EDITOR’S NOTE: My first exposure to Latvian mittens was when I won this amazing little boxed kit a few years ago. I don’t know much about Latvian mittens other than that I’d love to know more! So I’m especially happy about Jess digging in on the subject for her column this month—
For this month’s swatch, I wanted to do something festive. December is an intersection of many cultural and religious celebrations of light and color in the darkest month of the year (for the northern hemisphere, at least), and I thought this would be a perfect moment to look at knitting’s role in ceremony and celebration.
Back in college, I worked at a coffee shop owned by a Latvian woman. I didn’t really know much about the country, its people, or even where exactly Latvia was (in Eastern Europe somewhere, right? My international relations degree really strutting its stuff, guys). It wasn’t until I stumbled across Latvian and Estonian mittens for the first time as a knitter that I made the connection and picked up a copy of Lizbeth Upitis’ book “Latvian Mittens” to learn more about the region and its knitting traditions.
THE BALTIC REGION
The Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania sit east of the Baltic Sea, to the immediate west of Russia, and quite close to Sweden and Finland. People of the region share common history and similar traditions, although regional dialects and tribal histories distinguish them. Latvians and Lithuanians are known as Baltic people, and their respective, archaic Indo-European languages are the only surviving Baltic languages. Despite these close ties, Lithuania generally identifies itself more strongly with its neighbors to the south in Central Europe, like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Estonia, on the other hand, due to its linguistic and historical connections, strongly identifies with its Finnish neighbors to the north.
Although these linguistic and political differences have set them apart, the region shares a common history of being occupied and ruled by its neighbors for hundreds of years, most recently by the USSR. In 1989, more than two million people formed a human chain through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, called “The Baltic Way,” to peacefully demand independence from the Soviet Union. All three countries achieved independence in 1991 and later became members of NATO and the European Union. Today, the three countries are part of the Nordic-Baltic 8, or NB8, which includes Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden. While these countries have been closely connected for centuries, their closest cooperation began with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and continues today.
This brief historical overview serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of this region, which of course affects its knitting and textile traditions. As I began riffling through images of Baltic knitting, embroidery, lacework and more, I couldn’t help but see the similarities in motifs and design from Latvian mittens to Fair Isle sweaters to Nordic stockings. And even though I’m a bit of a minimalist myself when it comes to knitting and my own wardrobe, I can’t help but want to cast on some brightly colored mittens or a complex colorwork cardigan when I look at these designs. I mean, c’mon.
KNITTING AS CELEBRATION
Prior to the introduction of knitting, people in the region created fabric through a technique called nålebinding, also known as “knotless netting” or “needle looping.” This technique is estimated to predate knitting by 1,000 years! Instead of using two needles, the method required only one. Unlike crochet, it involved pulling through the full length of the working thread through each loop, which would make it difficult to unravel and adjust one’s work during the process. The finished work could be felted to make a more durable and cold-resistant fabric. If you’re interested in trying out the nålebinding process for yourself, there’s a tutorial in English here, or you can watch the process in action here.
Knitting likely migrated to the Baltic region during the Crusades, when knights brought the knowledge of knitting with them from the Middle East (Source: Nordic Knitting website). The oldest-known knitted object found in Estonia is the cuff of a mitten discovered in 1950 by archeologist Jüri Peets, which probably dates to the end of the thirteenth century. Other knitted textiles that have been discovered in the region include pattern knitting, indicating that more complex, two-color knitting has been practiced for a long time.
So, where do mittens come in? Aside from being highly functional and useful knitted objects, mittens in the Baltics also served as small capsules of information. The pattern, technique and colors in a pair of mittens could indicate where its wearer was from, and the patterns themselves could be full of symbols from archaic pagan mythology. A zig-zag, for example, represented the goddess Mara, whereas a sideway “S” represented an adder, a popular animal of the goddess Laima. Both motifs were and continue to remain popular in mitten design.
Latvian folk songs, or dainas, provide further clues about mittens’ role in ceremony. In 1880, Krisjanis Barons began to collect and document the folk songs of the Latvian people, a project he continued for the following 35 years of his life. Because of his work and dedication, nearly 36,000 dainas were preserved and provide a glimpse into the daily and ceremonial life of Latvians during that time. As seen in these folk songs, knit mittens were a critical part of weddings and were an opportunity for a young woman to display her skill and readiness for marriage. See this daina, written in the voice of a young woman eligible to be married:
Many mittens am I knitting
Putting in my dowry chest
When the rich girls have been taken,
Then will I come in their mind.
Young girls were taught to knit as young as four or five years old, and were knitting daily during or between their other tasks. By the time a girl had reached marrying age, she was expected to have accumulated a dowry chest full of over one hundred mittens and socks that were knit by herself and other women in the family. See this daina that’s written in the voice of a young suitor:
Good evening, maiden’s mother
As you see my hands are freezing;
All the while my mitten knitter
Snugly in your room is sitting.
During the wedding celebrations, which lasted three to four days, the bride gifted pairs of mittens to just about everyone. This included the minister, the groom’s parents, the driver of the wedding carriage, all brothers, sisters and remaining relatives, and the kitchen helpers. Even the barn animals received symbolic offerings of mittens, which were later retrieved by a member of the family. The married couple ate their wedding meal with mittened hands. Before entering the threshold of her new home, the bride laid down a pair of mittens, hung mittens above the hearth, tied them to doors. When I first read this in my copy of Upitis’ book, I couldn’t help but think of these mittens as magical totems, blessing the newly married couple and their community.
There is so much more I could write here about Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian mittens, but instead, I’ll leave you with some resources to explore further. I’ve heard only good things about the book Mittens of Latvia by Maruta Grasmane, which I haven’t read myself but would likely be a good companion for Upitis’ book. Mary Neal Meador’s quest for an authentic Estonian mitten at the Mason-Dixon Knitting blog is definitely worth a read, as is Donna Druchunas’ guest post about knitting in Lithuania on Hélène Magnússon’s The Icelandic Knitter blog. And be sure to check out the eye candy that is the incredible knitting from the Estonian island of Muhu, as shared through the eyes of Kate Davies on her blog here and here. Adding this to my Christmas wish list, please and thank you.
When it comes to picking a yarn for a project, I’ve gotten accustomed to searching for that elusive, perfectly woolly and perfectly crisp je ne sais quoi yarn – and I often overlook some of the most readily available and solidly good yarn on the market. Quince amd Co., case in point. Of all the projects I’ve knitted to date, the ones knit in Quince were a delight to knit and have reliably held up to time and wear. Plus, for an American-sourced and produced wool yarn, Quince’s broad selection is so well priced and comes in a generous (and ever-expanding) palette of colors.
For this swatch, I originally picked a pattern that called for three colors. I chose Quince & Co.’s fingering-weight Finch in Canvas, Poppy and Barolo colorways, but after ripping and redoing the swatch twice with dismal puckering and pulling, I admitted that my colorwork needed some practice. I switched to a two-color chart instead, using the Canvas and Poppy. I really love how the warm cream of the new Canvas color and the bright, orange-red of the Poppy play off of each other.
I also knitted this swatch in the round, and with a little more time probably could have finished a mitten. Since the swatch is so small and my colorwork skills still a little rough, I figured it would be easier in the long run to just knit it in the round rather than knit an “in-the-round” swatch, as I did for my Icelandic lopi swatch. While working the chart, I trapped long floats using a technique I learned from Andrea Rangel during the Cowichan vest knitalong last year, which is a method I’ve come to rely on to prevent uneven tension in my colorwork.
Yarn: Quince & Co. Finch in Canvas and Poppy colorways
Needles: US 1 / 2.25mm double-pointed needles
Gauge: 18 stitches / 20 rows = 2 inches in colorwork chart
M E T H O D
For the colorwork chart, see Chart 29 in Lizbeth Upitis’ book, “Latvian Mittens.”
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