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.

(knitters of Muhu. reproduced from Tomberg, p.81)

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).

( Kihnu Troi. ERM A 175:78; Tomberg p.132)

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.

(Nipiga vatt (tailed shortcoat) from Muhu. Knitted in relief pattern, with embroidered edging. ERM A 651:22, Tomberg p. 109)

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.

(mitten 3541 from Helme parish. Praakli, p. 196)

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.

(mitten 7518 from Kambja parish, Praakli p.201).

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

29 thoughts on “Estonian colour knitting

  1. Hi Kate,
    I was wondering if you can help me. On page 71 in Tomberg book there is Emmaste garment. The description below says it is done in ‘blanket moss stitch’. I’ve been looking everywhere to find it, even spoke to Meg Swansen of Schoolhousepress, but nobody knows what it is. Do you happen to hear of that mysterious stitch?
    Thank you


    1. blanket moss stich is in estonian patentkude… I think in English it is called: fishermans rib; English rib; mistake rib. Otherwide type “patentkude” in google you get many different videos.


  2. What a fascinating post! Thank you for including the publication information for those books – I’d love to see if I can track them down through interlibrary loan and take a look.


  3. This is a really great post – I’m mesmerized by the diagonal lines on all these lovely mittens. Guess which book is next on my wishlist? :-)

    Hope you are feeling better as well!


  4. Thank you for this wonderful post! I, too, have been rather obsessed with all things Estonian lately in my own knitting, although the only two books I’ve read on the topic are from Nancy Bush. I’d love to be able to check out the books you’ve mentioned in this post.


  5. Stop, stop, have mercy! Wonderful as these books may be (and they do look fascinating and lovely), I don’t need more ideas for things to knit in my head – or more books on my shelves!

    Okay, I don’t really mean stop, I find these pieces so interesting…


  6. There’s always so much to learn on Kate’s Blog. I hope you are staying up in spirits with your physiotherapy.

    I had a crazy dream about you last night. I saw Bright Star (half of, or less, fell asleep), and fell into slumber dreaming about fabric and thread. I dreamed that I was going to spin for you a few spools of very fine crewel wool for embroidery or sewing, from my brown sheep’s fleece I have been spinning for decades (not that I even can spin that fine, or that the wool is even appropriate) In my dream it was going to be this really special gift, and I imagined you all excited. But as I woke I realized the silliness of it all, that it was just my impression about the movie which made me excited about the textile. Haven’t finished the movie yet (the acting is bad, especially the heroine), but somehow it’s scintillating to have such attention be made to all of that sumptuous luscious material obsession. We do share this obsession, all of us. Do please take the dream as a compliment. Love to you, Jen


  7. Dear Kate, you are absolutely right about those books, I got them recently and I enjoy them as objects as much as for the inspiration they offer. I am sure you would also enjoy Claire Hallik’s Silmuskudumine, which does not have much colorwork but many interesting and unique texture patterns, some of which reproduce stranded knitting patterns. Now if you would only give us a mailing address, I would send it to you to thank you for your beautiful work and cheer you on. I’m really looking forward to seeing your (paced) hare and (hurried ?) tortoise. Best wishes to you all.


  8. Please, please write a book! And/or give some talks! We’d love to have you up here in Maine. Your blog is wonderful. I’ll pass your info along to Knitting Out Loud, where I work. My blog is mylifewithknitters.blogspot.com.
    (KnitVision on Ravelry)


  9. Another great post. I wonder about the left most woman’s stockings and shoes! Is that particular photo from the book? I would love to know more.
    This last weekend I saw some gorgeous knitting sticks while at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival and thought of you.


  10. I’m 25% Estonian but never knew much about the country. After learning to knit, I felt like it was a wonderful gift to find such a rich knitting heritage. The information on that side of my family is scant so it gives me great pleasure to imagine my great-grandmother knitting some of the same stitch patterns that I can today. Thanks for your great write up! I’ve been knitting from the lace traditions but now I’m even more eager to switch over to colorwork.


  11. Kate,

    I downloaded your Owl sweater pattern last year and discovered your blog about 2 weeks ago when I was checking the pattern online to determine how much yarn I should buy.

    I’ve really been enjoying your thoughtful and articulate posts, both about your own recovery and your observations on knitting, knitting design and knitting history.

    I’ve also been musing about the asymmetric relationship between a blogger and her non-blogging readers. I feel like I’m getting to know you, and yet, you don’t even know that I’m here unless I comment. It feels a little odd, as if I were taking advantage of you somehow. Hence, this post, to at least let you know that you have another fan, here on the California coast.


  12. Hello Kate
    I am indeed going to research those books you suggest. I love the history of knitting. Years and years ago we only had Richard Rutt’s book but now with the internet exploring is so much easier. My daughter’s friend spent a year in Estonia after finishing school and absolutely loved it.

    I am off to the Old Country for six weeks – England and Wales – sadly not up to Scotland though. So, I will only be able to check in very sporadically. My bag is packed and I have left plenty of room to buy some wool!! Just a tad excited now!

    Thank you for your wonderful blog – I just love it. Take good care of yourself.


  13. What a coincidence. I received *Kihnu Roosi Kindakirjad* yesterday!
    And the other book, I also got it last month. They are really 2 treasures.
    I’ve bee slowly collecting books of folk mittens was *Latviesu rakstainie cimdi*. This is a book of Latvian mittens, also very interesting. It has graphs for 575 mittens and gloves!


  14. Thanks for letting me know about more Estonian knitting books. My Estonian grandparents would be delighted to know that Estonian knitting culture is being maintained, and communicated throughout the world.


  15. wow. really interesting. I love the Kihnu Troi. Amazing color-work that does not strike me as ‘busy’. Great details on the mittens as well. Stunning work.


  16. WOnderful post – now I have some books that I will have to try to find.
    this morning I was showing a nurse (who happens to be Norwegian) my book Selbuvotter by Terri Shea. I know a different knitting tradition than the one you talk about in this post but I think many of us are fascinated with historical knitting.
    I have knit several mittens from the patterns in this book and they have been quick yet challenging projects. I have given some away and the recipient is always fascinated if I include a short note about the pattern.
    I hope one day that you will write a textile pattern book. I so love your writing style and your beautiful photography. Your prose flows so simply and seemingly effortlessly – I learn so much with out feeling that I don’t have the educational background to understand the complicated history involved fascinated


  17. I`m not very good knitter ,but read your blog often.Thank you for writing this! I know thoes colour knitting pattern from my mothers godmother. She was from Setumaa, this is also part of Estonia. http://www.apollo.ee/search.php?keyword=aino+praakli
    Estonian bookshop address.
    From Aino Praakli are also brochures with patternd mittens from Seto County. Pattern from the 11 half of the previous century and also older patterns, preserved at the Estonian National Museum.
    Sorry my english is not so good!


  18. Such a pleasing aesthetic. The knitting and design is so like 18-19th century Swedish knitting. I love the fine, almost jacquard-esque texture produced by the patterned knitting in one color on the tiny needles.
    I need to spend less time thinking about these things and more time experimenting with them. I am picturing tiny stitches of hand-dyed greens to make a moss-like fabric.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  19. Hi Kate,

    If you have an interest in Estonian knitting, I highly recommend that you look up annejeanne on Ravelry, if you don’t know her already….

    She is Estonian herself, and has provided tanslation of Estonian lace patterns for other Ravellers in the past, as well as being a talented knitter, stitch marker maker, and absolute gem of a lady. If you need translations, advice, or a good chat, I’m sure she would be more than gracious towards you….

    I think this may be my first comment on your blog – I found you as the stroke happened, and my admiration for you through your healing process only grows and grows – I love hearing what you have to say, on any topic, and I’m glad to see that you’re proving the rule of knitters being a resilient, intelligent and feisty breed.

    Cheers to you, m’dear.

    Leah xx


comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.