Today on History Unraveled I’m going to take you back to the land of the Tsars. Palaces and Cathedrals abound with onion domes spiraling up to the sky.
I was fortunate enough to travel to Russia about a year ago and loved it. I wish I had been knitting then so I could have found more people to speak with about it.
My family has Slavic roots. Specifically Russian and Czech, with a little bit of Polish and German thrown in. I learned to knit in the Eastern style (which wraps the yarn clockwise around the needle) when I was very young, but not to purl. When I first started purling based on Western Style (which wraps the yarn counterclockwise around the needle) all of my stitches became twisted, and I wound up with rows that always sat on a diagonal.
Russian Knitting Method
If you were to google ‘Russian Knitting’ a whole host of articles relating specifically to the knitting style would appear. It’s similar to continental but with the yarn wound around the finger to act as a bobbin. Russian style is also knit through the back with purls wrapped the opposite way to keep from twisting stitches.
This method is also sometimes referred to as combination knitting. However, not much of this is the actual Russian Knitting technique. In fact, most Russians wouldn’t call the way they knit a style or technique. Nor do they often talk about the patterns themselves.
What they do is so often passed down orally or visually, there’s no need for writing out how to do handicrafts. Many Russian knitters make podcasts though, and with the help of youtube translate, you can normally get the gist. I recommend checking these out if you’re interested in seeing how quickly their full garments fly off their needles!
Knitting Traditions in Old Russia
Knitting and fiber arts were central to Russian peasant life. The goddess of ancient Slavs, Mokosh, was a spinner woman. Many rituals and festivals became associated with yarn, weaving, and spinning to honor her. Winter spinning sessions called posidelki provided courtship opportunities for young girls and boys.
Through war and regimes, the people of Russia rise above. They are strong and have developed a practical nature. Homeland, family and tradition are deeply important. Folk dress is still created by hand and pulled out for festivals.
Spinning, weaving, felting, knitting, sewing, and embroidery are all long-standing traditions in most cultures. Russian autumns and winters are often spent completing these projects for warmth and necessity.
Photos of Prialka or Distaffs an old tool used for spinning wool that was given to a baby girl in her crib to hold on to for the rest of her life.
Knitwear in Russia Today
Over the years knitting has been passed down from generation to generation, not through writing or pattern making, but hand to hand.
Not to say that there are not English speaking Russian pattern designers out there. Just that the intricate and ornamental knitwear you can drool over on Pinterest is usually not written down.
Similar to many European knitters, the Russian form of knitting up garments is much more free form than how we teach in the US. They learn the basic outline of how to knit a sweater, hat, mittens, scarf, etc. Then they learn the basic stitch motifs and counting for measurements.
Everything they do after that is by combining what they know to make what they want. Practical, helpful, and continually focused on the performance of the garment.
While browsing Ravelry, (the largest knitting and crochet database for yarns, patterns, projects, stores, other knitters, forums, and more) you may find the occasional glorious Russian pattern. Unfortunately, they are normally listed for personal use only. The only way you seem to be able to get your hands on Russian knitwear is buying the fully knit garments.
Even though I hadn’t found my love for knitting when I visited, I managed to find several beautiful displays of fiber arts while there. When I saw the Imperial Costume Collection under lock and key at the Kremlin I actually cried over how beautiful and intricate the stitch work and embroidery was.
You aren’t allowed to take photos, but I’ve linked above to some places you can see snippets of what is on display. Below are some photos of my travels there. I hope you are as inspired by the Russian art and culture as I am.