Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Those Famous Latvian Mittens

My female Latvian friends are mostly English teachers and academics. Two are weavers, although one has sold her loom because she works all the time and it takes up too much space in her apartment. These friends were bemused when I told them that the hand-knit, colorful mittens are among the (few) things Americans know about Latvia. They expected their long tradition of complicated weaving designs would be the premier handicraft, just as Latvians themselves generally believe. For example, a whole floor in the Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in possibly the oldest building in Riga (c. 1202) is devoted to weaving and tapestries—while mittens only show up in the museum gift shop. Knitting is a prosaic, portable pastime as far as they are concerned.

The person who raised Latvian mitten awareness in the U.S. is another American who married a Latvian (as I did), but who compiled an all-encompassing book on the subject of those mittens. Of course, I’m referring to Lizbeth Upitis, whose Latvian Mittens/Latviešu cimdi first came to knitters' attention in 1981. Its popularity led to a second edition by Schoolhouse Press in 1997, and just last month (April 2007), another printing.

A spin-off resulted when Lizbeth loaned Joyce Williams some books on Latvian weaving (A Joy Forever, Latvian Weaving, Traditional and Modified by Jane A. Evans, 1991, and several Soviet-era Latvian books by Z. Ventaskrast from the 1950s with weaving patterns). As Joyce says in her book Latvian Dreams: Knitting from Weaving Charts (Schoolhouse Press, 2000): “…looking at some of the [weaving] charts…I felt they would make excellent knitted designs.” Between the two of them, Lizbeth and Joyce have published enough Latvian patterns to keep all of us endlessly knitting stranded colorwork mittens, socks, sweaters--and wherever our needles and imaginations lead us.

Latest Latvian knitting news

Those patterns keep showing up. In the recent issue of Interweave Knits (Summer 2007), Kate Gilbert adapted a motif that she found on a traditional Latvian mitten to develop a pattern for a cap in three sizes (child’s, woman’s, and man’s) and three color ways (see pages 45 and 108).

In the same issue, Deborah Pulliam devoted her regular column “Knitted Artifact” to the Latvian mitten-making project for the NATO summit in Riga last fall (page. 9). I had intended to write about this remarkable undertaking in my blog, but Deborah scooped me.

NATO Mitten Project

Latvia was admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004, hopeful that NATO membership might provide some security from Russia, its large neighbor and past subjugator (which still refers to Latvia as the “near abroad”). The honor of hosting a NATO summit in 2006 led to feverish preparations last summer and fall. Someone in public relations came up with the idea of presenting each of the 4,500 guests at the summit with a pair of handmade Latvian mittens. Knitters from the countryside were recruited and paid $12-14 per pair to knit these devilishly difficult mittens (on 0 or 00 double-point needles). Of course, the knitters rose to the occasion and examples of the results have been preserved online (in a huge zipped file). I’m providing links to postings on the NATO Summit website entitled “The story of a 1,000-year-old Latvian mitten” and “Renaissance of Latvia’s ethnographic mittens.” Also to designs from Mirdza Slava's classic Cimdu Raksti on Latvian mittens and the NATO collection.

In Riga next July I can guarantee that you will be able to buy hand-knit Latvian mittens, gloves, and socks from vendors and shops all over Vēcriga (the old city). Also at museum shops, such as the one at the Open Air Ethnographic Museum we will be visiting on Sunday, July 29. Set in a pine forest next to Lake Jugla on 100 hectares, “museum” is probably not the right word for this re-creation of traditional Latvian country life. Frequently craftspeople (knitters, weavers, blacksmiths, wood carvers, jewelry makers) and folk musicians are doing their thing on summer Sundays throughout the museum.

If you’d like to learn some of the techniques for Latvian mitten embellishments (braids, fringe, cast-on, scalloped and picoted borders), I'll be offering a knitting session during our ferry ride from Riga to Stockholm. I’ve adapted motifs from mittens to a couple of small shoulder bags. Arnhild will be posting samples of the Latvian project on her website with details about yarn and needles.


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