The start of a blustery winter has descended and the annual unpacking of woolen handknits from my mother’s former toy chest begins. In it I find the traditional, geometric-patterned mittens skillfully made by a knitter in the rural village of Kihnu, Estonia—a gift from Estonia knitting historian and folkloric knitter, Nancy Bush. Flashes of the women knitting in the small village of Kihnu appear in my mind’s eye, images which I have only seen in photos Nancy has shared with me over the years. But you can imagine it too– small farms, clusters of shops and homes, unpaved streets; all surrounded by woodlands of juniper, pine, and birch. This island, located on the Gulf of Riga, is a Baltic gem of traditional ways.
This is a community where traditional skills are passed through generations from mother to daughter, where the knitting of gloves, mittens, and stockings is still the main handcraft. Knitters are identifiable on the streets by their colorful cotton patchwork bag containing their knitting yarn and needles, always at the ready to continue working on a sock or mitten. On Thursday and Sunday evenings, you can find women “sitting together” knitting and sharing stories, sometimes accompanied by music, singing, and dancing.
Knitters have their favorite patterns, ones which long ago carried a meaning beyond the design. While the meanings have been lost to collective memory, the patterns remain. The traditional glove and mitten is still knit using natural white with black, brown, or dark blue. It starts with a band of red-and-white patterning on the cuff—the belief that red protects the wearer from evil. Then the geometric patterns are knitted of two motifs called lapps–the suurlapp, the main or full motif, is centered at the back of the hand; the vahelapp, or side motif, is placed between the two main motifs. The mitten thumb is a simple one, with no gusset shaping; the pattern the same as the hand. In gloves, the fingers and thumbs are knitted in a different pattern than the hand.
The glove and mitten combination gives the flexibility for working with one’s fingers as needed, and the overlap of the top part into a mitten adds extra warmth. These ‘convertible mitts’ are a more modern style, popular in Estonia today. With modern technology, especially the internet and other forms of media, designs and patterns from small villages are available throughout Estonia and worldwide.
Thanks to Nancy Bush for this information and images. We are indebted to her for the years of devotion and research of these knitting ways and recording these women’s history. Each one is unique and carries with it memories of this special Baltic country.
If you want to learn more about Estonian knitting and traditions, visit Nancy’s website www.woolywest.com.