I was very struck last year in Estonia by the historic legwear I saw in the Estonian National Museum, and the beautiful pair of legwarmers that I bought in Tallinn, (designed by Riina Tomberg and very much influenced by the needlework traditions of Estonia and its folk costumes) are among my favourite handknits. I wear them all the time.
Contemporary Estonian legwarmers, designed by Riina Tomberg and inspired by traditional Estonian folk knitting
The history of Estonian legwarmers (often described in Estonian literature as leggings) is not entirely clear to me; my book on Estonian folk costumes says that “in Setumaa men wore patterned, heelless stockings like in Russia”, and that “In the first half of the 19th century women still wore socks with knitted leggings or blanketsocks.” I assume that for extremely decorative legwear, it was more practical to keep the sock part that covers the foot (and gets trashed in the exertions of daily life) separate from finer and more decorative work on the legs; also, additional layers to cover up the vulnerable ankle and shin areas from the cold would certainly be useful during Estonian winters…
photo from Kabur Anu, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island, 2011, Saara Publishers
I don’t know whether a blanketsock/legwarmer/leggings are similar or the same, and am searching for more information on the distinctions. This is the heelless stocking referred to in the text of my Estonian folk costumes book, which to me looks very much like a legwarmer.
Setumaa patterned, heelless stocking – Estonian Folk Costumes, 1981, Eesti Raamat
Whatever combination of stockings, blanketsocks, legwarmers, leggings and socks was traditionally used in Estonian ethnographic textiles, all of the texts which I have found relating to ladies’ leg wear attest to the fact that large, sturdy calves were de rigeur in 19th Century Estonian folk cultures:
In knitting the calf one had to use increases and decreases. First of all, decreases were needed to give the stocking the right shape. When a maiden happened to be born without juniper-pulling calves, i.e. heavy legs, she had to wrap her calves in fleece, hay or strips of cloth or wear several layers of stocking in order to make her legs look stronger and thus follow the standard of fashion and beauty.
Kadagaväoseartega naene (a woman with juniper-pulling calves) – a woman with strong legs who could pull out a juniper by the roots
- Kabur Anu, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island, 2011, Saara Publishers
Earlier all the women wrapped their legs thick, at the end of the 19th century this custom was still in force in the eastern parishes of Mulgimaa only, where the stocking were knitted especially wide.
- Melanie Kaarma, Aino Voolmaa, Estonian folk costumes, 1981, Eesti Raamat
It is my personal experience that wearing my merino base-layer plus thick socks plus legwarmers results in a pleasingly warm and sturdy-legged aesthetic!
Now I know that I do not have to possess the same Ox-like strength of an Estonian woman living in an agrarian culture in order to do my daily work, but I am very appreciative of – and interested in – the idea of fashion aesthetics which celebrate the strength and capability of the female body. Part of my fascination with The Women’s Land Army relates to the excellent uniform which women in the WLA wore, and the sorts of behaviours and activities that wearing it encouraged: here I am in a Land Girl inspired outfit, recording cows, enjoying the massive freedom afforded by sensible shoes, the right mix of sweaters/shirts/base-layers and shorts, and a proper quantity of pockets.
Perhaps it is because I have experienced what it means to not be able to walk that I am judgemental about the impeding qualities of High Heel Shoes and critical of the skinny-leg-look which they induce; and maybe this relates, too, to my open appreciation for my own capable limbs and the great work they do… either way, BRING ON THE STRONG LEGS!
Though I sincerely doubt that the old Estonian insult “thighs like knitting needles” applies, I actually don’t have very big legs… So I really enjoy how legwarmers emphasise and widen what little girth I have in my calf muscles, and – in so doing – act as a cheeky, fashionistic riposte to the widespread appreciation for long, slender, primarily decorative legs which seems so predominant in our culture.
images © Peter Stigter and taken from this article on Spring Fashion 2013 trends
In contrast to the shimmering, gazelle-like pins that models on catwalks appear to teeter unsteadily upon, the legwarmer-clad leg appears as firm as a planted oak. I HEART LEGWARMERS!
This legwarmer love has inspired me to design my own pair. In homage to Estonian legwarmers, they are shaped to emphasise the musculature of the leg, and the design celebrates my labour as a sound artist. The motif I have used details the pause/play/record buttons of my favoured field-recording devices.
This Spring, one of my happiest work experiences involved soundwalking with Peter Cusack in Leuven. We walked many times around STUK, identifying a route which would allow plenty of sonic interest for participants on a public soundwalk, and which would enable us to share what we have learned about listening to places in the time we have been doing it. I had just completed my LISTENING TUNIK, and was excited to have such an enabling garment to wear while out exploring the sonorities of a strange city… but as I walked in Leuven, listening, I began to think about the act of walking as itself a method for pausing/playing/recording the sounds of places.
So “legwarmers for soundwalking” were born, using the same motif as the LISTENING TUNIK, but realised in the more muted palette of Jamieson’s of Shetland yarn. To test whether the legwarmers really do provide a nice reminder to listen to the sounds when one is out and about, I strode off in them with Mark last weekend, to explore once again the landscape around The A4074 – the road about which I made my first local radio documentary programme.
It turns out that my yarn choices almost perfectly matched the palette of the A4074 environs in Spring…
…and there even seemed to be some shy little Shetland sheep along the way!
We heard woodpeckers; bees; hoverflies and cars; we had a lovely conversation about the tiny sound of dry leaves skitting along the ground; we listened to the wind tousling the trees; and I remembered where I’d spotted a white squirrel several years ago when I did loads of walks around the A4074, researching my radio show. If I’m 100% honest, I’m not convinced that wearing the legwarmers did remind me to listen extra-specially carefully! However they did keep my legs warm, and they did remind me of how glad I am for the ability to walk for miles, listening and seeing and smelling and tasting and experiencing this fine planet. I probably couldn’t pull out a Juniper, and my life is nowhere near as hard as that of an Estonian woman working the land in the 19th Century! However I can walk for 20+ miles and make radio shows and podcasts out of what I’ve heard, and I love the idea of creating garments which celebrate the strength that makes such practices possible.
Thank you, legs!
Photo credits: as ever, all the photos of me cavorting around in my latest creations have been kindly taken by the amazing FO photographer extraordinaire, Mr Mark Stanley. Mark can be seen here strewn upon some fine golden dandelions, flaked out after taking 19067349 photos of legwarmers.
Thank you, Mark!