My woollen tour of Estonia

Warning: an extraordinarily long and detailed post, get BEVERAGE before you begin!

My last post was written in Tallinn, which is point no. 1 on the map above. Following my stay there, the Instant Clothes Museum workshop at Ptarmigan, my wondrous meeting with Anna, and my 5am sheep-noises slumber-party concert, I took a bus to Tartu (point no. 2 on the map) and then another bus on to Mooste, (point no. 3) which is where MoKS is.

Mooste is an intriguing mix of histories and architectures; an imposing, historic manor house (now a school) sits in the midst of the village, while elsewhere you can see apartments built during the Soviet times and abandoned factories.

In the 1700-1800s before Serfdom was abolished in 1816, the Landlord lived in the manor house while his Governor watched over the lands from the windows of the smaller building that is now home to MoKS. Old and new building displaying influences from Sweden, Russia and Germany peek out from between the beautiful and plentiful trees, and at the edge of the lake.

It is no exaggeration to say that in rural Estonia there are trees everywhere. The Birch tree has come to take up a special place in my understandings of Estonian textiles, but I will say more of this in later posts. For now, I just want to show you how numerous and beautiful they are, with their spindly arms reaching up into the bright blue spring skies and their fresh, bright, green leaves glittering in the sunlight.

I had a lovely few quiet days in Mooste, mostly planning the excursion documented above, spinning yarn, washing my clothes, tasting traditional Estonian fare such as sauerkraut soup, (so good!) kama, (so good!!) and black bread and hazelnut yogurt (SO GOOD!!!). I walked around the village a little, met the folks who work in the Villakoda, (wool workshop) interviewed Niels the sheep farmer about Estonian sheep and the spinning mills of Estonia, and recorded the sounds of combing Rough Fell Fibres which I bought with me from the UK to share with Estonian wool enthusiasts.

I feel I gained a little weight, took a little sun, and – best of all – started to experience restful sleep again. During my PhD write-up, a disturbing habit of having nightmares took root, and I have been having nightmares regularly for over a year now. Recurrent bad dreams have become a very distressing feature of my life, and one personal aim of my residency was to rediscover sleeping without bad dreams. It is easy to sleep well in the presence of good people, warm friends and talk of wool, so I am happy to report that I am having nice sleep again…

…From Mooste, I travelled on to Räpina, where Tuuli lives. Tuuli is a talented craftswoman and author of a lovely book about the mitten patterns of her home County, Võrumaa. The knitting of Kihnu and Muhu deservedly get a lot of attention from the International crafting community, but one quickly learns while travelling through Estonia that each county and many individual districts (Parishes) in this country have their own distinctive textile traditions. Tuuli’s book is in Estonian, but the charts are so clearly presented, and the mittens inside it so beautifully photographed that one can easily understand how to reproduce them. There is a press release about the exhibition which accompanied the book launch here.

Here is Tuuli with Patrick – the person responsible for my being in Estonia in the first place. I have made radio shows for Patrick’s framework:afield programme for several years, and he invited me to Tuned City last year, thus instigating my love affair with this amazing country. Hanging out with Tuuli and Patrick is the best, because we can discuss microphones and field-recording techniques – and also the intricacies of mitten patterns, woven fabrics and woollen joy. They are the perfect KNITSONIK couple for a Felix to hang out with!

Point no. 4 on my map is Räpina, where Tuuli and Liisu live, and where I stayed last week. We had a BBQ and I met the evil Estonian mosquitoes, who lust for my fresh foreign blood. Liisu, Patrick, and another artist who is here on a residency at MoKS – Sergei – gave a beautiful performance at a recent folk festival. You must watch it!

From Räpina I travelled onwards to Tartu to meet up with Kata. I remembered Kata from the days of Wovember, as she reblogged our project as Villavember in Estonian. Kata is doing her Master’s degree at Tartu University, and is also studying ethnographic textiles at a vocational school. Her knowledge of Estonian textiles is encyclopaedic, and she is an incredibly skilled knitter. Spending time with Kata, I soon learned that ethnographic textiles are governed by an obsession with fine work and maintaining tradition. My 2.5mm needles and toe-up tights-construction therefore did not pass muster with Kata’s high standards, and so the tights which I had cast on and almost reached the ankle of are now no more, and I have restarted this project using 1.5mm needles. I am also going to make leggings rather than tights, because I really don’t want to do tights from the top down, and because the toe-up construction is irreconcilable with traditional Estonian knitting. My new stitch count for the ankle-band is 96 sts around… I shall speak more about this in a later post. But enough of my shoddy, sub-par, half-assed English knitting: wouldn’t you rather see some of the textiles from the Estonian National Museum? I thought you might…

Historic, Estonian TOE-DOWN sock.

Extremely tiny gauge mitten from Kihnu.

Amazing woven belts.

I think this might be the greatest sock I have ever seen.

EMBROIDERY!

MITTENZ!

MUHU!

Kata was extremely amused at my continual utterances of “Amazing” “Amazing” “Amazing” in the Museum, because these textiles are so familiar to her eyes as to be an almost unremarkable feature of daily life. But to me, the level of skill evident in the handiwork of Estonian women is utterly extraordinary and exotic… it is awesome, it is impressive, it is amazing. The distinctive textiles of Estonia were not created on any sort of production line for export, but were rather made as personal artefacts for the marking of individual rites of passage. Historically, the creation of clothing undertaken by Estonian women was inexorably enmeshed with the narratives of life; your progression from girlhood to marriage to wifehood to motherhood through to the loss of partners and children and also spinsterhood were literally woven, knitted and embroidered into the subtext of your garments. In Estonia, your completely home-made outfit was an expression of who you and your family were; of your competence, availability and suitability for marriage; of your district, your home county; and of your skill. Too, against a backdrop of continual invasion, Estonian National Costume was perhaps an important means for consolidating and maintaining a distinctive cultural identity in the face of ongoing foreign rule.

These key factors – an investment of self and identity in clothing; the lack of an economic reason to churn out garments swiftly for sale; and the specific materials available in the Estonian landscape (more of this later) have resulted in uniquely complex, elaborate, detailed textiles. The pride, competitiveness, maintenance of tradition, and narratives associated with these textiles are still important today. Visits to consult objects in the Estonian National Museum collection are seemingly an essential aspect of contemporary handicraft, and while the elaborate hand-knitted dowry and Wedding rituals of the past are no longer commonly practised in Estonian society, interest in the techniques used to create old textiles, and the meanings they convey, remain very high indeed.

The living relationship between textile traditions of the past and contemporary making is evident in many of the craft publications coming out of Estonia. I have picked up several books in my travels which clearly evidence a process of consulting old knitted things, and then developing new instructions for their recreation. Objects in museum collections are seemingly perceived as texts to be examined, unpacked and reworked rather than being purely nostalgic objects. The best comparison I can think of in terms of the UK, is Susan Crawford’s work with vintage textiles. I love how in Susan’s books you really get a sense of the materiality of old patterns, yarns and textiles, and then practical instructions on their construction. A similarly graphic and material sense of objects and things is evidenced in such books as Kirä Võromaalt kinda’ by Tuuli; (mittens of Võrumaa County) and Türi kindad ja sukad (mittens and stockings of Türi), which was produced with the help of an EU grant by a local handicraft society, and published by Saara Publishing Ltd. In such books it feels almost as though one is physically touching old objects in a museum; it is as though the ongoing dialogue between contemporary makers and historic collections has led to a distinctive craft book aesthetic. Kate previously made a similar observation in her excellent post on Estonian colour-knitting, referring to a book entitled Kihnu Roosi Kindakirjad, but it’s true of nearly all the Estonian craft books I have seen while travelling here.

Kata kindly took me to visit Saara Publishing Ltd. – based in her hometown of Türi. There we met with Anu Pink who co-wrote amongst other things, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island – a book I first learned about again on Kate’s blog, via her brilliant review of it. In a perfect example of combining traditional Estonian garments with contemporary handicrafting, Anu had her knitting with her, (gloves) and she and Kata were swapping fabric samples for creating Kihnu project bags. This pin cushion was embroidered by Anu Kabur, another co-author of the Muhu Island book, along with Mai Meriste.

Pincushion by Anu Kabur.

Anu Pink’s glove no. 2 on the needles (very tiny needles).

Anu Pink’s completed glove no. 1.

Anu and Kata in deep Estonian Craft discussion.

I interviewed Anu about the Muhu book, and I shall divulge our discussion here sometime soon! In the meantime – ever practical – Kata and Anu have been discussing for sometime now the lack of an appropriate pink yarn for the recreation of Muhu-style garments, and Kata has accordingly invented a recipe for Muhu Pink. I recorded her dyeing this shade and discussing Muhu Pink – Kiperoosa – and here we see Anu comparing the shade on a stocking from Järvamaa with Kata’s yarn sample.

Muhu Pink on stocking on Anu Pink’s computer; Kata’s Kiperoosa-dyed yarn.

Here is a classic example of Muhu Knitting as a statement of self; these gloves feature colourwork; embroidery; crochet and cross-stitch. They are in Anu Pink’s collection and show very little evidence of wear, because they are extremely difficult to put onto one’s hands. They were not really designed as a garment, but as a statement: I CAN KNIT! I CAN EMBROIDER! I CAN DO CROSS-STITCH! I CAN CROCHET!

From Türi we travelled to Paide to see the Museum there, and then back to Türi which is the Spring Capital of Estonia. This honour is bestowed on the County because of its beautiful gardens. During Soviet times, Estonians grew a lot of vegetables at home and the culture of having lawns with borders was not at all in vogue. Although flowers are now often grown in place of vegetables, a culture of growing and gathering food from the forest endures, and the layout of gardens – where any grass patches merely provide a convenient pathway between beds – remains. There are a great many flowers blooming in Estonia right now, both in the woodlands and in the gardens.

This interest in the fruits of nature extends to a healthy and prevalent interest in natural dyeing; both the lovely woven cloth and the pleasing hat in this photo were dyed using plants, by the same woman in Türi who instigated the publication of the mittens and stockings book.

Dyed with plants!

From Türi we travelled onwards to Heimtali in Viljandi, where a wonderful handicrafts fair was taking place (point no. 7 on my map). There I briefly met Anu Raud who is central to Estonian handicraftwerld, having established a craft school, a Museum of domestic textiles and a flock of sheep, and having created an enormous body of written, woven and hand knitted artworks. As well as meeting Anu, I participated in my first walk and knit race; saw yarns dyed with mushrooms; and was dazzled by the incredible mittens created with local wool by Külli Jacobson.

Anu Raud on Youtube (the video is all in Estonian, but features Anu’s sheep and farm, and her incredible artworks).

Kata knitting and walking for our team.

Mushroom-dyed yarns!

MITTENZ GALORE!

Also at Heimtali, I met Julika and Joel at the Hea Villa Selts Stall.

Hea Villa Selts means “Good Wool Society”. Handspinning and the keeping of rare-breed sheep are not the same in Estonia as in the UK; where in England we have many breed societies and regional spinning guilds, in Estonia there is just a small handful of shepherds focussing specifically on the quality of wool, and the native Estonian sheep is not yet officially recognised as a distinctive, ancient breed. However, a few very committed and passionate people are continuing to campaign for the establishment of a breed society, and people like Julika and Joel are really exploring the possibilities of wool from such sheep, as well as from other distinctive, regional breeds such as Åland Sheep and Swedish Finewool Sheep.

The Blackfaced and Whitefaced Estonian sheep were established in the 1930s with cross-breeding from UK breeds, and are primarily kept for meat. However the Estonian Native Sheep is an ancient, indigenous breed with 4 distinctive bloodlines originating in Kihnu, Ruhnu, Saare and Hiiu. I hope to visit this farm if I get the chance during the next couple of weeks to discover more about the Native Estonian Sheep, but it is very difficult to get around rural Estonia without a car. In the meantime, meeting Joel and Julika was like discovering the very soul of Estonian wool and their farm – Jaani Talu – is in my opinion one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. It is in Pärnumaa, and is point no. 8 on my map. These are their sheep.

Joel and Julika’s kindness to me was humbling, and the presence of their lovely sheep was healing. I have made some of my very favourite recordings of all time on their farm, including the cranes which can be heard in the fields in the morning; the afternoon snoozing and munching of the Estonian sheep; the evening barn-times with Ewes and Lambs coming in for the night; and the distinctive atmosphere of an Estonian woodland. I also met and fell deeply in love with TINYLAMB – a lamb on their farm whose mother has not enough milk for him, and who is fed by an obliging Nanny goat. TINYLAMB is very used to human company because of all the extra handling he has had, and he follows people around with touching confidence and a beautiful little bleating sound. I HEART TINYLAMB!

TINYLAMB!

Although Julika and I have no spoken language in common, we both understand wool, and I confess to feeling a little teary (in a good way) as I think of her enthusiastically pressing packets of wool upon me from her lovely animals. I feel committed to making something extraordinary from this precious stuff.

Swedish Finewool from Julika and Joel’s flock.

I have been spinning and processing gorgeous snippets of Estonian wool ever since my return to Mooste, and we shall return to the subject in future posts.

From Jaani Talu I went on a quest to Ruhnu, in search of the original Estonian sheep and the famous singing sands. Ruhnu is 96 miles from mainland Estonia and is reached on a tiny 10-seater propellor-driven aeroplane.

Getting to Ruhnu was my favourite ever flying experience, and it was impossible to avoid hearing the music from Indiana Jones in my head as we flew across Kihnu and the Baltic Sea to reach our far-flung destination. There are only 60 or so inhabitants on Ruhnu, and there is a very strong Swedish influence evident in the architecture and textiles on the island. Two flocks of sheep remain there, and Riina – daughter in law of Selma – very kindly introduced me to her mother-in-law and the Ruhnu sheep she has kept on this island since the 1950s.

Selma established her flock when she moved to Ruhnu for the sole purpose of keeping her family in gloves, stockings, mittens, scarves and hats. Nowadays she gets the wool spun up on Saaremaa rather than doing it by hand, but she is still clothing her family in the natural coloured wool produced by her animals. These are socks made from Selma’s flock for her grandchildren.

I was reminded of Shetland while visiting Ruhnu. I have not been to Shetland, but I understand that Shetland sheep are the only sheep in the UK which have consistently been bred to maintain a broad range of natural colours, and that something about island life concentrates the DNA of sheep breeds, maintaining the specific characteristics in a way that is impossible on larger mainland areas where sheep inevitably cross-breed. The Boreray, Shetland, and North Ronaldsay sheep breeds – like the Ruhnu strain of the Estonian Native Sheep – are all varieties of sheep so inexorably connected with a specific place that they ultimately take its name as their own. The Ruhnu sheep is as close to its native island lands as the North Ronaldsay is, and there is something of the primitive, double-coated, wild ovine quality shared by all these island breeds.

As well as Selma’s flock, there is a slightly more feral group of sheep belonging to Einar. I couldn’t get close enough to photograph them closely, but I have a nice quiet recording of them munching in the woodland pastures of Ruhnu.

The singing sands of Ruhnu were amazing; it was like having a giant environmental instrument to strum with my feet… the effect is of a squeaky sound as one’s feet touch upon the sand, and the atmosphere on the deserted island beach with trees behind and ocean before was pleasingly desolate and glorious.

Singing Sands: Who needs Desert Island Discs?

I spent a very happy time “playing” the sands with my bare feet, skipping about in the Baltic waters and waving my microphones around, before exploring the collections of knitting in the Ruhnu Museum which Riina kindly opened up for me and a couple of other travellers, since tourist season hasn’t yet officially started. The Museum made me think very much of Tom, as it is filled with both visible mending (of Kihnu stockings, knitted by Kihnu women married into the Ruhnu community) and with GLOVES of such fine construction that I felt obliged to document all their beautiful aspects. Apart from the Kihnu stockings, there is a very Scandinavian, Swedish flavour to Ruhnu knitting, owing to the history of the place.

Tom, these pictures were taken especially for you!

Ruhnu glove – note the beautiful textured pattern which branches off into the middle two fingers.

Inside and outside of mittens created using weaving-while-knitting-technique. (Only an actual knitter would take this photo).

Kihnu socks which have been visibly mended and re-mended, mostly in pattern.

Kihnu socks in need of further mending! (I know just the man for the job).

From Ruhnu I returned to Pärnu, (point no. 9 on my map) and was kindly met at the airport by Heikki, husband of Liis. Their farm with its cattle, Sauna, maple trees and 3 boisterous, gorgeous boys, is near Pootsi in the Tõstamaa Parish. You can see it at point no. 11 on my map and like being at Jaani Talu, being there felt like being super close to the heart of Estonian wool and I felt extremely grateful for the kindness and hospitality of Liis and Heikki.

What Liis doesn’t know about spinning and natural dyes probably isn’t worth knowing. Her blog provides fascinating insights into plant-dyeing and hand-spinning techniques, and it seems she has taken the focus on expertise, technique and mastery evidenced in all Estonian handiwork and applied it specifically to the task of becoming a formidably excellent hand-spinner. Liis has a Journey Wheel built by Jonathon Bosworth, and she has also restored a historic Estonian wheel. Like Julika, her depth of knowledge about the history of Estonian wool is amazing, and I learnt that double-drive wheels – perfect for spinning fine, woollen-spun yarns very quickly – were historically the most popular kinds of wheels in Estonia.

This is extremely interesting in terms of understanding the kinds of projects historically made here; the tiny stitches designed to show off one’s skills require exactly this kind of spinning wheel. Between Julika and Liis’s expertise, I have learnt that there is no tradition of combing wool or worsted spinning wool in Estonia, (although flax was historically spun worsted) because there are no longwool sheep here. Carding is the main means of preparing the fibres which have historically grown on the sheep in Estonia, and there is no tradition of using teasels for this task; it has always been done with handcards featuring tiny metal tines.

I have a beautiful recording of Liis spinning on the traditional Estonian spinning wheel that she restored, and also of her attempting to improve my ham-fisted efforts at carding the very fine wool of some Kihnu lambs!

The Kihnu sheep is another bloodline of the Estonian Native Sheep. They characteristically have very narrow faces and distinctive black and white markings, and a flock of Kihnu sheep will yield both bright white wool and deepest black. These colours have historically been exploited by Kihnu knitters to create their distinctive textiles, enhanced with additions of precious red yarn, dyed using bedstraw roots; small accents of blue provided by costly indigo dyes; and vibrant yellows provided by the Birch trees which grow abundantly on Kihnu, as everywhere else in Estonia. The Kihnu aesthetic is directly linked to the sheep and the geography of the island, and these mittens and stockings were given to Anneli Ärmpalu Idvand by Kihnu women, in recognition of the work she is doing to preserve the distinctive island sheep. Anneli lives on the mainland, but she has a large and beautiful flock of Kihnu sheep which Liis kindly took me to visit. I left with 4 skeins of yarn from Anneli’s special flock and some wonderful recordings of her sheep, also.

Then I went to Kihnu – point no. 12 on my epic woolly quest. I did not have a special plan, a contact or a guide for my day on Kihnu; instead I opted to cycle around on the bicycle I had borrowed from Liis and Heikki, soaking up the atmosphere of this impenetrable and charismatic place. There are a couple of shops, the Museum, the Church, and then some kilometres of unmarked roads, desolate coastlands, pastures by the sea, wildflowers, forests filled with solomon’s seal and lily of the valley, and quietitude. I was very happy to be there and to read about the history of the island in the Museum; to get stuck momentarily in a bog; to listen to the terns and the waves; and to look for elements in the landscape which might relate to or inspire the distinctive aesthetic of the Kihnu knitting. I also picked up a copy of Elumõnu – Ärmä Roosi, which is a little hard to get hold of elsewhere, and which provides gorgeous visual insights into the connections between culture, place and textiles in Kihnu. The book is written entirely in Estonian, but the pictures are very self-explanatory. I was inspired to try and perceive the links between the knitting and the place for myself, with my camera, while on Kihnu.

This photo shows the quantity of bedstraw required to dye the quantity of yarn hanging beside it, perhaps explaining why it is used sparingly in traditional Kihnu knitting.

Finally, I was delighted to be able to visit a wonderful workshop with Liis in Tõstamaa which exemplifies everything I have discussed in this blog post re: Estonian handicrafts. Tõstamaa Käsitöökeskus – which roughly translates as Tõstamaa Craft Centre – is led by Anu Randmaa, whose main interest lies in the authentic reproduction of traditional Estonian National Costume. Anu knows seemingly everything about lace-making; Estonian jewellery; weaving and finishing the striped skirts traditionally worn by Estonian women; etc. it seems there is nothing she does not know how to do!

Excitingly, Liis was taking her own woven skirt fabric from the loom when we visited, and I was able to record another woman weaving her own traditional Estonian skirt at the loom, so that you will be able to soon hear this distinctive Estonian textile sound.

Traditional Estonian skirts are woven in a single rectangle, gathered around the waist along one long side, and finished off with a hand-embroidered red-hem down the other. This hem acts as a protective circle of red – the red ribbon being also an important theme in the book I mentioned about Kihnu life. Every Parish and district in Estonia is associated with its own distinctive stripes and woven patterns, and these stripes and colours also vary according to age, marital status, children, etc. The warp thread for these skirts is usually linen, and then the colours and pattern are built up with very fine woollen weft threads. Liis’s skirt is modelled on a very old skirt in the National Museum Archive, from Pootsi, just down the road from where she now lives. The original garment had various idiosyncracies which Liis has faithfully reproduced; for instance the weaver of the original clearly began to run out of blue yarn towards the end of the work – the signs of which she has replicated in her own weaving. To make her skirt fabric, Liis first dyed the yarns for it using the following substances:

Indigo for the blues
Birch leaves and Indigo for the green/yellow shades
Synthetic red overdyed with Madder (for warmth, and to make the colours tone together) for the reds

I think it’s beautiful, and I love the links between the past and today evident in this carefully recreated object.

After this incredible woolly journey, I took a bus back to Tartu from Pärnu, and then travelled onwards to Mooste where I have mostly been gathering my thoughts, sleeping, and spinning Estonian wool for the last 24 hours.

I hope some of the richness of what I have experienced here in Estonia comes across in this post; I feel as if I am amongst friends with the knitters and makers of Estonia, and being here reminds me constantly of all the friends I have back in the UK who knit and make. You are all here with me so that every time I see a certain kind of stitch or glove or thing or pattern or piece of embroidery I am thinking of my knitbuddies back in the UK and wishing I could telepathically send you a vision of what I am seeing or hearing.

BIG LOVE TO YOU ALL, FROM ESTONIA! I must get back to my wool now…

35 Responses to My woollen tour of Estonia

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