Russian Tradition of Birchbark Craft


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.

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.


Birch-bark cylinder containers are most often ornamented. The process of manufacturing a birch-bark cylinder is quite complicated: the handyman needs to take the bark off the tree trunk very cautiously without damaging it. It will be the inside part of the container, which is whole and waterproof. Outside they are coated with birch-bark cut on one side. The coating piece is a little smaller than the inside part and it is closed with “a lock”. Afterwards a wooden bottom is driven into the base. A tight-fitting lid with a knob is cut. The handyman can decorate the coating with a geometrical or zoomorphic ornamental carving. Sometimes it can be a openwork floral ornament or a geometrical design.

Birch Bark and Household

Birch bark played an important role in the life of peasants in the North of Russia. It was widely used by people in Siberia and the Far East. One cannot picture peasant life without birch bark. This amazing material was applied everywhere, from toys to house construction.

Birch bark with its waterproof and antiseptic properties proved to be very helpful in building and prevented houses from dampness and rotting. The lower joisted floors, window sills, and overlappings served much longer if interlaid with birch bark. Birch bark is still used in some modern villages as roofing material for bath houses and storage rooms. A roof coated with birch bark serves for no less than 40 years.


A number of various birch bark utensils were of wide use in peasant household. Baskets were taken to forests for mushrooming and picking berries. Birch bark boxes served for storing vegetables, flour and grains. Birch bark cylinder containers were irreplaceable in storing dairy products, honey, fish and pickles. Saltcellars varied in size and type, frequently stylized as ducks. Cracked pots were restored by wreathing them with birch bark tape. Even simple horse harness was often made of birch bark.

Everything from footwear to a hat could be woven or stitched from birch bark. A suit with a hat, jacket, trousers, and boots made of birch bark was exposed at the All-Russian exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1882.

Shemogod Birch Bark Through Carving

Shemogod pro-carved birch bark is probably the most famous birch bark craft in Russia. It is well-known abroad as well. The craft developed in the Shemogod District was named after the small river of Shemoksa that flows into Northern Dvina near Velikiy Ustyug town.


168 people were engaged in the craft in the Shemogod District of Veliky Ustyug in 1882. “The best birch bark craftsmen live in the village of Kurovo-Navolok. They make highly refined birch bark items”, the Domestic Industries Review of the Vologda Province reads. It implied household items decorated with pro-carved birch bark. Handymen carved refined ornaments to decorate items’ walls and lids. Birch bark designs looked like a luxurious material against a dark or golden background. Naturally, it made the items much more attractive to customers.



  


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