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07 April 2022, 17:15

IN PICTURES: Slutsk sashes. The story of a woman who helped revive the brand after 200 years of oblivion

Larisa Tarasova
Larisa Tarasova

The project “The Destiny of Women - the Destiny of the United Belarus” by Alina Grishkevich, a journalist, a member of the Board of the Belarusian Union of Women, continues through the Year of Historical Memory that was declared in Belarus to preserve the national legacy and the truth about various periods of Belarusian history.

The project was launched in 2021. That year was declared the Year of People's Unity. It marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Great Patriotic War and the 30th anniversary of the Belarusian Union of Women.

The project views the destiny of women through the prism of the common history of the country, the common destiny of Belarus that has been shaped by our female compatriots humbly, confidently and tirelessly. The project features both famous and previously unknown women. Each of the heroines has her own life path, sometimes a very difficult one, but it is associated with creative energy and patriotism that cement the state, unite and bind the society.

This story is about Larisa Tarasova who devoted about 40 years of her life to promotion of folk crafts as she worked at the Slutsk Sashes company. Now she is the deputy director at the company. She headed up the company at a time when an effort was mounted to bring back from oblivion the lost tradition of weaving the famous Slutsk sashes, one of Belarus' most famous brands. In 2012, a government program was passed to revive the technologies and traditions of making Slutsk sashes, which gave a new lease on life to the ancient Belarusian tradition.

The heroine recalls interesting moments and previously unknown facts about the revival of the centuries-old tradition. This material recounts the story of the revival of the technology and describes the weaving process and the creation of an exclusive loom, it also tells a nearly mystical story about how Radziwill ‘gave the go-ahead' to the undertaking.

Native of Slutsk District

She was born and raised in Slutsk District, an ancient land known for its glorious history and talents. Larisa Tarasova is from the village of Yachevo near Slutsk, where she lives to this day.

While studying at Slutsk Secondary School No. 1, she was fond of sports, music, was the secretary of the local branch of Komsomol. In other words, she was an ordinary Soviet schoolgirl who had an active and interesting school life.

She comes from an ordinary family - her father was a construction worker, her mother was a milkmaid. Therefore, from early childhood she helped her parents with housework. She remembers very well family stories about the Great Patriotic War, about her maternal grandfather who joined the army in 1942, but never made it to the front as the Germans bombed a train with recruits near Osipovichi. The family cherishes the history of their ancestors and their Motherland and passes these values and attitudes to the younger generation.

Although there are no renowned weavers in the family of Larisa Tarasova, hand-made woven and embroidered towels and carpets, as well as bedding and table linen have always been part and parcel of her everyday life and special occasions. Therefore, the girl understood that this was an important part of the life of her relatives.

“My grandmother lived in Yachevo where my family lives to this day,” Larisa Tarasova tells her family story. “When the Great Patriotic War broke out, the suburbs of Slutsk were constantly bombed, as military units were stationed there. My grandmother took all her simple belongings, including hand-made household items, and moved to her father who lived in a remote village hidden between the forests. It did not help, though, since punitive brigades burned the entire village down. All grandmother's belongings were destroyed by the fire. Like almost everyone else, she had to start everything from scratch. After the war, she took to weaving. After all, in the past weaving was a very common craft among women and this tradition was passed down from generation to generation. Whoever had looms, was considered to be rich. My mother later inherited these original looms from my grandmother. We still have a blanket in the form of a carpet that can be hung on the wall.”

Weaving used to be a very popular craft among Belarusians. Our ancestors wove bedspreads, tablecloths, towels, shirts. They also grew flax and kept sheep to produce raw material for weaving. They also processed this raw material, dyed it with natural dyes, spun yarn and wove beautiful products. These beautiful things were part and parcel of their everyday life. The love for traditional woven products was passed down from generation to generation. And this was the reason why the tradition of weaving Slutsk sashes was revived.

Since childhood, Larisa Tarasova learned to embroider with satin stitch, cross stitch, crochet and knitting needles. She still keeps her hand-made duvet covers and pillowcases. When she got married and gave birth to a baby girl, she knitted suits and trousers, because it was a time when all kinds of goods, including clothing, were in short supply, and needlework came in handy for the young family. She does not do this anymore, although sometimes she wants to craft something beautiful for her grandchildren. There are two of them - 16-year-old Gleb and two-year-old Valeria.

Over 40 years with Slutsk Sashes

Larisa Tarasova has been working at Slutsk Sashes since 1980. She got a job there as an embroiderer right after school and stayed with the company. Thanks to her hard work, dedication, commitment to perfection, she was promoted to the position of the company director.

She met her husband at a dance party. The guy was from a neighboring village. He studied at an agricultural college in Lyakhovichi and came home for the weekend. They dated for two years before they decided to get married. Larisa was 19 years old when she gave birth to her daughter Emma. Right after the wedding she lived with her mother-in-law, and later her husband was offered a house by the local collective farm where he worked.

After a brief maternity leave, Larisa returned to work. Step by step, she learned various skills and mastered a great number of specific tasks. One day she was appointed director of the enterprise that would later become one of the key companies in the Belkhudozhpromysly system of the Belarus President Administration.

...She worked as a carding equipment operator when she decided to fulfill her and her parents' dream of getting vocational training. She got enrolled in an extramural program at Baranovichi Light Industry College. Apart from household chores and the college, she devoted a lot of time to professional growth. Her determination, integrity, commitment to perfection and kindness to people were appreciated by the management and she moved up the career ladder. She held the positions of a laboratory technician, an HR specialist, a shop manager, a chief engineer working in each role for about five years. Meanwhile, she graduated from Vitebsk State Technological University. In 2005, the company director who was going to retire suggested that Larisa Tarasova should take over her job.

Larisa Tarasova was in charge of the company from 2005 to 2020 when she decided to retire only to be back a year later. She responded to the calls from the company and has since been deputy director.

More than 40 years at one enterprise is, of course, a long journey to be proud of, especially considering the mission entrusted to the company – to revive the Slutsk sashes, which was a great honor and a great responsibility.

Life's work

Larisa Tarasova made her contribution to the revival of Slutsk sashes. "This has been my life's work," she said.

She recalled that when attending church services she would pray for the family health and also for the prosperity of the company she headed.

In April 2012 she heard Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko say on TV that the country would revive the Slutsk sashes weaving tradition. She strongly hoped that the government would assign this mission to her hometown of Slutsk, the historical homeland of this folk craft. After all, it was on the Slutsk land that this manufacture flourished more than two centuries ago. Her hopes were fulfilled.

History of the Slutsk sashes dates back to the 18th century

Let's turn to the historical background. Slutsk had its heyday in the second half of the 18th - the first half of the 19th centuries and it was known for the production of sashes, which later got the name ‘Slutsk sashes', at the manufactory owned by the Radziwills. Back then, sashes were the height of men's fashion. According to historians, this trend was imported to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the East - the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

Under the guidance of the craftsman from Istanbul Jan Madjarski and then his son Leo Madjarski the Slutsk Manufactory, or "persiarna", annually made about 200 sashes of the finest work. Those were true masterpieces made by skillful artists and weavers using silk, silver and gold threads.

Sashes were simple yet extremely impressive. A long narrow fabric was divided across into three parts - the largest middle part and two end parts of the same size. An important element was the fringe, which was attached to the ends. The middle part was in most cases horizontal stripes (smooth or with a small vegetative, geometric or similar pattern); the end parts necessarily featured a large plant motif. The entire composition was completed with strips along the perimeter, as in a frame.

Such a design with accentuated end parts was due to the manner that sashes were worn in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After all, the kontusz sash was not usually tied into a knot. It was wrapped around the waist, with its ends put over the middle part and carefully straightened in front, at some distance from each other, which was considered top fashion at that time.

However, such an accessory was very expensive. The poor could hardly afford even one such sash.

The sashes made by Radziwill's Slutsk Manufactory rapidly gained popularity throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Other well-known factories, even in the French Lyon, began to copy the sashes made in Slutsk. Yet, it was the original sashes from Slutsk that were reputed to be the height of perfection.

Slutsk Manufactory was famous for making reversible four-sided sashes that were most often woven with the use of silver and gold threads.

By the way, beautiful fashion accessories of domestic production were much cheaper than those imported from abroad.

The art of making Slutsk sashes was a huge contribution of the Belarusian people to the world treasure trove of culture, decorative and applied art. This is a true cultural phenomenon in both Belarusian and Western European art.

The famous Belarusian poet Maksim Bogdanovich poeticized the sashes in one of his poems called Slutsk Weavers.

The sashes embody the centuries-old art of hand weaving in the Belarusian land, the great diligence of Belarusians and also the Radziwills' love of culture and folk art.

Now Slutsk sashes are among the most famous brands of Belarus. Their unique samples are kept not only in Belarus but also abroad, for example in the State Historical Museum on Red Square in Moscow.

The idea of revival

It was not surprising that the independent Belarus wanted to revive the long-forgotten tradition of weaving Slutsk sashes, which at one time symbolized the unique talent and diligence of Belarusian artisans. Less than two years passed from the idea voiced in April 2012 to the first woven sash.

By the way, it was not immediately decided that this project would go to Slutsk. Other options were also on the table.

Larisa Tarasova recalled: "The first meeting on this topic was held by the head of the Belarus President Property Management Directorate in May of 2012. We needed to prove that our company was up to the task, as this project was of great importance. Of course, I was fully determined to pitch our case in the best way possible but was not sure that we would be chosen. I was well aware that they would weigh all the pros and cons before making an informed choice. My arguments were as follows: the availability of the production capacities, weaving equipment, raw materials, and most importantly the necessary skills. Our highly qualified specialists had been honing their skills for decades. Intelligent, talented and committed, our people are our main asset."

It seemed that the director of the company was convincing as the choice was made in favor of Slutsk. She was unspeakably happy about it. Yet, the feeling of responsibility was building up exponentially. Understanding the importance of the mission, the team and the company embarked on a new stage of life associated with the project to revive the Slutsk weaving tradition.

All strategic decisions were made at the level of the President Property Management Directorate the company is affiliated with. A huge number of specialists in various areas of expertise were involved in the project, in order to take care of all the aspects of the upcoming large-scale work. Everything was worked out in detail, starting from the most complex process of reviving the old weaving technology using the modern weaving equipment, which was the job of the Design Department of Vitebsk State Technological University and department head Galina Kazarnovskaya, to the design of the one and only loom by Germany's Mageba, and to the search for manufacturers of silk, gilded and silver-plated threads.

The organizational work was very complex.

A team of talented organizers and highly qualified specialists from all over the country worked to realize this project.

Мageba

“A separate issue was to find partners who could make a unique loom. We considered many companies that hypothetically could take on such a difficult task,” Larisa Tarasova recalled. “After all, machines for textile production are standardized. But we needed absolutely unique weaving equipment. We looked for someone who would help us. Simultaneously, we were working on computer software for the machine and searching for yarn. Many Belarusian specialists and embassies were involved in this work.”

“After a while we learned about a German company that takes on exclusive orders, and our spirits improved immediately,” Larisa Tarasova continued. “We contacted the company, but they did not give us the answer instantly. Later we learned that they first went to Lyon in France to study the technology of manufacturing sashes. The French city has an old mechanical machine, and it is in a working condition. Mageba experts carefully studied the machine and, of course, Slutsk sashes. Only after that they agreed to make the machine we needed.”

It took German designers and specialists around nine months to fulfill the Belarusian order. They made a loom with jacquard, weaving and warping machines.

Meanwhile, the sewing workshop in Slutsk was upgraded to host the new production. Founded in 1956, the sewing workshop got an overhaul, including new engineering structures, heating, ventilation, and sewerage systems. The new company was designed to host a manufacturing and cultural complex with a workshop to make Slutsk sashes, a history museum, a souvenir shop and a cafe. The renewed workshop has become one of the town's landmarks.

While the weaving machine was being developed in Germany, the 50-year-old sewing workshop in Slutsk quickly turned into a modern weaving complex. By the way, the company's museum has a lot of interesting information about the history of Slutsk sashes and attracts crowds of visitors. They get an opportunity to feel the atmosphere of the town two centuries ago.

Specialists from Belarus traveled to Germany several times to see the process of making the world's unique weaving machine.

Larisa Tarasova took the whole process very much to heart: “We had a lot of worries: What if the project goes south, what if our partners let us down, what if something goes wrong. I lost my sleep. I would go to bed and get up with my head buzzing with thoughts. I was very anxious and so was everybody involved in the project. We were a big team of people, each responsible for their specific tasks as part of the common large-scale mission.”

She added: “When we came to Germany for the machine, we needed to test it and weave a piece of cloth. We had to do it not with a gold-plated or silver-plated thread, as the technology requires, but with a synthetic thread they had. This complicated the process. I remember everyone was very nervous. We spent there an entire week. It took us two days just to properly tuck in the weaving thread. Galina Kazarnovskaya was there too. She was the one who recreated the technology, step by step. It was very delicate work… We had to leave the following day and we still did not have the desired result. Nothing was working out. The whole thing was simply a nightmare. Finally at night we got the machine do its work properly. We managed to weave everything we wanted, both the head and the rim of the Slutsk sash. Everything worked, and it was just a blessing for us.”

… It was September 2013. It took a couple of weeks to deliver the machine in two large trucks from Germany to Slutsk. When the equipment arrived at the plant, cranes were already waiting there to unload the containers. We needed some three hours to carefully unload the long-awaited machine. The machine was about six meters high. The equipment was mounted and adjusted by Belarusian and German specialists. The work proceeded very smoothly.

“There came a moment when I just felt at peace. The machine was there, installed and ready for work. Most of the worries were over, as it seemed to me at the time,” Larisa Tarasova recalled. “We could not leave the long-awaited machine just for a second. We switched it on and made a foundation.”

Golden threads of the Great Silk Road

“A great deal of work was done. We developed the technology, purchased the equipment, yarns, put together a team of specialists to work in the new workshop,” Larisa Tarasova said. “I never had any doubts that everything would be done properly. I had no such thoughts, although I had a lot of worries. Everything came out well thanks to well-organized teamwork. Such a large-scale project was fulfilled in less than two years.

According to her, not least important was the search for raw fabrics - threads. Vitebsk State Technological University studied the threads the original sash was made of, the linear density, the number of turns per meter.

“We wanted all the technical characteristics to be as they were back then. We visited a lot of places and contacted many specialists,” Larisa Tarasova said. “The core thread for the Slutsk sash should be silk, wrapped in a flat gold-plated or silver-plated thread. The thread should be no thicker than a human hair. We studied companies in many countries of Europe, in Switzerland, but the quality was not the one we needed... In the end we decided on a Russian gold-plated and silver-plated thread and on silk made by a Chinese textile company.

To Radziwill for a blessing

I was told an interesting story in Slutsk ….

It would seem that nothing escaped the general close attention of specialists at the enterprise, who became pioneers in the restoration of ancient weaving techniques. Nevertheless, in the first few days and even weeks of operating the new machine, it was as if some mystical tricks prevented even weaving at least a tiny piece of the fabric of a copy of the Slutsk sash.

Everything was done absolutely correctly nothing came out of it at all: the threads got confused, then they broke, then it was not possible to weave the edge.

The process was as if under someone's invisible mystical ban, to overcome which it was necessary to perform some unknown sacrament or deed. Confidence in this grew stronger in women every day, because no matter what and no matter how they did, they could not weave a proper sash.

Night vigils of the weavers, the management, and the engineers also did not produce anything. Time passed, but the stalemate remained despite neither the wonderful sophisticated machine, nor the new workshop, nor the techniques learned by heart.

It is unclear how many more weavers would have worked so unsuccessfully on the weaver's canvas if one day they had not been struck by the thought: they must go to Nesvizh, where the ashes of a Radziwill rest. He may be refusing to give his blessing to the new business or rather to the continuation of his family business.

Now you can, of course, be skeptical about such an idea, but then it seemed the only true one.

...It was a cold autumn, it was drizzling, when two employees of the enterprise from Slutsk entered the Nesvizh Palace, went down to the basement not far from the relics of the Radziwills. The crypt was dark and cold. Words with prayers and requests for blessing of the weaving of copies of the Slutsk sashes fell loudly into the dusk and haughty silence of the Radziwill family crypt. It was surreal...

The Slutsk women came back without even telling anyone about their trip. However, literally a day later everything went like clockwork, as if there had been no sleepless nights and torn-up golden threads. As the saying goes, believe it or not.

The first sash was like the first child, a long-awaited and beloved child. Now it occupies its rightful place in the Palace of Independence. When it was ready, the women simply cried with happiness. It turned out the smooth sash is a feast for the eyes even. As well as all the subsequent ones.

...And the unforgettable canvases of flower fields, gold and silver heaps flowed on. The meadows regally spread on the canvas to captivate the charm of discreet Belarusian flowers. You can't take your eyes off the blooming lush vegetation accentuated by sunny gold threads.

The Slutsk sashes are the beauty of the Belarusian landscapes and nature that uplifts the soul, the greatness and power of the Universe. This beauty awakens creative feelings, delights and inspires through the ashes of centuries.

Exclusive profession – there are two weavers of Slutsk sashes in Belarus

The bulk of the Slutsk Sashes team are women. Among them are two weavers who currently create copies of the Slutsk sashes. The profession is exclusive - there are only two such specialists in the whole country. These are Natalya Misko, who has been working at the enterprise for more than ten years, as well as a young specialist Yekaterina Alferovich.

They love their profession and are happy to weave not only the sashs themselves but also souvenirs with the attributes of the Slutsk sashes - panels, handbags, mini-sashes.

I don't know whether young Slutsk ladies dream of becoming a Slutsk weaver and whether they realize the significance of this profession. After all, the one who weaves the world-famous Slutsk sashes, or rather their copies, and other Belarusian products, is engaged not just in art, but weaves the history of modern Belarus, weaving the warmth of their soul and skill into the canvas of patterns.

...There are many different stories and tales that still remain in grandfather's chests together with various antiquity accessories, "dyvans" and towels, the Slutsk sashes themselves or their elements can be stored somewhere. Whether jokingly or seriously, locals say that once a visitor to the museum was interested in the approximate cost of the original Slutsk sash, which is allegedly stored somewhere in his grandfather's chest. Experts, of course, do not exclude the possibility that this may be, however, they consider such a probability to be very small.

Shuttle accompaniment

The meaning and language of the Slutsk sashes is simple, understandable and clear. The frantic revel of life, the grandeur of nature, replete with plants and flowers, the eternal holiday and triumph of life are poured into the pictures of the Slutsk sash. The magic is that the patterns created two centuries ago have not lost their actual feeling.

The ancient genius of the Belarusian people was embodied in folk weaving, in inexhaustible creativity, the masterpieces of which have not been lost, have come down to us. Beauty supports us in life, gives spiritual harmony and ecstasy. Therefore, it is so important that the art of weaving be passed on from generation to generation, so that our children should not only know about folk traditions, but should also adopt them themselves, preserving and enriching the cultural heritage.

Fancy patterns of silk threads

...It is interesting that Chinese silk was one of the most important goods on the Great Silk Road. And now that the Belt and Road initiative has taken over, Chinese silk is once again a sought-after commodity in modern world trade. Everything in this world is closely intertwined with invisible threads of earthly existence. By the way, modern Slutsk sashes are now also in China - they are presented as national gifts during visits and high-level meetings. The silk thread from which the Slutsk sash is made also united the peoples of the two countries.

...The fate of the Slutsk woman Larisa Ivanovna Tarasova is closely woven into the canvas of the common fate of Belarus. The revival of the Slutsk sashes is such a wonderful page of her working biography in her life. In her private life, she on par with her husband keeps the family afloat: together they have raised a daughter who lives in Minsk, they are happy to watch their grandchildren grow and mature.

The woman dreams of their getting an education, finding professions to their liking and being good and decent people, creating a peaceful future for their native Belarus, in which there will be a place for folk traditions passed down through centuries and generations.

Alina GRISHKEVICH,

BelTA.-0-

Photos by Pavel Orlovsky and Alina Grishkevich

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