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Volume IX  Number 3
May 1991

Research Report doesn't cover Russia other than Caucasia and Central Asia but, aware of substantial European Russian weaving in Tobolsk (Tiumen), Kursk, and Bessarabia Provinces, feels a responsibility to offer an occasional something on European Russia. The following material concerning weaving in Bessarabia contains an older (1889) commentary, but is for the most part a 1912 report by S. A. Davydova. (1) The photograph on page 3 presents a view of the Bessarabian exhibit at the 1913 St. Petersburg All-Russian Kustar Exhibition.

"Kustar' production has long been ignored by the local inhabitants of Bessarabia province. It was only in 1889, when a kustar' section was included in the Agricultural Exhibition in Kishenev, that brief mentions began to appear in the press. An article by D. D. Suruchan on kustar' crafts in Bessarabia (2) provides some information on the activities of the rural population there:

'It is the local women who are primarily engaged in rural cottage production. When she is not busy in the fields, every Moldavian woman (with few exceptions) spends her free time spinning and weaving linens, towels, runners, sashes, carpets, and other such items. The fabric they produce is primarily intended for the personal use of the entire family and only in extreme financial need is it sold outside the home. Incidentally, with the increasing shortage of land that has afflicted the local population in the last decade and the need for money to pay a variety of taxes, in many regions of Bessarabia spinning and weaving have begun to change from a domestic production to a kustar' one, that makes goods for sale in nearby bazaars. But even here the craft is inseparable from domestic production, since the work for sale is merely a continuation of the weaving done to meet the needs of the family.'
"Given such conditions of kustar' production in the region it is not surprising that women's work prevailed at the exhibition. Indeed, there were carpets and 'kadril' woollen materials, fabrics of raw-silk mixed with cotton, 'naframs' and 'chadry', hand-towels, table-cloths and bed-linens, linen, belts, Bulgarian dark-red and white cloth, woollen 'bysagy' and other goods made by village women. Evidently, all these domestic goods suited the tastes of the Bessarabian population, which still retained its national habits and customs.

"The account of this exhibition and a trip to the wilds of the province permit me to sketch out, albeit briefly, the activities of the local female population.

"Peasant carpets are all smooth, genuine 'kilims'. The materials mostly used for carpet goods are the wool of local sheep, the 'tsushek' breed in the north and central part of Bessarabia, and the 'tsygai' breed in the south, and hemp. Woollen and hemp yarn is spun by the weavers themselves. Previously carpets were made of pure wool, but more recently a hemp yarn has been used for the warp, since it is more resistant to moth-damage. The weavers also dye the yarn, using analine and sometimes vegetable dyes. For example, to dye yarn black they use walnut husk.

"The patterns used are exceptionally varied, and have absolutely no resemblance to the designs on carpets I have seen in other areas of Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. The Bessarabian patterns take the form of distinctive geometric and fantastical ornaments. Of the latter type particularly striking are designs that resemble a tree adorned with flowers. We can surmise that the frequent repetition of this design in a number of variations represents the great branch adorned with all manner of flowers, fruits, and fabric scraps which is a part of Moldavian burial rites. Moreover, carpet designs include many stylized flowers which are called in Moldavian 'trandifir', i.e. a rose, or mallow. The background of most Moldavian carpets is black, although colored grounds are also sometimes used. They also make striped carpets. Carpets are therefore indispensable to the life of a Bessarabian, both as a necessity and a luxury in his daily existence.

"There is also another group of individuals who use carpets in their home environment: the priests. But they do not like the smooth Bessarabian carpets, and order instead large 'cropped' carpets. They always provide the patterns for the carpets themselves, and their choice can often be quite astonishing. For instance, during my visit to S. V. Kazitsyna's handicraft school in Khotin u'ezd, I was present during negotiations with a priest who had come with his wife to order a large carpet. Having first specified the exact dimensions of the carpet and the manner in which it was to be woven, i.e. 'cropped', the priest presented Madame Kazitsyna with a parcel containing the pattern he had chosen for his carpet. The design depicted a scene from Woe From Wit. In the background was the grand staircase leading to the second floor, while downstairs a lackey stood by the staircase wearing a three-cornered hat and a baldric, and holding a mace. In the center of the foreground stood the portly figure of Famusov in a tailcoat. To his left was Chatsky, thin and with his arms dangling at his sides, as if he'd just been thrown into the water. To his right was Sofia, while Liza stood a little behind him. Sofia held a handkerchief to her eyes with both hands, so that her face was covered. As he showed us the sketch, the priest said, 'Everything's fine, only uncover the girl's face'...One can well imagine what an ugly carpet must have resulted from the reproduction of this scene on a cropped carpet. But such was the client's taste, and in this case Madame Kazitsyna complied.

"There are two kinds of looms used by the weavers in Bessarabia: vertical and horizontal. The vertical looms, called 'razboi', are identical to the looms used in Kursk province, and there is therefore no need to describe them again here. The same is true of the horizontal looms, mentioned in my essay on carpet production in Poltava province, where they do double duty for weaving woollen and cotton fabrics, as well as smooth carpets.

"On my visit to the city of Kishenev in the summer of 1912, I was able to familiarize myself with the activities of the Bessarabian Zemstvo in constructing a Zoological, Agricultural and Kustar' Museum, and also to meet with several individuals engaged in putting together collections for the museum. Among other things, this exceptionally beautiful building contains a rich collection of carpets, both old and new.

"Thanks to the kind assistance of the agronomist Ia. M. Savchenko and the museum director's assistant 0. T. Kireeva, I was able to make a detailed study of this collection. They also provided me with some details on carpet weaving in Bessarabia province. Carpet weaving is widespread throughout the province, where the Moldavians use carpets both to furnish their homes and as part of their local customs. The production of carpets for sale occurs in Khotinskaia Bukovina (the northern part of Khotin u'ezd, which is settled by Ruthenians [Ukrainians].

"Because land allotments are inadequate -- about two tithes [4.5 acres] -- the population is forced to earn money in kustar' activities. As a result, it is here above all that measures could have been taken to develop the carpet trade. The principal shortcoming in carpet production is the lack of good patterns, and as a result the weavers use a variety of new, unrefined designs that lower the value of the carpets.

"There are no orders for carpets taken, since there is no organized market for them. Regarding the wages earned by the weavers, Ia. M. Savchenko referred me to a publication of the Provincial Authority, which puts it at 24 kopeks a day.

"According to Savchenko, the underlying factors that inhibit the development of the carpet trade in Bessarabian province are 1) lack of an organized market for the carpets and 2) inadequate instruction in the dyeing of yarn, weaving the carpets and disseminating artistic designs.

"As a supplement to the above information I include below facts gathered from a questionnaire investigating kustar industry that was distributed in 1912 by the Department of Agriculture and Agricultural Statistics.

"Sorok u'ezd. V. G. Dimitriu reports the following: 'There are approximately 150 to 200 households where women are engaged in making carpets from sheep's wool and weaving linen cloth. This type of work has been going on here for a long time, and it has become more widespread thanks to encouragement from the agricultural exhibitions....At an agricultural exhibition in the village of Edintsy two peasant women won a silver medal for their carpets, and that was as far as it went. Still, that sort of encouragement had an impact on other peasant women at the exhibition, but the problem was that they had no materials and had other day-to-day worries to deal with. The population of Bessarabia is made up mostly of Moldavians. On the local market their carpets and multicolored belts and hand-worked scarves are famous, but further afield no one has ever heard of them -- there's no one to popularize them. It would be gratifying to improve such a form of kustar' industry and not allow it to disappear, but it is very possible that that will happen, since the middlemen only consider the cost of the materials, ignoring the value of the work itself. Needy peasant women have to resort to all manner of compromises, while a carpet worth 100 to 150 rubles for the work alone is sold for peanuts.

"Khotin u'ezd. F. Ia. Lysyi reports of carpet production in the village of Rukshin, Rukshin volost' and part of Klimkov volost' that 'In winter, from the second part of October to early April, the peasant women are engaged in weaving, embroidery and carpet production. For the most part they make indoor runners, wall and floor carpets, and linen.

'It is impossible to calculate how many families are engaged in this work, since weaving and carpet making are carried out in almost every large family with teenage girls in Rukshin and Klimov volosts.

'Production of carpets, runners, towels and other woven goods has existed in these areas for over twenty years. Over the past decade it has increased because the region in question has little arable land and is heavily populated, and the craft supplements and supports the whole household....'

"Belets u'ezd. S. K. Popovich reports on the situation of carpet production in Belets u'ezd that 'In Belets-Slobodzei volost' as in other villages in the u'ezd, the peasant population is engaged in weaving carpets and linen.

'Since there are several families involved in this trade in every village in Belets u'ezd, it is impossible to ascertain their number. Weaving has gone on here for a very long time, but in recent years has declined. This can be explained by the decrease in pasture for sheep...The entire peasant population is engaged in agriculture, since kustar' craft is considered just a supplementary income which is impossible to survive on. In view of the conditions outlined above, improvements and development of the craft cannot be expected, since the population is engaged in it as a side-line only.'

"Bender u'ezd. D. D. Pisarzhevsky reports that 'Throughout the whole Bender u'ezd kustar' production, in the form of carpet and linen weaving, is confined entirely to domestic consumption. The kustar' crafts here cannot have any great significance since the population are very prosperous and lazy, and haven't the slightest desire to earn a living by their own labor or to put something away for a rainy day. Kustar' production will increase when the population feels a greater need for it.'"

Author/compiler Davydova was an experienced veteran of the kustar' textile industry. Her comment as to the distinctiveness of Bessarabian carpets needs perspective; to the untrained eye this distinctiveness is by no means obvious, and there are Kursk and Tiumen rugs which are superficially similar. And, some of the weavers were Ukrainians, a further complication.

Some of the details in the account are helpful: not all carpets were pileless, and hemp warp is diagnostic. Nontraditional designs were being used. But the main message may be of a general sort, and a cautionary one, for Bessarabian weaving does not appear to have been all that extensive. Given a much more substantial activity in Tiumen, there is a fair opportunity for misattribution. The account further suggests that not many pieces predate the 1890 kustar period, so there are, as well, good misdating potentials. If an item is identified as late 18th/early 19th century Bessarabian, there had better be some accompanying evidence.

  1. Davydova, S. A., et al, "Zhenskie Promysly", Kustarnaya Promyshlennost' rossii, St. Petersburg, 1913, pp.332--340, Research Report translation.
  2. Suruchan, D. D., "0 Kustarnykh promyslakh v Bessarabii , Bessarabskii vestnik, No. 15, 1889. Research Report translation.
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