Sunday, July 22, 2007

Latvia’s Favorite Knitter: Jette Užane (1924-2007)

When she died in March, Jette Užāne received obituaries befitting a revered author or musician in Riga’s largest newspapers. Instead she was a severely handicapped farmwoman with no formal education. Several years ago, when I asked Latvian friends in Riga about their traditional folk mittens, they repeatedly said, “The best ones are made by Cimdu Jettiņa.” This is an affectionate name (using the diminutive form). “Little Jette of the mittens” might be a literal translation.

Jette Užāne rarely left the farmstead her parents built in the 1920s in the Dzerbene district of the Vidzeme countryside (northeastern Latvia). Like all good Latvian farmsteads, it had a name: Lejnieki (place down in the valley). Jette was born in 1924 during the first independence period for Latvia (1920-40). She was the second of six children.

Her grandmother noticed that the 4-year-old was bending over holding her arms stiffly at her side. She was eventually taken to a specialist in Riga who diagnosed tuberculosis of the spine (I believe it's called Pott’s disease). Jette spent two years at the sanitarium at Krimulda. After returning home, she fell ill again after having been to school only twice. Within a few days she couldn’t move anything but her fingers and was taken back to Krimulda. This time she stayed at the sanitarium until she was 12 years old. She was taught reading, writing, and basic sewing skills.

Back home, confined to a wheelchair, Jette was given yarn and knitting needles and shown how to cast on and turn a heel by her mother, who said, “Why are you sitting here without working? Knit something; the other children have bare feet.” After many pairs of socks, Jette turned out her first pair of mitten at age 13. Soon it only took her a day to knit a pair and she began knitting for everyone in the family as well as mending their clothes.

Jette tells this story about the colorful pair of mitten she made for her grandmother, expecting her praise: "I asked, 'Well, aren't they beautiful?' Grandmother answered, 'They are not yet beautiful, daughter. They are colorful.' With a trembling voice through my tears, I asked, 'Lukstinmate, what do the mittens need to make them beautiful?' Grandmother answered, 'Beautiful, daughter, is only black, white, and gray.'"

But Jette kept her passion for colors and her talent was soon recognized. She was quite expert at replicating ethnographic designs, sometimes varying colors. At the end of the 1940s, Jette’s mittens appeared at shows in Riga and Moscow. She knit a series of dolls in folk costumes, and in 1960 she was awards the Soviet honor Master of People’s Handicrafts.

Jette’s siblings moved away—her sister Velta went to Canada and her brothers married and had their own families. After her parents died, Jette remained on the farm living by herself. It was only in the 1980s that she began experimenting with her own designs. Because of radio, television, books and other reading material, she still felt a part of the outside world.

In the 1970s she created her first mitten cycle. It was called Gadalaiki (Seasons of the Year) and she created a pair of mittens for each month, which had a tone and ornamentation that was coordinated with the other months in that season [July and September are shown right]. Although the surface designs on the mittens look embroidered, she knit everything—limited by the yarn that was available to her.

Other mitten cycles followed: trees [see here frost on the poplars above), flowers, Latvian folk symbols, characters from the national epic, Lačplēšis, the bear-slayer [see here Spidola at right, which Jette claims to have unraveled 5 times before she got it right], family members (father is below) , fairy tales [blue is at the end of the posting]—and even copies of paintings by her favorite Latvian artists (such as the spring thaw scene by Purvitis, painting and mittens can be compared here).

In 1988, on the eve of Latvia’s second independence, Jette knit mittens called “perestroika,” “Popular Front,” and “Three Stars”. In fact, she was to receive the Three Stars medal herself from President Guntis Ulmanis in 1995.

During the 1990s, many excursion groups came to Jette’s home to see her mittens and bring her yarn, books, and flowers. In later life, Jette was no longer able to sit up and knitting became nearly impossible. Before her death at age 83, several of the museums in Riga have exhibited some of her mittens .

In a book about her (Preses Nams, 1997), the interviewer asked her to explain her approach to knitting as a creative art. She said, “I soon lost interest in following the strict geometrical patterns of traditional Latvian ethnographic designs and wanted to make something more complicated and original. When knitting those designs I was only moving my fingers. I couldn’t knot myself into the designs. Some knitters are satisfied with repeating these patterns correctly, and they are numerous. But I took on my own designs as a responsibility. It gave me satisfaction to first find the right colors, go to sleep with incomplete thoughts and wake up (usually around 4 am) with solutions, It was a way to escape my troubles.”

The Ethnographic Museum, which we will be visiting, next weekend, has a number of Jette’s mittens in its collection. I've asked that we be given a special showing of them.

Last posting--see you Saturday!


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