These beautiful and cozy, light and warm hand-knitted shawls of fine down are among the popular symbols of Russia. The downy wool of Orenburg goats is the finest in the world: it is only 16-18 micrometers, while angora goats’ wool (mohair) is 22 to 24 micrometers thick. This is why Orenburg downy knitted items – shawls and gossamers - are especially gentle and soft.
These beautiful and cozy, light and warm hand-knitted shawls of Orenburg goats’ finest down are among the popular symbols of Russia.
The famous downy shawl handicraft originated in the Orenburg Region about 250 years ago, back in the 18th century. It was promoted not by knitters only, but by scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts of folk Russian arts and crafts. One of the first to pay attention to Orenburg downy shawls was P. I. Rychkov. In 1776 he published his research work “Experience of Goat's-Wool” and suggested organizing downy shawl handicraft in the region.
Later Academician P.P. Pekarsky writing Rychkov’s biography called him “the creator of the Orenburg handicraft, which has been feeding some thousands of people for the second century already”.
Downy shawls became widely known beyond Orenburg after the sitting of the Free Economic Society on January 20, 1770. At this sitting A.D. Rychkova was awarded a gold medal “as a token of gratitude for the zeal of collecting downy items for the community”.
Orenburg downy shawls were first time presented abroad at the International Paris Exhibition of 1857. Thus they entered the international level and gained recognition there. At the London Exhibition of 1862 M. N. Uskova got a medal “For Shawls of Goat’s Wool”.
The downy wool of Orenburg goats is the finest in the world: it is only 16-18 micrometers, while angora goats’ wool (mohair) is 22 to 24 micrometers thick. This is why Orenburg downy knitted items – shawls and gossamers - are especially gentle and soft. Severe frosty winters with snowstorms and blizzards, as well as the goats’ food – plants of the mountain steppes of the Urals – are the main reason for such thin downy hair of Orenburg goats.
The most amazing thing is that Orenburg goats can be bred only in the Orenburg Region. The attempts of the French to export Orenburg goats in the 19th century failed: the goats need thin hair for preserving the warmth, whereas the mild climate of France was not conducive to that. In France Orenburg goats degenerated and turned into usual goats with coarse and thick downy hair. In the 18th – 19th century France exported dozens of thousands poods of Orenburg wool, which was valued higher than Cashmere wool. Western Europe still buys bulks of Orenburg down. The peak of popularity of Orenburg gossamers coincided with the decline of development of the Russian Empire. At that period the production of items Imitation of Orenburg was launched in England.
There are several types of Orenburg downy shawls:
• Simple downy shawls are grey (rarely white) thick and warm kerchiefs. They were at the roots of Orenburg knitting handicraft.
• Gossamers are especially delicate openwork downy items of fine down and silk. Such gossamers and headscarves are used for everyday wearing.
• Tippets are thin scarves and capes similar to gossamers in the manner of knitting.
In the 20th century the wars and the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Era cut short the epoch of the worldwide fame of the Orenburg’s handicraft. However it did not mean the end to the down-knitting handicraft in the region. One of the innovations introduced at that time was the combined use of down wool of both Orenburg and Volgograd goats. The down of Volgograd goats turned to be very good for knitting white shawls, and the local knitters estimated the fact. Another achievement was the foundation of Orenburg Downy Shawls Plant.
Again, just like in the 19th century, Orenburg shawls were in the focus of attention, this time within the limits of the USSR. It was unanimously considered inapt to return from Orenburg without a downy shawl.
However, one can hardly claim successful development of the handicraft in the recent years. Apart from the degraded economical condition of the handicraft, there is another problem: the fakes that the Russian market has been flooded with.