Saturday, April 30, 2011

Russian Textiles

Today was the St. Paul Needleworkers Spring Luncheon. We once again had a very nice lunch prepared by the ladies of the church where we meet each month. Our guest speaker was Masha, curator at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. If you live in the area and haven’t visited yet, check out their website for current and upcoming exhibits.

Masha spoke about  a recent exhibit entitled, “A Homespun Life: Textiles of Old Russia.” As an added treat she brought along a Russian man, Mikail, who is here for a quick visit . He is a collector of Russian embroideries and had several of his embroideries with him for us to see.


Masha told us about the history of these Russian embroideries. Young girls would be given a prialka when they were infants. This would be placed in their crib. It was used to spin the flax. By the time she was five years old she would have learned to spin and then would also be taught to dye and embroider.  These young girls would get together and have spinning parties where they would bring their own prialka (distaff), which was an L shaped object they would sit upon. It was a very portable instrument and was also easily adorned. Some of the prialkas Masha showed us photos of were quite ornate with carving and painting.


Young girls would spin and embroider for many years. When they became of marriageable age, 16 years old, they would have a nice store of embroidered items to bring into the marriage. Masha showed us art work depicting a scene where a young lady would hang her embroidered towels on the walls for her prospective in-laws to inspect!

Towels had very specific uses and used designs that had special meaning. One figure that was found in many early embroideries was the goddess figure. This would often be placed upon clothing where the body would be exposed, such as the neckline and cuffs. It was thought this would offer the wearer special protection. 


One symbol used frequently was the sun in the form of a swastika. This was a very positive, strong symbol, not like what we think about because of its use during World War II. Mikail told us that many of the embroideries with variations of this symbol were destroyed during the war when German soldiers came into the small towns and villages and burned the embroideries with that symbol. Some survived because they were hidden by the families who owned them.

Mikail began collecting embroideries as he traveled to very remote towns for his business. He would find homes that had been abandoned as families moved into larger towns. Inside these homes would be these lovely embroidered pieces. He felt that they couldn’t be left to rot away, so he began collecting them. He told of how he almost got into a fist fight with a farmer who was using one of these pieces to wipe the grease off of his farm equipment! They came to an agreeable arrangement and the towel was saved.

Masha told us the museum is planning another textile exhibit, but it won’t be for 2 or 3 years. I think everyone in the room today is looking forward it!

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