Reds and Blues

I have been thinking a lot about red and blue together, lately. Partly this is because the wool brooch sets I have been making out of Kihnu and Räpina fabric and UK textiles have involved a lot of red and blue, partly it’s because I have been preparing a blog post as part of the exciting Susan Crawford Coronation Knits blog-tour (Coronation Knits contains a lot of blue and red, as you can imagine!) and partly it is because of Kihnu Project Bags. What’s that? You have no idea what a Kihnu Project bag is? Read on!

Kihnu project bag, made by Kata

The women of Kihnu are traditionally great fans of printed cotton fabrics. When supplies of such textiles to the island were disrupted, the women collaborated to order shipments together, so that they might still have a stash of fabric pieces for the production of aprons, small capes, and project bags. The project bag is a small, lined bag for keeping one’s knitting projects in. Each side of the bag is comprised of a 4 x 4 grid of 9cm x 9cm or 10cm x 10cm squares. The squares are arranged loosely in diagonal lines of blue or red, and a colourful braid is created to draw it shut so that your knitting needles don’t fall out of it. You can loop the braid over your wrist, thus being able to carry your knitting at all times, even when your hands are busily occupied with something else.

Kata’s beautiful handmade drawstring braid

There are many examples of Kihnu project bags in Museum collections in Estonia, and in books on Ethnographic textiles.

Photo detail from Kata’s book on ethnographic textiles

There are several features of the Kihnu Project Bag which I find especially pleasing. Firstly, I think it is a wonderful use of scraps of fabric. Secondly, each bag that I have seen made in this style is a wonderful repository of ideas, providing endless inspiration for different combinations of pattern and colour. I once blogged about the idea of making a patchwork skirt as “a portable case of ideas”, and that is exactly how I view the Kihnu Project Bag. Thirdly, I find I am very drawn to the sharing, exchange and mutual inspiration which seem to surround the Kihnu Project Bag.

Anu Pink and Kata trading fabric stash pieces for Kihnu Project Bags

The most economical way of having a lot of pretty squares to draw from is to swap bits of fabric, and it was fascinating watching Anu and Kata trading pieces of material and talking enthusiastically about their respective sewing plans… they laid out various bits of fabric next to each other, and though I did not understand what they were saying, I got the sense that they were discussing various combinations. It’s amazing how many variations on the theme can exist within the parameters of 4 x 4 and red and blue diagonals…

Kihnu Project Bag pieces laid out on the floor of MoKS

I was extremely lucky in that Kata offered to make me one of these bags. To begin with, Kata presented me with her fabric stash and invited me to organise the layout of my bag myself. She explained to me the history of each piece of fabric – “this was an apron”, “I got this one in a second-hand shop… it was a shirt”, “this piece belonged to Anu Pink”, etc. This brings me to the fourth point which I love about the Kihnu Project Bag – which is the subtext that seems to be literally and deliberately attached to it. As with the traditional Estonian skirts, the back story for each piece of fabric seems to be as important as its aesthetic appearance, so that your Kihnu Project Bag is a rich respository of memories and stories connecting life with clothes, as well as being a gorgeous celebration of reds and blues.

I was completely delighted when Kata presented me with my beautiful bag. I love the stories it contains of old aprons, thrifted fabric from second-hand shops, stash-sharing between sewing buddies, friendships Kata has with other Estonian women, and the cheerful celebration of colour. I also love the memories it evokes for me personally of being in Estonia, and of happy times spent with Kata in my studio and in her hometown of Türi.

Photo by Kata of me receiving my beautiful and very much treasured Kihnu Project Bag

Me learning to drop-spindle and Kata sorting out yarn

I got a wonderful surprise when I realised that Kata had chosen a fabric to top off the bag that was almost identical to the fabric I used in my very first sewing project.

You can see the strawberries-on-Navy topping to my Kihnu Project Bag to the left of the photo, and to the right, you can see the lining of my big blue strawberry top, made in Naples a few years ago. I don’t know how Kata intuited the perfectness of this fabric, but she says she just went into the fabric store in Tartu and there it was, just begging to be used atop my bag! Spooky, coincidental, joyous.

I am interested in continuing the Kihnu Project Bag tradition in some way in my own life, and this began with a trip to Village Fabrics in Wallingford to find precious pieces of red and blue fabric to send to Kata as a small thank you for the lovely bag.

Reds and blues

I also raided my own stash and old, cut-up or abandoned clothes, for meaningful scraps. And I wrote a letter explaining the provenance of each piece, exactly as she had explained the origins of every piece used in my own wonderful Kihnu Project Bag. I love the constraints of making this type of bag… and the possibilities. Blues and reds aren’t my usual choice of colour at all, but somehow – as with so many things I discovered in Estonia – the Kihnu Project Bag makes me see things differently, and to want to make bags for my own friends, passing on the little patchwork stories and rich colour ideas that make these objects so lovely. I love my own Kihnu Project Bag and it is where I keep my Estonian leggings project… but that’s another colour story.

Do you have any treasured pieces of fabric in your stash which are too small to make something big from and too precious to throw away?


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