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A Stitch in Time: Germans From Russia Shawls Provide Glimpse of History

Johnson, Jessica. "A Stitch in Time: Germans From Russia Shawls Provide Glimpse of History." College of Human Development and Education Magazine, Spring 2006, 17-18.


Ann Braaten wanted to learn more about German from Russia women and their lives in rural North Dakota in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An NDSU Professor with 25 years’ experience studying textiles, she decided to accomplish her goal by researching their shawls.

Germans from Russia (GFR) began immigrating to the United States in 1872 to escape animosity directed toward them and conscription into the Russian military. Because the landscape in south central North Dakota was similar to their adopted Russian homeland, many Germans from Russia settled there. Today more than 40 percent of the state’s population is of German from Russia extraction.

In those early days on the North Dakota prairie, GFR women were so busy managing their households they didn’t have time to make written accounts of their daily lives. But the shawls they brought with them from Russia tell a story.

Artifacts, including shawls, can “reveal the beliefs, values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions of a particular community or society at a given point in time,” says Braaten, assistant professor in the department of apparel, design, facility and hospitality management. Using a method known as material culture study, which concentrates on an artifact or object, Braaten set out to answer the question, “Just what is a GFR shawl and what do their shawls reveal about their culture?”

Part of her research involved traveling to towns in North Dakota to interview GFR families about their shawls to learn the history and meaning behind them. In Ashley, N.D., families brought their textiles to the Senior Citizens’ Center to be examined after a cup of coffee. Braaten also met with participants at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society annual convention in Bismarck.

“GFR women brought both hand-woven and factory-made shawls out of Russia,” Braaten says. “Women whose families originated from the Kogaelnik River Valley in Bessarabia brought brightly colored, hand-woven striped and plaid shawls. Families with hand-woven shawls brought out before 1910 recalled that the women had the skills to process fiber into shawls.” The shawls were most often passed down on the maternal side of the family.

In all, Braaten examined 36 shawls owned by 22 families. The shawls came primarily from Bessarabia near Odessa, the modern-day Moldova, Romania and Ukrainian region. Several are now part of NDSU’s Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.

Braaten focused on the shawls’ physical characteristics. She recorded whether they were factory or handmade, who owned them and where the owners lived in Russia and the United States. Braaten then categorized the shawls by fiber and weave.

Most shawls she studied were made of wool or a combination of wool and flax or cotton. Some contained silk. Weaves varied from plain to Jacquard. Color choices were consistent, bright and still vivid today, suggesting skill in the dying process.

The GFR shawls also tell the story of the political climate in turn-of-the-century Russia. Political sentiment in Russia had turned against the German colonists in 1871. “Families living in Russia from the late 1890s on reported that their hand-woven shawls were used exclusively in their homes as bed and wall covers and were not worn as shawls,” Braaten says. Instead they wore factory-made shawls of woven wool and silk so they would visually fit into the dominant Russian culture during political unrest.

The importance of the shawls is evident in the fact that they were moved with families through war and relocations, and were made and worn on American soil. “At night on the prairie, families would spin wool together. The yarn in the striped shawls reflects that family activity,” Braaten says. Silk shawls were typically reserved for church and special occasions, and their owners were often buried in them. GFR women continued to wear black, fringed, worsted wool head shawls through the 1950s in some rural North Dakota communities.

Braaten’s research is complete and she is now in the process of preparing articles for publication and presentation. As a result of her research, the history of this generation of Germans from Russia will be preserved along with its textiles.

Printed with permission of the Office of University Relations, North Dakota State University, Fargo, Spring, 2006

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