Knitted Lace of Estonia by Nancy Bush

bush_laceThis book reminds me of demi-glace, that magical ingredient in many French dishes. It’s made by simmering an enormous quantity of beef scraps and bones, herbs, and vegetables for days until they’ve reduced to a single cup of syrupy liquid that is so strong, so intense, and so flavorful, that just one teaspoon enriches an entire dish.

In this case, Nancy Bush has artfully and painstakingly condensed nearly 200 years of Estonian history, culture, tradition, and knitting technique into one cohesive and completely accessible book.

The Setting

The story focuses primarily on Haapsalu, a small seaside town in western Estonia. Wealthy travelers from Germany, Sweden, Russia, and elsewhere came here for the curative mud baths in the 19th century. The local women, inspired by the elegant fashions sported by the cosmopolitan visitors as they strolled the town promenade, started to knit elegant lace shawls and sell them to the women tourists.

They were extremely successful. Incorporating their own knitting techniques and available materials, and drawing inspiration from the knitted lace shawls and scarves that the elegant women brought from abroad, the local women developed what is now considered the Haapsalu lace knitting style.

At its height in the 1930s, the Haapsalu knitting industry employed more than 500 residents. Even during Soviet occupation between 1944 and 1991, a large craft cooperative still existed. And yet much of the Haapsalu lace tradition—the actual and oh-so-important details on how to actually knitthese things—was not written down anywhere until the early 1930s. This book represents the first major English-language compendium on the subject.

The Sum of Its Parts

First, a little language lesson. The term “knitted lace” actually refers to lace patterns in which you work a stitch pattern on every row. “Lace knitting,” on the other hand, involves working rows of plain stitches between each pattern row—which is how Estonian lace is done. So although the book’s title is “Knitted Lace of Estonia,” it actually refers to the “lace knitting” of Estonia—something Bush clarifies right at the beginning.

But this is not simply a book about lace knitting in general. It documents a very specific lace-knitting tradition, showing how it evolved and how the pieces are created, sharing several beautiful patterns inspired by historic and contemporary designs, and concluding with a stitch dictionary illustrating some of the most common motifs. Yes, you learn about lace—but that’s just part of a much bigger and tastier pie.

The Journey

Bush covers a lot of territory in a mere 159 pages, yet you don’t need infinite patience or a Ph.D. in history to appreciate it. In a clear and engaging style, she pulls all the background history into an easily digested 19 pages at the beginning of the book, highlighted with archival photographs and stories from her own frequent travels to the region.


Next, she takes a traditional rectangular shawl or scarf (called a “sall”) and shows you how it’s constructed. Step by step, stitch by stitch, she shows you how to choose your design motif, get your gauge, cast on, work the center pattern, create the edge, cast off, and even block your finished project.

A common motif in Haapsalu lace is the nupp, pronounced like “soup.” A stylized bobble of sorts, the nupp is a great technique for adding texture and creating figures in openwork. As an interesting aside, Nancy reveals that the knitters actually sold their shawls by weight, and those nupps also helped add weight to an otherwise airy shawl—which could be another reason this motif was so common.

Nancy Bush’s gift as a teacher extends to her writing. As she walks us through the different steps of knitting a Haapsalu shawl, she anticipates and answers questions at the very moment they enter our mind. She gives three different options for joining two strands of yarn seamlessly, she demonstrates some of the more elaborate stitches in the Haapsalu repertoire, and she even gives an extremely clear illustration of how to work a seamless Kitchener—a technique foreign to the Haapsalu shawls but, in Bush’s view, much more seamless and flexible.

Borders are no small affair in Haapsalu shawls. They were traditionally knitted in two separate pieces and sewn onto the center panel, most likely because the knitters were using short needles that could only accommodate so many stitches. Bush demystifies the whole process, showing you how to calculate the number of stitches for the edge, and how to attach the border seamlessly so that it fans around each corner without puckering. But she also gives instructions on how to make a contemporary knitted-on lace edge as well.

Playing with Patterns

Next come the projects—14 patterns for beautiful, ethereal shawls and scarves in different shapes and sizes. You’ll find rectangles, squares, and triangles; heirloom shawls of epic proportions and smaller shawls of more manageable dimensions, each appealing to a different skill and patience level.

Most of these items are actually much easier than their photos might suggest—the real challenge may be one of dimension, not difficulty. Some were previously published elsewhere. Madli’s Shawl was originally published in the Summer 2004 Interweave Knits, for example, and a few others were pulled from the archives of now out-of-print Estonian publications. (Do check the errata page before you begin.)

Doing Your Own Designing

For those of you who love to do things your own way, Nancy Bush gives you a wonderful parting gift at the end of the book: an Estonian lace stitch dictionary. You’ll find all the traditional motifs here—birch, leaf, twig, lily of the valley, etc.—and, in many cases, several variations on each theme. She also includes lace edge and border patterns to help you complete your design.

Documenting Our History

Nancy Bush has done a beautiful job of documenting this small segment of our collective knitting history. Reading the book is like discovering a suitcase from an Estonian grandmother you didn’t even know you had. The stories, swatches, patterns, and pictures bring that little seaside town to life, showing us how we can keep the Haapsalu tradition alive through our own stitches.

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