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!
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)
. . . 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.
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)
I’ve been quietly obsessed with, and drawing inspiration from, Estonian colour knitting for some months now. My Tortoise and Hare will have some Estonian features, and, before the stroke, I had a couple of other patterns at the planning stage influenced by Estonian design. I’m sure that many of you will be familiar with Nancy Bush’s Folk Knitting in Estonia, but there are some other more recently published books on the subject which you may not have encountered. I’m interested in Estonian colour knitting for a number of reasons: the ways in which knitted design overlaps with other textile arts such as weaving and embroidery; the tendency of the patterns toward the graphic and abstract rather than the strictly representational; and the comparisons one might draw between the culture and practice of knitting in Western Estonia and some parts of the British Isles.
The differences are perhaps more immediately apparent than the similarities: Estonia is marked by a troubled history of annexation against the backdrop of which strong senses of regional and national identity were formed. In the Nineteenth Century, domestic textiles became key to the expression of Estonian identity, and the very precise styles and practices that characterise them feed into a much broader sense of not being Swedish, German, Russian, or Danish. But there are certainly some general connections one might draw between island cultures, modes of domestic textile production, and the nineteenth-century division of labour. During this historical period, Scottish and Estonian islands share a particularly gendered relationship between the sea and land (women working the land; men the sea) and there is also something about the relative isolation of these communities combined with their dependence on water-borne trade and fishing that strongly affects the character of domestic textiles. On the one hand, the colour knitting of the Shetland and Western Estonian islands seems particularly fluid and relational (in the way that both gobble up influences from the Netherlands, Scandanavia, Spain and other trade routes). But on the other, the style of these textiles might also be described as rigid and determined (in the sense that many Estonian or Shetland patterns are unique, distinctive, and precisely identifiable, and can often be traced to a specific island parish or group of knitters). And then, of course, there is the way that island identities make for particularly good marketing (a topic I’ve more to say about here, here, or here).
One gains a sense of this fluidity of style, as well as the strength of Estonian regional identities, from Rina Tomberg’s Vatid, Troid, Vamsad: Knitted Jackets of West Estonian Islands. This is a carefully-researched, scholarly book, produced in a useful side-by-side Estonian / English translation. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples from museum and private collections are accompanied by short essays outlining the history, culture and distinctive sweaters and jackets of each island. I loved the puffed-sleeve boleros of Saaremaa; the use of bright orange yarns in Muhu knitting, and particularly the troi of Kihnu with their indigo dominated palette and touches of goose-grass red. In a similar manner to a British gansey, each troi would begin its life as the wearer’s Sunday “best,” before being downgraded to everyday work-wear. As well as the gansey-style sweaters worn by men, the book includes many examples of women’s cropped jackets. These were knit in raised stitch patterns, and decorated either with cuffs of muti-coloured lace, or elaborate embroidery. I found the satin-stitch collar and edging of this example from Muhu particularly beautiful.
If you are interested in gloves and mittens, then a wonderful starting point is Kihnu Roosi Kindakirjad, the result of a collaboration between talented Kihnu craftswoman, Rosali Karjam, and equally talented jewellery designer and academic, Kart Summatavet. The book is in Estonian, but don’t let this put you off: the charts are so clearly set out that no experienced knitter should have a problem following them. I really, really like this book: it is incredibly well-produced and the photography allows you to get a feel of each pair of mittens or gloves as actual knitted objects. It is great to be able to see the details of elaborate entrelac, braids or raised stitches, as well as reproductions from Karjam’s own design notes. The page layout allows you to compare examples and to figure out chart placement.
And if you are interested, as I am, in the history and context of the remarkable craftswomen of Kihnu island and the textiles they produce, you can always type out portions of the accompanying Estonian text into google translate (with sometimes interesting results).
Finally, there is Aino Praakli’s, Eesti Labakindad Ilma Laande Lailali. This book – a sort of mitten bible – is the result of years of careful research among the textile collections of Estonian museums. Praakli has painstakingly kitted copies of hundreds of historic mittens, and this book includes 175 carefully catalogued examples. Each pair is accompanied by descriptive notes in English and Estonian and a pattern chart. Combining and adding to Praakli’s previously published work on the subject, this book is a true treasure trove of Estonian mitten design.
The book showcases a dizzying range of stitch patterns and cuff styles, from the simple to the incredibly complex. Many mittens highlight the knitter’s individual skills in colourwork and lace, such as the combination of cats-paw and chevron stitch above. The majority of pairs are knit in two colours – with red, indigo and white dominating – but from the 1910s onwards, some mitten styles become increasingly elaborate and were knitted (like the example, below) with three colours carried across the row.
Here the single-stitch frames or nets which feature in many Estonian stitch patterns produce a graphic effect which to me is reminiscent of a swarm of bees. Praakli writes that she adjusted the thumb increases from the original mitten to make the stitch pattern match up (see how the thumb disappears against the fabric when the mitten is laid flat). I love this precision (which seems to mark the author’s approach to mittens generally). All three books include a wealth of information and inspiration about Estonian colour knitting, but Praakli’s is particularly well-worth acquiring for the sheer range of stitch patterns and mitten options included. And her sometimes idiosyncratic accounts of the research and knitting process are also well-worth a read.
Aino Praakli, Eesti Labakindad Ilma Laande Lailali (Elmatar, 2009) ISBN 978-9949-435-57-9
Rosali Karjam and Kart Summatavet, Kihnu Roosi Kindakirjad (2008) ISBN 978-9949-443-45-1
Rina Tomberg, Vatid, Troid, Vamsad: Knitted Jackets of West Estonian Islands. (Estonian Academy of Arts, 2007) ISBN 978-9985-9803-2-3