We are always asked about the Old Believers lifestyle. We receive a lot of questions about the Old Believer belts. So, our dear friends, we give you a great opportunity to get a lot of information on the Old Believer belt weaving due to Miriam Milgram, an ethnographic textile specialist.
Нас часто спрашивают о стиле старообрядческой жизни. Очень часто задают вопросы о старообрядческих поясах. Сегодня дорогие друзья нашего сайта могут иметь замечательную возможность получить информацию о плетении старообрядческих поясов благодаря исследованиям Мириэм Милгрэм.
RUSSIAN OLD BELIEVERS Beltweaving in Oregon, USA
by Miriam Milgram, ethnographic textile specialist
Old Believers’ belt-weaving
The wearing of belts is a relgious requirement for Russian Old Believers. The community in Oregon consists of three sub-communities originating most recently from Harbin China (the majority of the community), Sinkiang China, and Turkey (a very small minority, who came to Turkey via Romania). They brought with them their own styles of folk costume, including belts.
PLAITED BELTS The simplest belts are made by plaiting, either four strands making a cord, or an uneven number of strands making a flat plaited belt. Plaited belts are more common for children and everyday wear, since the investment of time in their production is relatively small. Cardwoven belts and warp pick-up belts are now made by a few of the community members. These belts involve greater time, creativity, and skill.
Old Sinctsiani plaited belts The group from Sinkiang, (XinJiang) China made wide, long plaited belts which were wrapped around a woman’s waist, leaving the ends to fall at the hip. Belts such as these were also used by men to close heavy winter coats.
Cardwoven belts have varying types of ornamentation. Older belts sometimes haveinscriptions (secular or religious) with geometric separator motifs, or sometimes have a progression of improvised geometric motifs without words. A newer fashion repeats a floral motif taken from cross-stitch embroidery patterns.
Belt woven in Harbin region, China. The weaver commented that she collected mushrooms to sell for the thread, and then had to wait for winter for the river to freeze over, since that was the only way to get to town through the dense forest.
This belt was worn out and dirty from being used during berry picking. The owner, an acknowledged belt weaver in the community, gave it to me to use as an example, and inspiration for «making up» patterns so that no design repeats within a belt.
Three belts from Brazil which were considered fashionable at the time of investigation. They consist of a regularly repeating design, with or without a small separator motif. The patterns are taken from cross stitch books, and sometimes the same pattern was cross-stitched on the woman’s blouse.
Wooden weaving implements. The weaving sword belonged to a deceased weaver, passed on to me by the woman who taught me to card weave. I was enjoined to be a good weaver like the original owner, but not to drink like her!
There are two types of warp pick-up belt weaving found in Woodburn. The most common is a simple pick-up technique with a thick supplemental warp thread which forms the design. The second, potainnoi is specific to the Sinciani, and very rarely practiced in Woodburn. These two forms of pick-up technique have a shared design inventory.
The flower motif on the top belt is executed in simple pick-up, and the same flower notif is executed in potainoi pick-up on the bottom example. Both types of pick-up weaving require a plain weave shed which is manipulated by hand (i.e. the design threads are manually «picked up»). Both counterbalance and backstrap looms can be used to create the basic shed.
Simple pick-up weaving is made with a supplemental warp, thicker than the base of the belt, which is lifted or not, depending on the pattern. These belts are reversible; one side is the opposite coloring of the other. The Russian pickup belts were, before they moved to Oregon, a continuous repeat of one motif. The positive and negative spaces were roughly equal. Since the Old Believers moved to Oregon, some innovations have taken place, creating a background with a motif floating along the length of the belt. This makes the belts easier and quicker to weave.
Potainoi (hidden, secret, referring to the fact that the weft is hidden) pick-up weaving actually creates a form of double cloth. The two colors used to create the design are of equal thickness thread. This technique is particularly arduous, and has in fact practically died out. The Sinciani, besides weaving potainoi belts, also had women’s blouses with smocking which resembles the pick-up weaving patterns, and a type of sleeve embroidery which resembles potainoi weaving patterns.
Pick-up Belt Design Strategies
Handwoven belts play an important visual role in the Russian Old Believer women’s folk costume as it is worn in Woodburn, Oregon. Belts are woven in several different techniques which in turn have different pattern inventories. Here we will look at belts woven in pick-up technique, both simple and «hidden weft» (potainoi). Although the two techniques produce different-looking fabrics, they both use warp pick-up to create the pattern, and have a shared design inventory.
Out of over 70 pick-up belts, documented in Woodburn between 1983 and 1988, no two were exactly the same. Aside from changing the colors and edge striping, the weavers show certain strategies for elaborating and combining motifs from a set stock. These motifs were not only executed in both simple and potainoi weaving, they could also be seen translated into smockingon the neck and embroidery on the upper sleeves of the old style Sinciani women’s blouses.
The old style belts were characterized by a harmonious balance between positive and negative space. Later on, in Woodburn, weavers innovated a style of simple pick-up weaving which they explain as being like cardweaving in that it separates design motifs with a plain ground. This innovation is usually applied to belts made for sale to other members of the community. Potainoi weaving was practically defunct by 1988 in Woodburn. In fact, a Harbinka well-known for her weaving skill commented that potainoi weaving was so complicated, it is just as well that very few people practice it any more.
DESIGN STRATEGY 1. Simple motif doubled in width
DESIGN STRATEGY 2. Simple motif, expanded
DESIGN STRATEGY 3. Diagonal motifs expanded to triangular motifs
Here is an example of a triangular motif separated by an expanse of plain ground formed by not picking up designs elements at all. This makes the belt weave up more quickly, but violates the traditional aesthetic of equally balanced positive and negative space.
DESIGN STRATEGY 5. Diamond Motifs
The two wide belts on the right are knitted. This technique was out of fashion at the time I did my research.
Special thanks are due to Margaret McKibben whose contribution to the study is immeasurable. Not only did she translate for me, she introduced me to people she knew, helped with the video camera, and constantly contributed insights as the data unfolded.
Interestingly enough, highly technical weaving discussions were easier for me, since I was able to recognize the roots of the Russian words as they relate to the Bulgarian words.