Vladimir Yarish

White Birch, White Nights

Although many factories in Novgorod, Russia, have closed since the fall of the Soviet Union, cottage industries are developing and thriving, especially in the arts and crafts. People in Russia as here in the U. S. have renewed appreciation for hand-produced goods. Many Russian cultural and art centers have survived the political changes, providing a place for artisans in many fields to work, study, teach and hold exhibitions. More people are taking an interest in learning skills in wood carving, bobbin lace making, and, of course, weaving. While these skills are satisfying, people also find extra income to be most helpful in an uncertain world.

Vladimir Yarish has been working hard to increase public awareness and appreciation of Russian basketry in his region. After graduating from the Cultural Academy in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), he went to Novgorod in 1980 to teach music at the cultural college there. Luckily for us, he soon discovered weaving. Music took a back seat, and he is still weaving 13 years later. A highly skilled weaver, he is an enthusiastic teacher, gladly sharing his time and expertise with students and those who don't weave but are interested in the process or history. He founded a studio for weaving and teaching in Novgorod which has grown to about 40 members. Students include people who just love making baskets and those who had to learn a money-making skill. In addition to weaving and selling his baskets, he has also been researching the long history of basketry in Russia; he is very proud of the birch bark tradition.

Novgorod is not far from forests of white birch, the Russian version of our "basket tree." June is the time of "white nights," when daylight lingers and the night is never quite dark. The long days of June are also the days to harvest bark. Vladimir goes to the forest for his year's supply. With a sharp knife, he checks the interior bark color, preferring the light color. If the color is satisfactory, he then makes a long vertical cut through the bark and peels it off all the way around. The tree is not harmed and will be usable again in eight to ten years.

Once harvested, he prepares bark for weaving. He splits it to remove the outer, rough layer. (The Russians do not use the white exterior.) The inner layers are smooth and soft and can readily be split again, much like get satin-satin ash. He stores the bark, now in sheets, in plastic shopping bags so that the pieces stay flat. Some he may cut into long strips which he will roll into a ball.

Vladimir makes baskets in the traditional Russian style with diagonal plaits and double walls. After cutting the strips to size, he wipes them with canola oil, which makes the bark is very pliable, almost leather-like. He uses few tools: scissors, a "kostik," which is an awl he makes from a screwdriver, and yes, clothespins! They look a bit different from ours but serve the same purpose. The strips are placed close togetherthere are no spaces. After he weaves the sides, then he brings the weaves down the outside. He uses a variety of curls for finishing.

Besides baskets, he makes sandals, boots, purses and salt cellars. Many Russians carry a personal, pocket-size salt cellar. Another favorite item for him and students alike is a cube containing pebbles; it can be put on a string for a necklace. Russian rumor says that shaking it keeps the evil spirits away and brings good luck.

One of the greatest end results of weaving is not the finished basket. More important and gratifying is the weaving of new friendships. As a new, warmer relationship is developing between former adversaries, so it is with the people; the Russians and the Americans are developing friendships as individuals, are learning about each other's lives and work, and are appreciating traditional crafts and skills.

(Thanks to Lorraine Wieskamp for harvesting information.)

Ann Harrow Ridgeway

Pictures taken during Valdimir's visit:

Vladimir's Canisters --

Some of Vladimir's American friends --

Vladimir with Diana Macomber, maker of woven Canada geese decoys --

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