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Tapestry-Woven Reversible Russian Shawl

Russian, ca. 1830s

During the first half of the nineteenth century, a fashionable woman’s wardrobe was incomplete without an expensive shawl. Although Indian shawls remained highly prized and desirable throughout the period, the demand for these status-symbol accessories spurred imitations in both Europe and Russia. In the early 1800s—partly in response to the vast amounts of money spent by wealthy Russians on imported shawls—a number of landowners established workshops for domestic production. In addition to those that emulated Indian designs with flat, stylized flowers and botehs, a particular group of Russian shawls developed a distinctive, naturalistic aesthetic characterized by sophisticated shading of often recognizable floral and foliate motifs. Known as “summer-and-winter shawls” because they were worn throughout the year, both indoors and out, these luxury commodities were the prerogative of the uppermost echelons of Russian society. Featured at trade fairs such as those in St. Petersburg, they garnered extensive praise and numerous awards.

A rare surviving example of Russian serf-woven manufacture, this exceptionally beautiful shawl exhibits virtuosity of weaving and represents some of the most sumptuous textiles ever produced. Although this shawl is not attributed to a specific workshop, the superb fineness of the weaving, the elegant border design, the type and treatment of the motifs, and their clear-colored palette are all consistent with extant pieces from the leading manufactories of Nadezhda Appolonovna Merlina and Dimitri Kolokoltsov, located in Central Russia.

The ready availability of serf labor made possible an undertaking that was inordinately time consuming. Expensive raw materials, notably the soft fleece of Central Asian Kirghiz goats and saigas from the West Siberian steppes, as well as natural dyestuffs and pigments were obtained at fairs in Nizhniy Novgorod. Virtually all the work was done on the feudal estates: carding and spinning the gossamer yarns, dyeing them in a range of shades from jewel tones to subtle pastels and the lengthy, arduous process of weaving. Although both men and women were involved in shawl production, it was young women, generally between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven, who created these tour-de-force textiles using small wooden bobbins rather than shuttles, each carrying a different colored thread. Executed in reversible plain weave dovetail tapestry, probably on horizontal or low-warp looms, the flawlessly identical double-sided borders required weaving the pattern wefts back into the fabric as well as darning in the warp ends. While the solid-colored ground was woven in one piece, usually in 2/2 twill (as in this piece), the borders were woven in sections and later almost invisibly joined and stitched to the field. This double-faced technique progressed at the painstakingly slow pace of a quarter of an inch a day; thus, a large shawl with complex border patterns employing thirty to sixty colors could take up to two years to complete. Not surprisingly, the shawls were exorbitantly priced, costing between 1,000 to 4,000 rubles and as much as 10,000 rubles—equivalent to the purchase sum of a substantial property.

In this example, the robin’s egg blue ground perfectly sets off the exquisitely gradated, multi-hued flowers, leaves and twining stems that range from delicate rosy and pale pinks, mauve, blue, apricot, yellow, green, and cream to vivid red, salmon and chestnut; deep eggplant purple, brown, green, blue, and black provide contrast and depth. Typical of these shawls is the sequence of inner and outer borders separated by narrow “beaded” bands. Along the edges, weft threads extend from the diminutive half sprigs forming a fine fringe. The designation “turnover” refers to a square shawl that was folded into a triangle in which the two sides with wide borders and curved corner piece would have been arranged to conceal all but the narrow borders of the adjacent sides, lying underneath; this gave the impression that the wide borders continued on all four sides. When worn, the luxuriant pattern would have been displayed becomingly over the full upper sleeves and rounded skirts of the 1830s.

Changes in the fashionable female silhouette as well as economic and social factors resulted in the decline of “summer-and-winter” shawl production. There is little information about the designers and none at all about the weavers; however, the shawls themselves—each one with its unique pattern—stand as impressive testaments to the artistry and superior accomplishments of their anonymous creators.

Only nine complete, reversible tapestry-woven shawls and stoles are preserved in North American collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1971.136.60, 46.180, 1984.86.1, 1972.175, and 65.91.1); the Art Institute of Chicago (1928.796 and 1928.797); the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta (C-6193); and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1953-61-1). Examples are also found in the State History Museum, Moscow and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

54” H x 54” W
pages 12-13 page 14 foldout  

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