Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).


At the 1829 First Public Exhibition of Russian Manufactured Goods in Saint Petersburg, "The public stopped in amazement before an expensive white shawl with a European pattern, priced at 12,000 rubles. On the edges were roses, lilacs and other flowers; in the borders (there) were roses only. You cannot imagine anything more beautiful than this shawl."1 Sixty different shades of colors were used in the flowers and green leaves. The shawl, an almost-transparent web woven in double-interlocked 2/2 twill, was produced by the serf workshop of Nastasia Andreevna Shiskina. Nicholas I acquired it from the exhibition.2

This paper, an unexpectedly ongoing project, is an exploration of feudal production of the fabled 19th c. Russian tapestry-woven shawls based on previously untranslated Russian sources. It discusses the serf workshops, all in Central Russia, that produced both the unique Russian double-faced shawls, woven in plain-weave dovetailed tapestry, and the remarkable Russian shawls woven in the Indian technique of double-interlocked 2/2 twill tapestry. It briefly describes the characteristic piecing technique used in the manufacture of the double-faced shawls.

These shawls, among the finest, most luxurious textiles ever woven, could only have been produced in a society in which virtual slave labor was available. The process of making them was extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive; a complex border design might proceed at a sprightly pace of about 1/4 in. of weaving per day. The serfs who produced them were owned by the workshop proprietor and sometimes received only their room and board in return for their labor. Even with minimal labor costs, the shawls were so exorbitant in price that only the wealthiest aristocrats and merchants could afford to commission them. Information about both the factories and the shawls is scarce; information about the serf-weavers is non-existent.

The Russian equivalent of John Irwin's pioneering role in Western shawl scholarship is held by Y. A. Yakunina. Her 1941 article "Early 19th-century Shawls of Serf Manufacture" has been translated into English for the first time for me by Ludmilla Trigos. It provides the basis for this paper as it has for the work of the Russian textile specialists from whom these shawls have begun to receive more attention during the past twenty years.