After 40-plus years of Soviet occupation, the people of Estonia are still trying to sort out who they are. To restore the cultural, religious, and historic traditions that had been so nearly erased is an ongoing challenge.
For those in Haapsalu, a small seaside resort town in western Estonia, part of that work has involved reclaiming and archiving their rich knitting tradition. While the knitters of Haapsalu were kept extremely busy during Soviet occupation, they also insist that their lace knitting tradition, in its pure sense, nearly vanished in the process.
The First Reports
Nancy Bush spent years visiting, researching, and working with the knitters of Haapsalu to chronicle their tradition in Knitted Lace of Estonia. Published by Interweave Press in December 2008, the book is a thorough English reference on the history, technique, and stitches that the Haapsalu knitters used in their famous shawls and scarves.
With the voice of a cultural historian and seasoned teacher, Bush gave detailed and well-illustrated technique tutorials, provided countless stitch patterns, and shared 14 completed project patterns for rectangular, square, and triangular shawls and scarves. She presented potentially dense information in a format and style that North American knitters could easily digest.
A Haapsalu Uprising
Nancy Bush’s book may have helped the knitters of Haapsalu realize that there was an international market not only for their shawls but also for information on how to make their shawls. Which is more or less when they began working on a book of their own, which has just been released in English under the title The Haapsalu Shawl (Nancy Bush is credited as consultant and editor).
The Haapsalu Shawl is a gorgeous book whose heft (and $60 cost) suggest a life on the coffee table more than in the knitting bag. And yet the contents, while beautiful, are clearly also intended to be functional.
After telling the story of Haapsalu lace knitting (which takes up the book’s first 21 pages and is heavily illustrated with archival photographs), the authors launch right in to teaching you how to make your own Haapsalu lace shawl.
They talk about yarn in brief and general terms, explaining approximately how many grams of yarn a shawl may need (“depending on the size, pattern, thickness of yarn, and tension of knitting”) and that, in the yarn they use, the average yarn has about 1,400m (or 1,100 yards) per 100g. (That’s actually incorrect, 1,400m equals 1,531 yards.) It’s your job to do the math, trust your calculations, and order extra yarn just in case.
Then the authors address the issue of needles, since Haapsalu shawls are actually knit on short single-pointed straight needles. As a nice touch, they include photographs of some needles used by Haapsalu master knitters. One pair is made from apple wood, another from lilac, and a third set was carved from a bamboo ski pole.
From here, it’s all about technique. They show you the standard shawl and scarf construction, and how each piece is worked. Abundant and clear drawings illustrate stitches and techniques, and care has been taken to show—in a visually clear and helpful way—how to calculate all the vital numbers. (Because, yes, you’ll have to do your own math.)
The Estonian Barbara Walker
Next come the stitch patterns, some 140 pages in all. By “patterns,” I don’t mean the usual “with yarn A and needle B, cast on X stitches and work until done” instructions that many of us may be used to seeing. Imagine, instead, an Estonian Barbara Walker stitch dictionary. You’re given the stitches, and it’s your job to place them in a project.
First up is a selection of completed shawls that were given to famous or notable figures, from Greta Garbo to Sweden’s Queen Silvia. You are shown a crisp photograph of the shawl, often accompanied by a smaller photo of the intended recipient, along with a chart (or charts) of each stitch pattern that was used in the shawl.
Next, we’re presented with more than 100 stitch patterns arranged according to theme. Their names include lily of the valley, pasqueflower, leaf, twig, peacock tail, paw, head of grain, butterfly, and diamond. This section ends with an assortment of other stitch patterns that didn’t easily fit into the previous categories.
Each theme opens with a colorful photograph of someone wearing a completed shawl or scarf that uses a pattern from that theme (and the pattern is then charted on the opposite page). The swatches of the remaining stitch patterns are shown with generous background contrast to help each stitch detail “pop” with great clarity. The charts follow a slightly different protocol than you may be used to (most noticeably the use of black squares to connote knit stitches), but you’ll easily be able to figure them out. And finally, the book ends rather abruptly with nine possible lace edging patterns.
Lost in Translation?
A few enduring touches remind you this isn’t from a mainstream American publisher—little things like a cut-off number in a project title, the lack of an index, and nontraditional use of quotation marks (traditional in Estonia, not in most English-speaking countries), not to mention the book’s unusually tall size. Fortunately, the generous margins still make it possible to photocopy individual pages of charts for your personal use.
Even the book’s faint white cover and barely legible cursive text would be unthinkable in a North American market where covers are expected to have punch and pizazz—and where a book is also expected to fit on most standard bookstore shelves.
And, while the book’s English translation was obviously made with great care, it’s still a translation. Some parts read haltingly or with a forced poetic metaphor that may have lost something in translation. You get a sense of this from the very first sentence, which reads, “Haapsalu abounds with fresh air and gentleness.”
Sorting the Two Books
We now have two books about the same, somewhat esoteric knitting tradition. Setting aside issues of size, price, and format, I see voice and perspective as the core differences between these two books. Bush wrote her book from the perspective of a passionate, objective, and well-informed outsider.
The Haapsalu Shawl is written from a very strong perspective of “us,” not “them.” The authors clearly wish to say, “This is who we are, this is our history, this is what we do, and here’s how we do it.” Sometimes their enthusiasm sounds a bit promotional, but they have reason to be proud.
Adding to the sense of national pride is the fact that the shawls are all modeled by prominent Estonian actresses, painters, authors, illustrators, and even political figures. They’re shown out and about in gardens, on the streets, in their homes, and in the countryside. They are accompanied by stories, anecdotes, and many archival photographs we haven’t seen before.
In a region still emerging from repressive Soviet rule, with people still trying to reconnect with a culture damaged by war and foreign occupation, it makes sense that the Haapsalu knitters would want to have the last word on their tradition.
The good news is that, while there is some technical and historical overlap, these two books complement one another quite well—one being written from the outside looking in, and the other being written from the inside looking out. Together, they paint a clear and cohesive picture of this historically significant knitting tradition.