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Doukhobor Women's Hope Chests and Hand Crafts



By Dorothy Popoff


The information I am sharing in this article comes from stories passed on to me by my two grandmothers: my paternal grandmother, Onya (Moojelski) Rilkoff, (born in 1872) and my maternal grandmother, Hanya (Planidin) Soloveoff, (born in 1878). Both came to Canada from the Kavkaz area of Russia in 1899, when the Doukhobor movement came to Canada. I also was given information by my Canadian-born mother, Elizabeth (Soloveoff) Rilkoff (born 1907.)

Although this article is about hope chests and Doukhobor women's handicrafts, I want to acknowledge the very capable men from the 19th century till to-day, who have so ably been making the looms and spinning wheels, with all of their parts and accessories, as well as the hope chests and storage trunks, many of them very ornate and masterful in design.

The Doukhobor women in the Kavkaz area in the 1800's were almost always not literate, as they did not have any schooling because of the times and circumstances, but they had very high life capabilities and survival instincts for life needs and living. The girls from early childhood were domesticated to know and do all the necessary women's work like gardening, sewing, cooking, milking, preserving, plastering and whitewashing their houses, cleaning, embroidering, weaving, spinning, knitting, crocheting, mending, quilting and on and on.

Grandmothers and mothers taught their daughters from early childhood, from generation to generation, about the need to know how to make do every day with what was available, under any circumstance, and even in difficult times to be thrifty, self-reliant and able in all aspects of women's responsibilities.

So, right from an early age, girls worked with their mothers and grandmothers growing gardens, flax, and shearing sheep, preparing to wash and card wool for quilts, spinning wool into yarn, and flax into linen yarns and then using the yarn for knitting, crocheting and weaving into yardage – for men's women's and children's clothes, and for linen for towels and tea-towels.

Flax and wool were also spun into fine threads to make things for the home and for hope chest, like bedspreads, or for crocheting or knitting doilies, or fancy pillow and cushion tops. Yardage was also woven, to be used for clothes, in linen or wool; also yarn for knitting wool socks, mittens, sweaters. Weaving wool thread for fabric from thread that was spun very fine, at times was dyed and used for crocheting lace for the woven bedspread. This was attached to only one side of the bedspread, to the outer side that would be seen, since the beds stood against the wall.

To stay warmer during the fierce cold winters and rather chilly summers, the women made quilted velvet vests for themselves, usually black or another dark colour, like maroon or dark green. These vests had button-front openings and were usually decorated with colourful embroidery on both sides of the opening. To keep their heads warmer, they made velvet caps, slightly raised at the top center, also with an embroidered border that circled around the head. These they would wear under their hand-embroidered woolen shawls.

Young daughters (aged 10 to 20) were taught all of the above, with the guidance of their mothers and grandmothers. Then the daughters themselves worked to fill their hope chests to have linen and wool yardage ready, together with other things needed for their future, like fancy linen or cotton-trimmed or crocheted covers for the possible chest of drawers or a lamp table.

It was important for the hope chests of any bride-to-be to have all the layers of bedding she would need for her future marital bed. The young women would be sure to weave a rug, "дирюшка," approximately the size of the bed, to use on the bedspring or boards. Then they quilted a thin wool-filled mattress, "тюхвяк." Next, feather-proof ticking, called "наперники" would be sewn to contain puffy feathers, and then a cotton cover would be sewn over the ticking, all this making up what was called the "перина." This "перина" would not be the full size of the bed, as there would be a separate, smaller, yet similarly made one for the head of the bed, called the "головная перина." (In later years, one full, bed-size "перина" was made for this layer of bedding.) So the "перины" would be laid on top of the wool-filled mattress. Young women would also prepare two square pillows filled with feathers, a wool-filled, quilted blanket, "одеяла" and sew cotton covers, "чахлы" to slip over the quilt to protect it. All this was the bedding prepared for any young woman's or bride-to-be's hope chest. The groom's mom prepared bedding also.

Often, there was too much to fit in one hope chest, so another big trunk would be made for the bedding and rugs. Or sometimes, bedding would be tied into one big bundle to be moved with a young bride to her groom's village.

The young women would learn about caring for all of this bedding too: removing all cover slips and washing them, and airing out all the layers of bedding outside in the sunshine – at least monthly, or more in the summer – laying them out over clotheslines or chairs or wherever.

Word would pass around the village that this or that young lady sure has a full hope chest – up to the lid – "У ней набитый сундук!"— and this gave prominence that she is an able girl, a good worker and a good catch for the man who is on the lookout for a wife.

These traditions of preparing bedding and handicrafts for hope chests continued amongst the Doukhobors in Canada in the early years.

My mother married at 16 years of age in 1924. She herself sewed her wedding clothes from Canadian rayon-silk fabric put in her hope chest which was the red trunk that had been her mother's and was brought from Russia. It was now given to my mother for a time because her husband-to-be said they were making her one.

Other items in my mother's hope chest were: the required pillows and blanket, a white linen Russian Doukhobor suit that she sewed and wore, towels from linen and other things, like some linen for towels, a bolt of plain white woven yardage, and one bolt of woven plain black and white wool fabric – both meant for future bedspread covers. Later she sewed a suit for her husband, consisting of homespun linen pants and shirt. The two outfits are still in my possession in my storage trunk. She also had a dyed red real wool woven bedspread with knitted rows of multi-colored wool lace, which my sister Anne has kept.

In Canada, Doukhobor handicraft arts from Russia continued in the 1920's – 1940's, then began to decrease as years went by, but the young ladies' hope chests were still filled with embroidered, crocheted and knitted things. In the 1930s, during Depression years, even the cotton sacks from flour and sugar were washed, the print soaked and soaped off and then used instead of linen for fancy work for tea towels and embroidered aprons, etc. Some also made fancy cushions and satin- or rayon-topped wool-filled quilted blankets. In our family, Mom and Grandmother wove rugs from wool yarn and also cut up old clothes for multi-colored rugs. In the early 1930's, I remember Mom and Grandmother also weaving linen.

Then it moved on into the 1960 – 2000 and the hope chests began to get filled by shopping and fewer home-made things. Girls were getting educated, working out, travelling, reading, and having less and less interest in making time for handicrafts. Beddings were bought, as were mattresses, pillows, bed covers. Money was more available and there were changes of life style. Why wash doilies? Why sew or knit? And on and on. The traditional Doukhobor suits that have been sewed and shawls so beautifully embroidered are either getting put away or are getting to be embroidered less and less. The handicraft art is getting to be a past culture for our people.

But time moves on. Things change and we have to accept and adjust to the times. Our children went into studies and the more modern way of life.


When I was 14 years old, after finishing my grade eight schooling on the prairies, that year, 1942, our family moved to Grand Forks B.C. where I worked along with my parents in the fields. Later I worked in Okanagan orchards and many other jobs in Grand Forks. Preparing hope chest things in between all my other responsibilities, my mother gave me her mother's red trunk – the one that had come from Russia and that she had used herself -- to put my finished things in. I embroidered dresser scarves, pillow cases, vanity sets, tea towels, aprons, and three Doukhobor shawls, which I also fringed – all of this from age 14 to 17 years old.

When my boyfriend proposed marriage in 1945, I was 17 years old. My dad was working steady at the time and said he would buy me a nice cedar trunk but my fiancé and husband-to-be said he wished to buy me a trunk. That he did and it matched the new bedroom suite that he bought for us. I was overwhelmed with joy! Both of our quilts were handmade and fancy. I always believed in hope chests and especially valued the handmade things put into them. So I made my children hope chest things but as with a lot of young people, most of the fancy handiwork is unused and still in their trunks, although the homemade quilts, pillows, and bedspreads have been used.

The things that I made for my hope chest as a girl have all worn out over these 68 years of marriage, due to my hosting a lot of guests over the years; all items were used continually.

Things changed through the years. Life goes on for better or for worse but time changes a way of life.

With Prayers to God. Please light the way for Guidance to a Peaceful Future.


Written by Dorothy Popoff

April 14, 2013



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