Researchers believe that the ancestors of modern-day Belarusians began weaving items from straw at the turn of the II–I millennia BC. At that time, straw was used in rituals associated with bread and fertility. One of the most ancient types of straw weaving is spiral weaving. The technology is quite simple: bundles of straw are laid a spiral pattern and then tied together with vines, roots of coniferous trees, flax or hemp threads. This allows adjusting the thickness of the products and making spherical containers. The plasticity and golden color of the straw evoked associations with gold early on, and therefore straw weaving was used for decorating churches. For example, in the late 18th–early 19th centuries the Polesye region (Drahichyn and Kobrin Districts of the Brest Region) became home to a local tradition of making straw iconostases for Orthodox temples. Two pieces of straw gates for iconostasis made in the early 19th century can be now seen at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, and another one, at the Grodno State Museum of History and Archaeology. The Holy Gates of the iconostases of the Polesye churches are examples of very complex straw weaving and represent the pinnacle of craftsmanship of the straw weavers of Belarus.
Until the 19th century, straw hats were popular in Belarus. Making woven straw hats is believed to be the original Belarusian craft that developed independently from the European traditions. Straw accessories and hats are still used as an element of the national Belarusian costume that is worn on various holidays.
New Life of Ancient Tradition
Despite the tumultuous history of the 20th century, straw weaving flourished in Belarus: straw items were sold in markets; they were in demand both in villages and in towns as an interesting decoration item alluding to the traditional interior.
In the 1960–80s, straw weaving reached a new level, and its popularity spread beyond the borders of Belarus. This was due to the fact that factories in Brest, Mogilev, and Chachersk began large-scale production of straw souvenirs as well as decorative and functional straw products. Moreover, renowned masters, including Vera Gavrilyuk, Taisiya Agafonenko, Larisa Los, Lydia Glavatskaya, Tamara Pavlovskaya, at that time came up with new techniques of straw weaving and created a new genre of animalistic sculpture. Folk craft masters had the support of art establishments of the Belarus and had the opportunity to participate in exhibitions of the regional, republican, and All-Soviet scale.
Modern weavers can turn straw into unique masterpieces. They produce elegant headdresses such as caps, brim hats, and kokoshniks; make various utensils, including boxes, barrels, baskets, and jewel-cases; create toys and ornaments. Certain products have a sacred meaning, for example, “harvest wreaths” or “spiders” — Christmas charms made of straw.
In the 21st century, the value and potential of straw weaving as an object of historical and cultural heritage has become obvious. In 2017, the tradition of making straw “spiders” in the Bykhaw District of the Mogilev Region was named the historical and cultural landmark of the Republic of Belarus, and in 2019 the same status was assigned to the traditional technology of spiral weaving in the Vitebsk Region.
There are four main types of straw weaving: spiral weaving, weaving of flat and volumetric plattings, straw applique, and straws constructions (“spiders”). Artistic straw weaving applies a wide range of techniques, namely the use of twisted and flat plattings, rhombic inserts, straps, diagonal cuts, various interlacing of flat straws, creating three-dimensional products using a special frame, spiral weaving of straw straps tied together with willow laces or twine. There are many other straw processing techniques that ensure the abundance of shapes and highly decorative appearance of straw items.
In the 21st century, Belarusian straw weaving is entering the global arena. In 2020, the Ministry of Culture of Belarus together with the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts prepared the nomination Straw Weaving of Belarus: Art, Craft, Skills for inclusion in UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In March 2021, it was submitted to the Secretariat of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO. The application will be considered at the 17th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, to be held in Morocco from November 28 to December 3, 2022.
If successful, the Straw Weaving of Belarus: Art, Craft, Skills will become the fifth Belarusian object in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Other four are the Christmas rite of the Kalyady Tsars in the village of Semezhava, the celebration in honor of the Budslaŭ icon of Our Lady, the Spring rite of Juraŭski Karahod in the village of Pahost, and the wild tree beekeeping culture of Belarus.
The preservation and development of straw weaving is one of the priorities for the Belarusian government in the area of protection of cultural heritage. The work of artisans and craft associations is regulated by law, their rights are protected, and certain preferences are guaranteed, including tax benefits and various incentives such as awarding the People’s Master title and other personal awards.
The artistic practices of straw weaving are a living tradition that is continuously enriched. The country has an established system of teaching crafts, transferring of knowledge about processing the material, ensuring continuity of artistic traditions.
One can learn the art of straw weaving in numerous educational and cultural institutions for children and adults that operate across the country. Exhibitions and festivals of crafts and folk art are regularly held, including straw weaving contests within the framework of the Slavianski Bazaar Art Festival in Vitebsk. Straw weaving is studied at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Art, the Belarusian State Pedagogical University named after Maxim Tank, and other educational institutions.
State museums acquire the works of straw weaving masters and create museum collections. The most prominent collections of straw items can be found in the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, the National Historical Museum, the Museum of Ancient Belarusian Culture as well as major regional museums.
The National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Ethnology, and Folklore departments of the country’s leading universities as well as regional folklore centers are engaged in the identification, study, and promotion of straw weaving.
Belarusian artworks made of straw are unrivaled throughout the world. They are the national treasure of the Republic of Belarus and a major manifestation of the artistic tradition of the Belarusian people.
Henadzi Khodar, Consultant at the Department for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture of Belarus