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Russian Tradition of Birchbark Craft, Part 1
April 19, 2015 14:50


Birch bark craft has been known in this country since Novgorodian Russia (the 9th- 11th centuries). Birch bark boxes were in great popularity and demand in Russia from then on. Those were ideal for long storage of milk or water, as well as dry goods.
Birch bark items present an original form of folk arts and crafts. Russian handicraftsmen made great use of birch bark properties, such as outstanding softness, flexibility and durability kept even after processing.
Cylindrical birch-bark containers with tight-fitting lids were widely used for keeping food and drinks. Thus, for example, peasants took such containers with water or kvass to field work and the drink remained cold even on the hottest days. A peasant would wear a birch bark basket on the back and bast shoes, which were often made of birch bark. Boxes for flour and honey, bast baskets, shepherd's horns, and even ropes for fishing tackles - all these were made of birch bark.

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Manufacturing Techniques


Since ancient times birch bark has been a very attractive material of special value. This yielding, soft but resistant material was very popular for making braided works, such as boxes, baskets, bast shoes, bread boxes, and saltcellars. Birch bark containers with tight fitting lids were made of entire birch bark taken off like a stocking from a cut tree. Braided works were made in technique of direct and oblique plaiting. Boxes and baskets were rectangular, bast shoes copied the foot shape, and saltcellars imitated little ducks, small bottles, etc.
Braided birch-bark works are not decorated additionally as a rule. The shape of an item and soft, velvety texture of birch bark and its naturally rich variety play the main aesthetic role. Thus, spring birch-bark is of a coldish yellow color, whereas autumn birch-bark is of warm dark brown tints. Combining birch bark of different colors adds to the rich color effect.
Birch-bark is harvested in late May – early June, when juices are flowing and birch-bark easily comes off. Provided it was skillfully taken off, without damaging the next layer of bark, the tree was not harmed and grew up elegant white clothes in a few years again.
The first records of birch bark processing technique date back to the 18th century. Birch-bark carving can be and is traditionally done with very simple tools, such as a knife and a prod. A pattern outline is drawn first and then is carved with a sharp knife. Carving and stamping on birch bark were sometimes combined with embossing, which resulted granular surface patterns. This technique is long since known in metal processing. It has been applied in birch-bark craft since the 19th century.
In the Arkhangelsk Province boxes, cylinder containers, caskets, dishes, chests and other house utensils were made of birch-bark and painted with picturesque floral designs. As a rule, the handymen filled the item surface with a floral ornament of a thin meandering stalk with leaves and branches and smooth bends. Openwork "lace" of birch-bark was usually superimposed against a bright background of textile, foil or paper, thus adding to a highly decorative effect.

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Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Folk Arts Arts and Crafts Woodwork Birch-bark  

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