It is rare in today's day and age to meet someone who has dedicated a literal lifetime to the pursuit of one trade. Someone who knows their material, their tools, their craft, with an intimacy that only decades of disciplined work can culture. Someone who understands the connection between beauty and functional application. Edmonton-based weaver, Ilya Oratovsky, is one such person.
In the late 1940's, as only a teenager, Ilya got a job as a weaver in a Soviet Union weaving shop in his home country, Ukraine. Quickly excelling in the trade, he soon learned to warp the looms and, later, to repair them. The wooden fly-shuttle looms were used for high production and required constant maintenance and fine tuning to ensure the weavers could keep their output high. Eventually, he became a shop master in charge of everything from daily scheduling to design. Ilya worked in the Soviet shop for 30 years, meeting his wife Maria, who was also a weaver in the shop, and raising a family with the combined proceeds of their occupation.
In 1979 at age 48, he and Maria had the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union and come to Canada. The Canadian immigration officer who processed their application recommended they settle in Edmonton, as it had a large Ukrainian speaking population which would make it easier to find employment. The officer was right; Ilya and Maria both got jobs immediately with Ukrainian speaking bosses and their new life in Edmonton was started. However, within a year of moving to Canada, Ilya was anxious to find a way to weave again. Realizing that the type of high-production looms he loved were not easily available in Canada, he set out to build his own using a few basic tools, some good lumber, and his own memory and knowledge from the shop. Soon, Ilya and Maria were working their Canadian jobs by day and creating woven goods by night on looms Ilya built in his garage. Ilya would do all the weaving and loom work, and Maria would do the finishing. You could find them selling their beautiful woven blankets, table cloths, and shawls at shows and mall booths around Edmonton on the weekends - items so perfect in construction that many shoppers would not believe they were hand made.
Eventually, Ilya and Maria got a permanent stall at Edmonton's Old Strathcona Farmers' Market and, slowly, people have come to realize Ilya's exceptional skill as a weaver and the fine quality of their combined work. In 2011, Ilya was honoured with an Alberta Craft Council Award of Excellence for Fibre Work. Their work has made its way all across Canada and into the United States, sometimes in Galleries and sometimes on farmer's market tables as custom woven blankets.
At Custom Woolen Mills, we have had the pleasure of working with Ilya and Maria since their early days in Edmonton, making regular trips back and forth between Edmonton and the mill to exchange wool and blankets. Sadly, Maria passed away earlier this spring after living with progressive Alzheimer's for the last few years. Her presence and friendship is deeply missed; those that knew her will always remember her welcoming smile, kind hospitality, and keen awareness of the world - she was a sharp business woman.
Today, Ilya continues to weave and go to the Farmers market. If you are in the Edmonton area, you can go visit him at Old Strathcona - he is there with his woven goods every Saturday. If you come to the mill, you can find his blankets in our wool shoppe and see his exceptional craftsmanship in person.