died young.
But something different was afoot for the children of these long-suffering women: double-sided effect of Russification. The schooling was in Russian. All the official business was in Russian. The Russian dominance suffocated the traditional culture of the Komis. But the Komi youth that came of age in 1950s-60s, being fluent in Russian, started to slip out into cities as college students, nannies and industrial laborers in the cities. The girls left in larger numbers: there were few places in the USSR that could be more desperate for a young woman from a Northern Russian village than her own home. A The girls wanted to leave all of it behind, funny colorful socks and mittens including. The ethnic socks would make them to stand out in the city, when they wanted to blend in, to be the Russians.
The tradition of Komi knitting was dying.
Two Komi ethnographers, Lyubov’ Gribova and Galina Klimova, documented the textile and knitting heritage of their people in the 1960-70s. It was a race against the indifference and oblivion. Not a single book on Komi stranded knitting for general audience was published during the Soviet era.
Ms. Klimova summarized the words of the elderly master-knitters how the things were in her 1978 thesis**:
The elderly people said that before, 50 or so years ago, almost every woman knew stranded color work knitting, then the times came when they forgot about it. Now quite a few started doing it again. Long ago the women knitted in a similar artistic style, when now the young and the old knit differently. The elderly women knit the squiggles their mothers and grandmothers taught them, but the younger ones frequently knit the patterns borrowed elsewhere.
The “borrowed pattern” in question is famous Selbu star. It is likely that the Komi knitters gleaned it from the knitting instructions and books published in Latvia and Estonia. Two Baltic countries, occupied by the USSR during the WWII, stubbornly published more quality books on knitting than the whole of the Soviet Russia. Many books had mandatory Russian editions as a part of the Russification campaign in the Baltic states. Hence the Russification had another, very unintended consequence: the traditional Baltic and Nordic patterns traveled into knitting of the ethnic minorities of the Russian North.
Ms. Klimova’s essay on Komi color work knitting, written in a language as dry as a biscuit, had a wistful concluding paragraph. She worried that the lively and useful craft will become nothing but a bunch of artifacts in the local museum.
The unique knitting tradition of Komi was dying in the USSR, but, as it turned out, it outlived the empire and came back. The story of its rebirth is in the next post.
All the materials for this post came from the publications in Russian.
*The kulak’s daughter’s story is a translation of Ms. Pikuleva’s childhood memories from the article Collectivization in Kama region: violence without restraint by M. A. Ivanova (Иванова М. А. КОЛЛЕКТИВИЗАЦИЯ В ПРИКАМЬЕ: насилие без границ) on website Мемориал, dedicated the victims of the repressions and collectivization. Very instructive reading for those Russians who are missing the old good Soviet times.
Some information about the 20th century history of the Komis came from Y. Shabayev’s article The Land of Abu or Permyak the Salty Ears. ( Ю.П. Шабаев, ЗЕМЛЯ «АБУ» И «ПЕРМЯК СОЛЕНЫ УШИ»)
**The ethnographic works by Lyubov’ Gribova and Galina Klimova are mentioned in Reference to the previous post.
The diagonal patterns of Finno-Ugric textiles inspired the hat with ear-flaps. This is the last project of the year and the most challenging. I share design ideas in this post.
For about a year and a half I fiddled with the idea of a hat with ear-flaps. A “couture look” was my lofty goal: – ear-flaps should be one with a hat – a large-scale pattern should flow from the ear-flap tips to the top as if the hat is if it is custom-cut from a whole piece of cloth – combination of contrasting and gradient colors
This was a technically ambitious project. Perfect to finish the year but a bit difficult to write about.
I will break up the post into two parts. Something to share with textile artists of every level. The part about choosing yarns, patterns and colors is for all levels of aspiring knitwear artists. The brief instructions how to shape ear-flaps are for the technically sophisticated.
Judy’s Magic Invisible Cast-on (to knit the inner and outer layers. The knitting goes in both directions. The cast-on becomes a fold line. There are plenty good YouTube videos about this technique – look up!)
Short rows, Japanese style (to create ear-flaps. I found instructions online as well.)
Stranded color work knitting (optional)
To prevent curling, the bottom of the hat is knit into two opposite directions from the cast-on row. There will be 7-8 cm (or 3 in) of double-layering over the ears and forehead.
Yarns, patterns and colors
Creative mix of different yarns – fluffy angora and smooth merino – produces a wonderful “watercolor washout” effect.
Background: Forrest Green, Dark Orange
rated for #5-7 needles
1 skein each. 1/2 skein of Dark Orange left
Foreground: Medium blue, Bright blue Light blue
rated for #4 needles
1 1/2 skeins from Katia Ombre gradient set
Choosing needle size
Ignore the recommended needle size on the label if you are making a hat. The fabric should be dense, but thin. It should retain the shape and to shield from the cold. I used #2 needles – a much smaller size than recommended.
Ideas for patterns and colors
I adopted the traditional Finno-Ugric textile patterns ( See the previous post about Komi textile patterns) as a basis for design. The diagonal patterns come in wide variety of sizes, but all of them are all based on a rudimentary 6×6 pattern. The background colors are contrasting and of the same intensity (Forrest Green, Dark Orange). The foreground colors are gradient of the same color (blue). Change one color at a time to achieve the harmonious transitions. The number of rows for each color combination should be a multiple of 6 (or close to it):
Dark blue (not the best combo, alas…)
apx 12 rows
apx 36 rows
apx 24 rows
apx 18 rows
Ear-flaps: very brief instructions
I must be honest….
1) It is easier if you can knit with either hand: there is no need to turn over the fabric. This is how I knit, but the ear-flaps are doable without a trick of ambidexterity. Just skip the stranded colorwork at the bottom edge of the hat.
Below are several earlier models with ear-flaps: the hats look just fine without all-over stranded colorwork.
2) Try to practice with some junk yarn until you get the technique that is just right for you. The first experiments – especially with my brief written instructions – might not be promising. Mine were not. It took me quite a while to get the technique straight.
3) Planning is a key to success.
Well, caveat emptor is stated…
Now back to the brief instructions…
The same instructions apply to knitting both layers of the hat. The double-layer part of the hat is about 7-8cm (3 in.) over the forehead. From that point, the layers are joined.
Use Judy’s Magic Invisible Cast-on (plenty of how-to videos on YouTube). The cast-on will become the folding line for the layers.
Use thinner yarn for the inner layer. I chose the combination of angora (baby blue, over the ears) and very thin wool-silk yarn for the rest of the inner layer. Both colors fit the color scheme of the outer stranded colorwork.
Place markers: back, front and mark the ears. Especially – the center of each ear-flap. It is critical for symmetry. Use odd number of stitches for ear-flaps: 1 central stitch makes things easier to track.
For inner and outer layer repeat the same procedure (with your minor personal adjustments, of course.)
Knit the whole first row in a round. Knit 2 stitches together 3-4 stitches before and after the center of each potential ear-flap.
Shaping an ear-flap with short rows
The picture is worth a thousand words. It shows how to shape the left ear-flap with ever-increasing short rows. The right ear is a mirror image of the left.
Note that you cast 12 stitches more than required: it is for controlling excess fabric from short rows.
The outer and inner layers are knit in more or less identical fashion: after shaping of ear-flaps is done, knit in a round 7-8 in (3 cm).
Now is the easy part: fold the layers along the cast-on line, transfer the stitches from both layers onto one round needle (one stitch for the inner layer, one stitch from the outer layer, one stitch for the inner layer, one stitch from the outer layer… until all on one needle). Knit together.
Continue knitting in a round into whatever shape you choose.
My version came out like on the picture below. I wonder what yours will look like… Keep on creating!
The redwork textile patterns of the Finno-Ugric people is a great source for designing knitwear patterns. This is the third post about the Komi knitting and its history.
Besides being skilled knitters, the Komi women were also imaginative weavers. The patterns on their towels, table cloths, belts and shirts are of the same diagonal geometric shapes as seen in their knitted objects, but the compositions are more sophisticated.
First: the postscript to Komi Knitting II
I had the most interesting exchange on Facebook with Johanna P. from Finland.
She posted several pictures with sweaters. I’m taking a liberty to republish the photos with Johanna’s descriptions. The items are excellent illustrations of the Finno-Ugric textile tradition, but they are not the products of the traditional Komi knitting.
… now back to topic – the Komi textiles
I found several diagrams in the ethnographic book. The patterns are copied from the original textiles and belts of the Perm region of the Komi Republic.
The diagonal patterns of the Komi are very predictable and easy to combine into large-scale intricate borders and all-over patterns. Charlene Schurch’s book Mostly Mittens: Traditional Knitting Patterns from Russia’s Komi People (see my previous post) explains the principle of the Komi patterns. For my vest featured above, I combined a couple of border patterns from for the socks and the pattern with a stylized female figure called Bereginya (Mother Protector) found on 19th-century towel pattern from Perm region of the Komi Respublic.