Knitting in the Baltic States: The Latvian Mitten

by Elonda Blue Haven

Goal

To present the history of the Baltic States in regards to knitting and construct a pair of mittens in a period style.

History and Research

The Baltic area, consisting of the current countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, were inhabited by Finno-Ugric and Liv tribes in the North, Lagalians in the East and Samogitians and Aukstaiciai tribes in the South. Eventually all of these tribes became known as the Balts by the tribes who came in to conquer the area. In the 9th century it was the Scandinavians. In 1030 the southeastern portion was taken over by the Slavs. Between 1198 and 1290 it was the Germans who finally overran the entire area. The German group that conquered the area were the Knights of the Teutonic Order known as the Brothers of the Sword but were later reorganized as the Livonian Order. Thus the area of Estonia and Latvia became known as Livonia. The Lithuanians, because of the area’s terrain, managed to withstand the foreign incursions and remained independent.

The German Hanseatic League was instrumental in trade from the Baltic States to the middle East. It was this trade that archaeologists credit the import of knitting to Eastern Europe.

Cultural Traditions

Several authors have made suppositions about why the mitten became an important cultural tradition in the Baltic States. Some or all of them may be correct.

Mitts, which no other nation uses to the extent that the Latvians do, play a very significant role vis a vis other clothing apparel. Hand attire seems just as necessary as foot or leg attire that is why Latvians are almost always seen wearing mittens.

Johann Georg Kohl

In creating mittens color and pattern were very important. The third most important thing was the yarn. Though all regions in Latvia have their unique patterns and colors, they all incorporate symbols related to the deities. The most common symbol in current use is the Sun.

Latvian Mitten Symbols taken from photos I took in a knitting class in Kurzeme

When I visited Latvia on a knitting tour the teachers all told stories of how many mittens needed to be created for different occasions. A young woman would need almost 100 pair before she could get married. At the wedding she would give a pair to the minister, the grooms family each got a pair, the driver of the wedding vehicle, kitchen helpers, and even the barn animals received mittens. A family member would retrieve the mittens from the barn later. Even the wedding meal was eaten wearing mittens. One of the women I spoke with had personally knit over 1500 mittens in her life.

Knitting Fragments

I used information from the following fragments in my recreation mitten.

Jouga Find

The oldest known mitten fragment was found in Jouga Estonia. This piece was discovered in 1949 and is currently housed in the Estonian Institute of History. The date of the burial in the Votic cemetery was 1238-1299. No details about the construction techniques were published until 2005 when Anneke Lyffland wrote her abstract.

Tartu Cesspits 12 Munga Street

The largest knitted fragment was found in the cesspits of Tartu. These fragments are at the Tartu City Museum archaeology collection. This fragment is listed as (TM 3440:1234 A-115:1234/ II) I am still trying to find what this means. In an article about the Tartu finds there was a table of the 7 pits found at 12 Munga Street where this fragment was found. Textiles were only found in pits 1, 5, and 7. These pits have been dated from 1300 to 1500.

Tallinn Find

This fragment is located at Tallinn University Institute of History and was found at 10 Tartu road in 1983. This fragment has been dated to the 13th to 18th century based on other items in the excavation.

The Rabivere Bog Find

A coin found at this site was dated 1667 so this piece would probably have been knitted out of period. It has a large colorwork band and the most interesting fact is this is the oldest knitted fragment to have been found to date with the twisted braid technique.

The Re-Creation

Materials

In cultural tradition the color and pattern of the mitten are the two most important considerations with yarn being the third. Since time was too short to get wool hand-dyed in period colors, I used the wool I had on hand. The yarn was 100% wool, 1.4 mm wide, two z-spun singles s-plied together. This yarn matched the yarn used in the Jouga find and I had red, white, and blue which also matched what was used in the Jouga find.

Since the Jouga find was not large enough to tell how it was knit for a mitten, I referred to the fragment from 12 Munga Street for the number of stitches around. That fragment had 60 stitches. Knitting a swatch gave me the correct gauge using size 4 needles.

Detail from the Buxtehude Madonna by Master Bertram of Minden. Painted probably shortly before 1400. This painting and several others are referred to in the book Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt.

Normally I would have knit mittens using the magic loop method as it is keeps the knitting more secure when travelling. Since this was to be knit only at home I choose to use the more period style with 5 double-pointed needles.

Techniques

The piece needed to be 4 inches across with 60 stitches around based on the find from Tartu. The Tartu find did not list whether the piece was knit Eastern or Western style but had a left slanting long tail cast on. The piece from Jouga was knit Eastern style. The Tallinn find had a set-in thumb and the top was a traditional pyramid decrease. Both of these are common to mittens knitted today in Latvia. There are no additional increases or decreases in the body of the mitten as they are knit straight from the cuff to the top decreases. I decided to combine the techniques from the three fragments. My reason for doing this was that the fragments from Tartu and Tallinn did not have the extensive information about them as was available for the Jouga find. But the Jouga find did not have a cuff, cast on, thumb or mitten top. According to the book Estonian Knitting, Eastern style knitting was in primary use in the Baltic states through the 1800’s at least. I decided to go with that style.

Eastern knitting varies from Western by the slant of the stitches on the needle. In Western knitting (see left image below) the opening in the stitch is to the left and the yarn is wrapped counter-clockwise. In Eastern knitting the front loop of the stitch sits further back on the needle which makes the opening for a knit stitch easier through the back of the needle and the working yarn is wrapped clockwise. (See image on the right below) This took some getting used to.

A regular long tail cast on is shown below on the left image. The yarn is wrapped around the thumb and the front of the thumb loop is picked up and the loop from the index finger is pulled through. The yarn for left-slanting long tail cast on is held much the same as a regular long tail cast on. Instead of slipping the needle under the front of the loop on the thumb, it is slipped under the back of the loop. In Latvian mittens these two types of cast on can be be alternated in pairs to provide an edge that is more flexible. I cannot find any documentation on when the alternating cast on came into use so went with the left slanting cast on from the Tartu find.

The mitten from Tallinn also had a long tail cast on and there was no purl row following the cast on. This results in the cuff curling up. Since none of the fragments that I used as reference had purl rows, I decided to forego the purl row after the cast on.

Design

For the beginning of the cuff I used the cuff design from the Tartu mitten. For the rest of the mitten I used symbols common to Latvian mittens.

Above the cuff I added the grass snake which is Zalktis in Latvian. The serpent was a sacred animal and symbolizes wisdom, ancient arts and sacred crafts.

For the body of the mitten I chose Saule, the sun. This symbol is the most often used in Latvian mittens and represents fertility.

One of my favorite stitches in modern Latvian mittens is the Fir Needles or braided stitch. The first example of the braid being used in a mitten was in the Rabivere Bog find which had a mitten with an elaborate color-work cuff and a herringbone cast on. A coin dated 1667 was found at the site so this mitten has been dated to after 1600 which would make this technique just out of SCA period.

Conclusion

This was a lot of fun to knit, even with changing from the Western style to the Eastern. In future attempts I would like to get hand spun yarn dyed in natural dyes common to the area. The Abstract by Anneke Lyffland refers to an additional work that discusses colors in the material. I was unable to obtain a copy of that work. She did mention that the white was natural, undyed wool and that the red was done with madder and the blue with a mix of natural and woad dyed yarn.

The final mitten measured 4 inches across which matched the mitten found at the Tartu cesspits. The mittens above have been blocked with a damp towel and lightly pressed. I haven’t found any information about how this finishing step might have been done in period.

The hand knit mittens I purchased in Latvia had much longer floats than I am used to and they are straight and aligned along the row. I was unable to view the inside of the mittens that were over 200 years old to see if the aligned float was used 200 years ago. I would like to see the backside of the knitting fragments to see if they are stranded. I imagine that using long floats would be quicker to knit and when the wool felts from use you wouldn’t have to worry about fingers catching in the floats.

Below are some of the fingerless mittens I have knit using modern patterns from Latvia. The first pattern is done in an acrylic, the second is merino and the third mitten is alpaca. The fuzziness of the alpaca blurs some of the details of the pattern.

Three fingerless mittens
3 fingerless mittens knit in Latvian style

Citations

  • Grasmane, Maruta. Latviesa Cimdi. 3rd ed., Sena Klets, 2020.
  • Pink, et al. Estonian Knitting. New York-United States, United States, Penguin Random House, 2016.
  • Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. First Edition, Interweave, 2003.
  •  Lyffland, Anneke, “A study of a 13th-century Votic knit fragment”.
  • Knitting Craft in Europe from the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth CenturyTurnau, Irena. The Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club, Vol. 65 (1982), 23 pages. Posted December 1, 2004
  • Upitis, Lizbeth, et al. Latvian Mittens: Traditional Designs & Techniques. Revised, Schoolhouse Press, 1997.
  • Bater, James H., and Romuald J. Misiunas. “Baltic States.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 11 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/place/Baltic-states.
  • Haak, Arvi & Russow, Erki. (2012). Interpreting find complexes from the medieval cesspits of Tartu. 10.13140/RG.2.1.2862.1521.

Image Citations

  • Header photo – Tower, Roberta. 2019, Taken in Sena Kletz in Riga, Latvia
  • Latvian Symbols – Tower, Roberta 2019, Taken at the Kurzeme Region National Costume Information Center, Liepaja, Latvia
  • Knitting fragments – Pink et al, Estonian Knitting, New York-United States, United States, Penguin Random House, 2016.
  • the Buxtehude Madonna by Master Bertram of Minden, Medium Aevum, 2012, https://mediumaevum.tumblr.com/post/15195244828/in-the-middle-ages-a-hot-new-thread
  • Knitting examples and mittens – Tower, Roberta 2020

13 Replies to “Knitting in the Baltic States: The Latvian Mitten”

  1. Really stunning work. I also knit (though I don’t have nearly as much experience) and recently ventured into pattern design (for SCA A&S things) – Can I ask how you went about developing the pattern for your gloves?

    Thank you!

    1. Greetings Isabella, The first part of the cuff was taken from the Tartu Cesspits fragment. You can see that there is a graph besides the fragment showing what the design was. The body of the Tartu fragment is the sun symbol. I didn’t want to copy it exactly. I knew I had 30 stitches on a side and I wanted space between the designs. So I just went to my pattern books and looked for something with close to the same stitches. The second part of the cuff is the grass snake pattern and there are plenty of examples of that graphed pattern on the internet. I just chose one with the correct number of stitches.
      As you can see from the Tallinn Find fragment, they liked to contain patterns within borders. After 1600 they started making very complex patterns and the introduction in chemical dyes caused an explosion in color and pattern. When I am designing I usually use graph paper to chart with or Excel on my computer. I find I can make adjustments more quickly with Excel.

      1. Cool 🙂 I also used Excel when trying to draft a pattern. I’ve found I don’t have much of a brain for it, but can do it when I really set my mind to it – it’s just not easy! Thanks again

  2. Greetings!

    A great presentation! I don’t knit, at all, and found the research engaging and the end result lovely. I’ve encouraged several modern knitters to come give your presentation a read-through.

    Ciar

  3. Greetings from HL Gwennan nic Ailpein, Shire of Lost Moor in Calontir,

    Thank you so much for doing your wonderful exhibit. Your mittens are lovely! I have heard and read so much on Baltic knitting and I am impressed that you were able to visit the Baltic area. Seeing those knitted fragments had to be a huge help! There is nothing like extant examples to help point ones’s research in the right direction.

    I am more of a spinner, dyer, and weaver, rather than a knitter. My knitting is horrendous and what takes others a few days or 2 weeks to make, takes me months or years. Weaving makes more sense to me, so I do that instead.

    I wonder what part of the animal the mittens were on/knitted for? Were they placed on the ears or hooves? Did they actually knit a thumb even though livestock is well known for being thumb free? Or do they knit a fingerless mitt sans thumb for the animal’s ankles/shins above the hoof?

    I find customs and traditions like these fascinating! It can really show more details concerning a given culture and ethnic origin.

    Let me know if you want some help with learning spinning and dyeing to use the yarn for making more mittens! 😀 I can teach over Zoom if you like, though I am not sure if the video would clearly show how the fibers move when drafting for spinning. But we could try it. In the meantime, you are welcome to email me if you would like!

    1. Thank you for your comments. The mittens given to the animals were made for people. They were just hung in the stall of the animal for the wedding. For example the bride would present mittens to the horses that pulled the wedding carriage. The horses owners would collect the mittens that evening for members of the family.
      I do drop-spin and was trying to learn to spin on a wheel but my cat chewed through the Scotch tension and I haven’t tried to replace it yet. I have tried period dying and don’t care for it. I’m more than happy to pay someone else to do that for me.

      1. Yes, I see. You may do all right with acid based dyes that use vinegar to set the dye.

        I may be able to help you by doing the spinning and perhaps the dyeing. But you may want someone who is local to you. Let me know what you think.

  4. I just wanted to leave a comment about how lovely your display is. I know -nothing- about actually knitting myself but it is an art form I admire so much for it’s technique! Your mittens are absolutely amazing. Baltic fiber work and embellishment is some of my favorite (bother in period and modernly), and these are truly a work of art. Thank you for sharing! -HL Lantani de Forez

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ten + 8 =