Estonian Knitting I: Traditions and Techniques


Years ago, I wrote the occasional piece for Selvedge. I pitched a few ideas to them for short features which combined the history of knitted textiles with some account of how they were actually made, but was told that any sort of technical instruction was verboten “we aren’t interested in how-tos.” But why not, I thought, why should the “how” be different from the “what”? Why should the skills and expertise that had contributed to the creation of a textile be excised from its story? Surely the people who found textiles beautiful or fascinating (and formed the readership of the magazine) were the same people who actually made textiles, or were interested in the processes of their making? This fantastic book blows such questions out of the water, and brings the “how” together with the “what” so very impressively that I really feel it marks a new departure for, and sets a new standard in, knitting history.


Several different kinds of expertise are brought together here: archeology, semiotics, cultural, social and textile history, as well as the editors’ practical experience of teaching and researching the many “hows” of knitting in Estonia. The editors have drawn on the collections and resources of 19 different museums and research institutions, and it is immediately evident that this book is the product of some intensely collaborative and truly interdisciplinary work by numerous individuals and organisations.


In the book’s early pages, for example, we learn about the history, locations and cultural context of various significant archeological knitted finds, as well as the legends and folk tales that have grown up around them. Alongside this information the finds themselves are photographed and displayed, and the patterns and construction of the pieces carefully charted.


In addition, pretty much every question a curious knitter would ask, were she or he examining these important fragments, is answered by the editors in the accompanying text. We learn what gauge the pieces were knitted at, what yarns were used, which cast on, shaping, and finishing techniques were deployed, even the stories these pieces have to tell about their own wear, mending and repair. The book’s layout (which is beautiful, thoughtful, and balanced throughout) enhances the experience for the reader, who is able to access different kinds of information about the piece simply by dotting about the page. Spending time with this book really is the next best thing to learning about these pieces in person.


Items like gloves and mittens, stockings and leg warmers have a unique cultural importance in Estonia, and in subsequent sections we learn about the history of these objects’ everyday wear and making, as well as their fascinating social and symbolic functions.


We discover how Estonian women actually knitted, and find out about the tools and accoutrements of their craft. Having a long-standing fascination with pockets in British dress, I particularly enjoyed the section about knitting bags



It says it all about this wonderful book that the discussion of knitting bags concludes with clear instructions about how to make a bag similar to those pictured.


As a collection of island parishes, Estonia has developed styles of knitting that are interestingly singular. These regional differences are discussed in several contexts, including the colour palettes and preferences that make the textiles from each location distinctive.


But what really knocks me out about this book is how the editors enable you to learn about these magnificent textiles – understanding their social importance, their meanings, their contexts. . .


And then share with you the techniques that are used to make them. For example, you might be impressed and fascinated by the mitten on the right, above, before, in later pages, learning how to produce something similar by working intarsia in the round.


I’ve long been blown away by the different skills and techniques that are displayed in traditional Estonian knitting, but its their sheer range that really impresses here. Want to learn how to work multiple two-colour cast ons, bind offs and braids? Look no further.


Estonian knitters love detail and embellishment, and you’ll not only learn about lace, travelling stitches and colourwork, but different techniques of beading, inlay and embroidery.


This is a fabulously informative, beautifully produced, and most of all an incredibly generous book. Presented in English (with the help of translators like Nancy Bush), with plenty of scholarly apparatus to assist you with your own research (including a section on how to use Estonian digitised collections), there is nothing possessive or proprietorial here.


This book is all about sharing the wonderful world of Estonian knitting with knitters and readers around the globe, and best of all, there is more to come. Traditions and Techniques is merely the first of three volumes – the other two devoted to Estonian socks and stockings, and mittens and gloves. I really can’t wait!


The editors and writers – Anu Pink, Siiri Reimann, and Kristi Joeste – have done an amazing job here, with the supportive help of their publishers (the beautiful layouts must in themselves have taken considerable time and skill to produce). Estonian Knitting I: Traditions and Techniques really is, I think the most important book to be published about knitting history for many years, and is surely an essential addition to any knitterly bookshelf. A substantial tome of 300 pages, it is available directly from Saara publishing (who produce many wonderful books about Estonian crafts) here.

Just in case you were in any doubt at all, I absolutely love this book.