Posted: 06.04.2023 12:23:00

Linen and silk with special chic

The folk craftswoman from Lida Valentina Silvanovich wove over a hundred towels, never repeating the pattern

Snow-white towels, the patterns on which are woven not with colour, but with an intricate relief on the fabric, are the unique white-patterned weaving of Ponemonie (Neman River area), a historical and cultural value of our country. The technique of creating such beauty is so complex that the tradition of its use has developed and taken root only among the needlewomen of Lida District. Among those who still carefully keep the secrets of creating such woven fabrics is Valentina Silvanovich, a folk craftswoman of Belarus, an employee of the Department of Crafts and Traditional Culture of the Lida District Centre of Culture and Folk Art.

Сloseness to the roots

Needlework is an occupation familiar for Valentina Genrikhovna from her childhood. As a schoolgirl, she sewed clothes for dolls, knitted and crocheted. In winter, a special place was given to a loom in a village house. The craftswoman recalls that they installed it in the hut of her own aunt after the New Year and actively used it until spring — at a time when there is a pause in field work and rural women can devote their free time to weaving. The family kept sheep, sheared them and stored wool, and also bought coloured yarn in large quantities. Therefore, by winter, usually half the room was clogged with thread. During the season, Valentina’s grandmother and two aunts managed to turn them into wonderful towels, bedspreads and carpets.
“We children were allowed to wind the spools, which were then inserted into the looper. The wool was grey and milky. White is usually dyed. After it acquired a different colour, the skeins had to be unwound — this was also our duty,” the craftswoman shares her memories. 
When it came time to choose a profession, Valentina Silvanovich decided to become a handicraft teacher, later she received a higher education and, in addition, she was able to teach children the Belarusian language and literature. She devoted 16 years to pedagogy: she taught children in a rural school the wisdom of needlework, her native language and culture.

White on white

She had to change her occupation after moving to Lida: the family got an apartment here. Having come to work at the district centre of culture and folk art, Valentina met her former student here, whom she once taught to sew, knit, and cook at handicraft lessons. But this time, her student already acted as a mentor, an experienced weaver, passing on her skills. So, in 2015, Valentina Silvanovich sat down at the handloom for the first time.

“Little by little I learned this art. A distinctive feature of towels made using the technique of white-patterned weaving is a rich snow-white fabric, along the edges of which there can be a coloured pattern and lace. The authentic material for them was bleached linen threads. Later, about a century ago, it was considered especially chic to add silk to linen. It was not so easy to get a silk thread, but in order for the fabric to have a special shine, the locals went after it on foot to the Lithuanian Salcininkai. Another element of the chic of that time was the weaving of shiny red threads into the fabric of the towel, with ropes from which bales with various goods were tied. The natural colour of linen is grey, but our ancestors wanted the fabric to be more festive. In order for the linen to become snow-white, the finished linen was laid out in a meadow. In winter, they wove, and in summer the sun and rain gave the fabric the right colour. A week was enough — and the fabric brightened. As for the coloured part, since there were no chemical dyes before, natural ones were used. Orange — onion skins, black and grey — soot, green — tree leaves, greenish yellow — nettles, red — beets,” the craftswoman says.

Valentina Silvanovich is sure that the most difficult thing in weaving is not the process of creating a patterned fabric, but preparing the handloom. Usually there were few women who mastered this art in the village — one or two. They were specially invited to prepare the machine, of course, for a certain fee. It is very difficult to distribute the threads evenly over the warp winding shaft. It is impossible for at least one thread to sag or stretch unnecessarily: such a defect will later affect the quality of the fabric, and it will be insane waste of the time, effort and material spent. 
Therefore, when the craftswomen were busy preparing the handloom, the door to the house was bolted so that at that time no one would come in and distract them from this responsible occupation. It is enough to lose concentration for a very short time — and a mistake will be made, which will become noticeable only on the finished fabric. Such work required almost a day, or even more. For example, for a towel it is necessary to stretch 640 threads.

Endless story

Restoring the traditional technique of white-patterned weaving, Lida craftspeople initially focused on authentic historical ornaments, examples of which were at their disposal. Later they supplemented the variety with their own patterns.
“During the work in this technique, we were able to make sure that it was indeed widespread in this area. Sometimes you want to try to weave something of your own, but authentic towels with new patterns are constantly brought to us. You see them — and you want to try to weave one, the other, and the third… So that you understand: white-patterned weaving includes a dozen techniques, and in one technique, for example, four types of towels are obtained. And there are an incredible number of patterns: checkers, stripes, streams and rows... Only I have woven more than a hundred towels together with a colleague, and at the same time we have never repeated the same pattern,” Valentina Silvanovich shares her observations.

Recently, Valentina Silvanovich received the title of People’s Master of Belarus. She has made a lot of efforts to revive the unique old craft over the years of her passion for weaving, and today she is doing everything to captivate Lida schoolchildren with traditional needlework. By the way, among those who once visited the centre with a class during the excursion, there were girls who later came here to learn white-patterned weaving. They are ready to pick up the baton of preserving this amazing historical and cultural value.

By Katerina Charovskaya
Photos by Aleksey Bibikov, BELTA