Sluck (Slutsk) sashes

Double-sided sash, Sluck, 1778-1807, silk weaving. Photo source

Being a bit nostalgic about the days I spent in Belarus recently I decided to write about something Belurusian. And there can not be a better choice than Sluck sashes , real treasure of Belarusian culture. This type of handwork was produced in Belarus (then Rzeczpospolita) in the second half of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sluck sashes were named after the city of Slutsk (Minsk region), where they were first produced in 18th century to replace expensive imported sashes from the Orient. Such sashes from Ottoman Empire, Persia, Iran and China were very popular among the nobles of the time and served not only as a decorative element of the costume but as a symbol of high social status and wealth as well.

Reconstruction of a noble man's costume of 1770 at the Mirsky Castle Complex

In 1758 two Armenians weavers, Lyavon Madzharsky and his father Jan, invited by knyaz (prince) Michael Kazimir Radzivill managed to establish the first major production of sashes on Radzivill's estate in Slutsk. Being born in Istanbul the masters brought with them the oriental tradition of making silk sashes and taught it to local weavers. Yan Madzharsky was a very talented artist. In many cases he did not even make any special sketches but just improvised. He was also an outstanding organizer. Only with the advent of Madzharsky a sash had become recognized as actually the Sluck sash.

Four-sided sash, Sluck, 1762-1780.Slutsk Museum of Local History

It was here in Sluck that unique four-patterned designs were invented. Sashes were woven with two different patterns along the length on both sides. The sash could be folded to display any of the four possible colour-ways. The brightest part, often enhanced by gold or silver, would be worn at weddings and other festive occasions; the parts with a black or dark, background were worn during funerals and other sad occasions.
Compositionally a sash represents a long (3-4 m) and narrow (30-50 cm) cloth divided across into three parts - the longest central part and two panels at the ends (heads). An important element of a sash is a fringe attached to the ends. The center is usually decorated with crosswise stripes, can be plain or with fine floral or geometrical design, the heads have the richest and most striking patterns. All composition is arranged with borders on the perimeter like a framework. Such a design of the sash with an accent put on the end panels was caused by the fashion of the sash wearing in Rzeczpospolita: the sash was usually fastened without making a knot. It was wound around the waist, with the heads set over the central part and smoothed down at the front to attach people's attention. Sluck sashes were woven with silk, gold, and silver threads. Depending on the length and width each sash contained from 65-70 to 140-200 g of precious metal.

Reconstruction of a noble man's costume of the 18th century at the Nesvizh Castle

Four-patterned sash, Sluck, 1767-80, silk, metal-wrapped thread with metallic fringe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Four-patterned sash, Sluck, second half of the 18th century, silk, gilded threads. 

Four-patterned sash, Sluck, second half of the 18th century, silk, gilded threads. Photos source

First sashes produced in Sluck were decorated with patterns borrowed from the imported articles. But in course of time the oriental exotic bouquets were replaced by the local motifs: easily recognized forget-me-nots, cornflowers, poppies, and bluebells. Maxim Bohdanovich, a famous Belarusian poet of the early 19th century, poetically decribed how it happened in one of his most known poems "Sluck Sashes Weaver Girls":
From native huts, from native cornfields 
 Unlucky Belarusian girls 
 Are taken by a lord to courtyard 
 To weave adoring golden girdles. 

The time slows down, girls are drafted, 
 Forgotten youth is lost in days 
 While golden threads are deftly crafted 
 They weave the belts in Persian ways. 

On other side, the fields are smiling, 
 The sky is gleaming like a ring 
 And thoughts are flying by in silence 
 To pathways of the blooming spring. 

 Inside rye-fields in shining distance 
 Cornflowers blue under the sky. 
 The river streams in chilling silver 
 Among the hills are running high. 

The edge of oak-wood’s darker getting… 
 And hand, ignoring clue design, 
 Is weaving not the Persian pattern, 
 But blue cornflower native sign.
(translated by Leonid Zuborev)

Beautiful...though researchers are inclined to the view that weaving of Sluck sashes was exclusively men's job.

Four-patterned sash, Sluck, 1793-1807, silk, gilded threads.

Fragment of a sash, Sluck, second half of the 18th century, silk, gilded threads. Photos source

Soon after sashes started to be produced in Sluck they became very popular among nobles of the Rzeczpospolita, Russia and Ukraine. Later similar articles and imitations started to be made in Nesvizh, Warsaw, Krakow, Moscow and even in France. Still the Sluck sashes outshined other sashes in art qualities and technique and were considered most desirable. 

Four-patterned sash, Sluck, 1778-1807, silk.

Sluck-type sash, Lyon, France, second half of the 18th century, silk, silvered thread. Photos source

There are seven types of design patterns of the end panels ornaments occuring on the Sluck sashes only: karumfil, sukharyk, Chinese clouds, cornflower, bouquet, wreaths and medallions, flowering stubs.
The name "Karumfil" comes from Turkish and means "carnation flower". So, obviously the carnation flower makes up the main motif of the end panels design pattern. Flowers, leaves, buds look as if they were composed of the geometrical figures of rectangles, trapeziums and semicircles. The motif is siluetted agaisnt a lighter background with the colours being intense and contrasting.

Example of the Karumfil design, Sluck sash, 178-1807. The State Historical Museum, Moscow

The name "Sukharyk" is also of Turkish origin and denotes "sprouts". The motif is formed by two symmetrically placed fine small plants of dark green colour with elongated, narrow and slightly arched leaves and small white or red flowers.
The name "Chinese clouds" originates from the design itself: a winding ribbon embracing the floral motif resembles a long chain of clouds. Though greatly stylized the flowers are easily recognizable: roses, daisies, cornflowers and carnation flowers.

Example of the Sukharyk design, Sluck sash, 1760-76. The National History and Culture Museum of Belarus

Example of the Chinese clouds design, Sluck sash, 1760-76. The State Historical Museum, Moscow

The "cornflower" pattern looks very much like "karumfil" one. Instead of a carnation flower on the main stem there is a big flower resembling a cornflower with smaller ones on the sides. The central flower can be presented like a bud or being in bloom.
The "bouquet" design pattern is made up by a twice-recurring motif of flower bunches. The bunch is placed in a vase or on a stand. The flowers are greatly stylized looking rather difficult to define.
The ornamental pattern of "wreath and medallions" is composed of two lush, vertically elongated wreaths of tiny pinks, cornflowers, daisies with long stalks and narrow leaves that are embraced with medallions. The space between the stems is filled with a cross-rhombic ornament undoubtedly borrowed from the Belarusian folk weaving art. The combination of floral and geometrical motifs looks surprisingly harmonious in the design.

Example of the Cornflower design, Sluck sash, 1760-76. The State Historical Museum, Moscow

Example of the Wreaths and medallions design, Sluck sash, 1780-1807. The State Historical Museum, Moscow

Example of the Flowering stubs design, Sluck sash, 1760-76. The National History and Culture Museum of Belarus

The "flowering stubs" ornamental composition is never met in either oriental or West European textile or even other manufactories. Dominating is an image of the dry unrooted stubs giving rise to a shoot with two big blossoming flowers.
In a number of sashes figures of birds, animal and women go alongside with the floral motif.

Chasuble decorated with the 18th century Sluck sash' fragment.  The National Art Museum of Belarus

At the beginning of the 19th century traditional clothes were replaced by the European suit. People kept the sashes at home like a family relic. Some of them were donated to Roman Catholic Churches where they were adjusted for the ceremonies. Sometimes the sashes were burnt to extract precious metals. Only years later the Sluck sashes were started to be preserved and collected as work of arts.

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  1. Wow!!!! These sashes are so beautiful and make the men's outfits look very noble and royal!!! Interesting history of the sashes and I loved the poem as well!!!! Pity some of them got burned :(

  2. How opulent and beautiful! You've put a serious amount of research into this post and I promise to come back and read it again. Love the nobleman's costume. Why don't men make that much effort these days?! x

  3. I can't believe the fineness of the weaving. And I agree with Vix that the nobleman's costume is very dashing and wonderful. It is somehow decorative and showy, but at the same time totally masculine. Thank you for another wonderful post on textile folk art!

  4. Amazing craftsmanship! So detailed and elaborate designs. So much work :)) Thank you for this article< very educational.

  5. What a very interesting post, Olga. I love to learn about clothing and textile history from you, your knowledge is impressive! The weaving is astonishing, so beautiful. It's sad that male clothing has turned away from pattern and embellishment like this in later years. xxxx

  6. Wow, this was a really in-depth history about a fascinating article of clothing of which I knew nothing. :D I always love your posts Olga, thank you so much!

  7. Wow awesome. I didn't know at first visiting. When start stay my few days with a home-stay host family, the people are disclose the local tradition and many other culture, festive. They are very nice people to talk.