It is a while since I have been totally blown away by a book. Here is that book – a very generous gift to me from Mai, one of my Estonian readers.
It is hard to know how to start telling you about what this incredible tome contains – it really is that amazing. Perhaps I can start with a couple of images:
Like other areas of Estonia, Muhu island is proud of its textile traditions.
These textile traditions are many, varied, and very distinctive, and this distinction and variety is due to the incredible needlework skills of the women of Muhu. I’ve written a little before about how interesting I find Estonian ‘folk’ costumes, and about how the strong sense of regional and national identity one sees expressed in such textiles emerged against a backdrop of cultural annexation. I have only had the opportunity to read about Estonian knitted textiles before – but this book gives a much fuller picture of the wide-ranging skills of the women of Muhu, who are clearly possessed of a quite remarkable creative energy!
Muhu knitters. Photo reproduced from Rina Tomberg, Vatid, Troid, Vamsad: Knitted Jackets of West Estonian Islands. (Estonian Academy of Arts, 2007).
I have a perennial interest in how textile ‘traditions’ emerge on, and cluster about, islands. Muhu shares many cultural similarities with, for example, Shetland: over the past couple of centuries, the women have tirelessly worked the land in the absence of their menfolk in the fishing, and (later) the construction industries, and this has produced a similar discourse about the indomitable and formidable qualities of Muhu women.* Just like the women of Shetland, those of Muhu are described as proud, strong, and capable. They are skilled with their needles; they are dryly humorous. This Muhu aphorism is so very similar to some Shetland sayings I’ve seen:
“Kuidas Muhu naine korraga 4 asja tegi:
Ma aasi loomad karjaaruse, kudusi cardud,
aasi ärraga juttu ja kussi kua”
(How Muhu women do 4 jobs at once:
I was driving the cattle to the meadow, kniting,
talking to the landlord, and taking a piss)
But what makes Muhu very different from Shetland – and what I had never thought about until I absorbed myself in this marvelous book – is that domestic textiles (until very recently) never expanded beyond being dowry gifts or heirlooms into being produced for a market. Kabur, Pink and Meriste explain that the driving principle behind Muhu women’s production of domestic textiles was “to make one’s clothing as fine as the finest garment of one’s home village, and even a little bit better.” Without the pressures of external commercial markets, the women of Muhu simply competed among themselves to produce domestic textiles of ever-more glorious variety, ornament and colour. I think it is the sheer variety of styles and skills that I find most striking about these textiles, which include . . .
Stranded colourwork mittens, gloves and stockings – here with duplicate stitches . . .
stockings and gloves with travelling stitches . . .
. . men’s ‘vatt’ in traditional orange and black two-colour knitting (characteristic Muhu colours are bright pink, bright orange, and bright yellow)
. . . crocheted lace (this example was based on traditional Muhu designs, and was produced by Kaidi Holm of Vanamoisa village in 2010)
. . .cross stitch (This example is a traditional cap that belonged to the Raunmägi family of Liiva village)
. . . satin stitch (shirt collar from Tõnise farm in Koguva village)
. . . beading (bridal cap, owned by Helju Vaher of Võlla village)
There are also examples of different kinds of weaving, machine embroidery, and lace techniques. Clearly these women have an inexhaustible range of textile talents! Kabur, Pink and Meriste introduce the reader to gloriously decorative slippers and blankets, aprons and belts, skirts and jackets, stockings, gloves and baby garments. And as if the sheer range and variety of highly-skilled techniques that these women had mastered wasn’t enough, they then start to combine them in ways that are quite breathtaking.
Handknitted stocking with openwork and cross stitch (knitted and embroidered by Eleena Tuulmägi of Lõetsa village in the 1970s. Now owned by Tiina Tuulmägi).
Handknitted stockings with crocheted calves (Stockings owned by Ekaterina Aljas (born 1896) of Nautse village. Now owned by Helena Erik)
Hand knitted stockings with satin stitch ( embroidered by sisters Ekateria and Maria Kesküla of Leeskopa village in the late nineteenth century. Now owned by Inga Paaskavi)
But it isn’t just the pictures in this book that are absolutely wonderful. Kabur, Pink and Meriste also provide charted instructions for much of the embroidery, crochet, and knitting, and talk about technique in a way that not only demonstrates their own practical knowledge, but generously allows the reader to share in it as well. So the editors introduce the reader to, for example, the distinctive Muhu zigzagging decrease (which I am itching to try out on a sock) and explain how large bold motifs were added to the centre of plain-coloured mittens (using a particularly nifty combination of intarsia and double knitting).
This combination of the historical and the practical is what makes their book so very good, and it is really quite unusual. Textile books are often rather rigidly (and annoyingly) divided between the academic or the ‘how to’ markets, but Kabur, Pink and Meriste’s super tome happily crosses that divide, allowing the reader to gain a close, material understanding of some truly amazing objects – the sort of understanding that you would only ordinarily gain by taking a visit to an archive, handling textiles, turning them inside out, examining their stitches and their seams, decoding their canny methods of construction, and then going away to try things out for yourself. It is an absolutely brilliant book: the images are glorious, the cultural information is carefully and respectfully put together, the instructions for the different techniques are clear and well-demonstrated. Having this book in one’s hands really is the closest thing I’ve ever encountered to actually being right in among a museum textile collection. It is a very rare treat. Now, when do I get to go to Estonia?
So thankyou, Mai, for this lovely gift; thankyou, Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, and Mai Meriste for making this treasure trove available (and in English, too, which is a particular treat for me) and thankyou, most of all, to the needlewomen of Muhu to whose incredible talents this book pays fitting tribute. I’m thrilled to have been introduced to – and enormously inspired by – you all.
Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island: A Needlework Tradition from Estonia (Saara Publishers, 2011) ISBN: 978-9949-9181-3-3
*For more on this discourse of indomitable femininity in relation to Shetland, see Lynn Abrams’ important book Myth and Materiality in a woman’s world: Shetland 1800-2000 (Manchester UP, 2005)