Estonian mittens at the Nordic Knitting Symposium

I took two one-day classes at the Nordic Knitting Symposium 2014: the first one on how to knit cuffs for Estonian mittens. I have knitted Estonian mittens and socks in the “Nancy Bush-way”, and they are lovely. Nancy’s patterns are adapted from Estonian tradition, and with great care to not do violence to the Estonian tradition, but to suite knitters not used to the extremely fine knitting in most of the original textiles, and leaving the most difficult techniques out.

Knitting in the traditional Estonian way is something else. It’s not unusual to have up to 200 stitches per round in a pair of men’s mittens. Needle sizes go from 0.8 mm to 1.25. The yarn is thin and rather stiff, and the knitting is extremely dense. Most of the items made for weddings have never been used, or used only for a few hours during the feast. They were made to show the bride’s skills.

In the class we learned to knit three different cuffs found in mittens from Muhu island off the west coast of Estonia. Our teacher Kristi Joeste has done lots of research on Estonian mittens, and she also teaches at Tartu University in Viljandi. She has a blog in Estonian with lovely photos. She showed mittens that made us ooooh, and later, when we tried the stretchy cast-on on needles 1.5 mm you could here deep sighs from all these skilled knitters sitting around the table. In the afternoon we had to admit that we felt like beginners again! This is my cuff with fringes on needles 1.5 mm:

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I didn’t knit much more than that on any of the three cuffs. It’s slow! There are intricate techniques! But all of it was rewarding, and I believe all of us learned how to do the stretchy cast-on that is common in Estonian mittens.

Kristi Joeste has reconstructed more than 200 pairs of Estonian mittens. Here are some mittens she showed us:

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The fringes we learned to knit. These are knitted by Kristi Joeste:

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I used needles 2 mm in the first cuff, 1.5 in the second, and 1.25 in the third. I think that was wise, because starting with 1.25 would probably have made me quite unhappy. One of my spinning friends from Sweden took the same class, and we both got very excited. Now we want to find the right kind of wool and spin the thin yarns for a pair or two of these beautiful mittens.

If you like Estonian knitting, keep an eye on Kristi Joestes blog and Facebook site. In the autumn three new books will be published in English, the first one about Estonian knitting techniques, the other two about knitted textiles. I’m very excited about this, and will buy them all. Especially the first one will fill a gap, as there’s very little written about how to knit the mittens and socks. Lot’s of photos have been published, but often with no explanation on how to knit what’s shown in them.

A few views from the delicious table this very silent and concentrated gang of knitters sat around:

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Kristi also gave a talk during the symposium. She told us about the vast and interesting textile program they teach at the university in Viljandi, and showed photos of new interpretations of old Estonian textiles. It’s obvious you have to be talented and serious about what you do if you want to study at that university. And I have one more note on my list of places to go to.

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11 comments

  1. Jody

    I love Kristi’s blog and you are so fortunate to be able to have an actual class with her! Her knitting is amazing and so beautiful. I will love to get those books when they come out :-)) Can’t wait to see what you will spin for these gloves and mittens Barbro!

  2. Marilyn

    This is wonderful that someone is teaching and keeping alive the real traditional knitting methods for these beautiful and artistic mittens and gloves, and that you were fortunate to be able to take a class in it. I will definitely be looking for the books and thank you for spreading the word about Kristi’s skillful knitting. I would say this type of fine intricate knitting is not for everyone, but even those who would not attempt to knit it, must certainly appreciate it. Good luck reproducing the yarns in handspun and knitting in this traditonal method. If I didn’t live halfway across the world in California, I’d certainly hunt down one of Kristi’s classes. Perhaps she will travel and teach one of these days. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Marilyn

    Barbro – Was wool the only fiber used in this knitting? Has Kristi found any old examples knitted in silk or is there any tradition of using silk? – Just curious. Thanks.

  4. Susan

    Wow, what a treat! The first thing I did was check and YES, I have all those needles sizes you mentioned. Bought them a long time ago when they were in a big sale because I knew I would want to use them one day and now I just have to wait for the book! I am sure you will mention when the Estonian knitting book comes out…in English 🙂 You are the lucky one and enjoy your new found work!

  5. Kristi Jõeste

    Thanks, Barbro for this friendly feedback! I just wanted to correct the information about the knitting trilogy: volume 1 will be published in this autumn, the others will appear in order. I think that the volume 3 that is about mittens/gloves will take another 2 years. Currently I am only in the half way with it and have to sit hundreds of hours in museum 🙂

    • Barbro Heikinmatti

      Thank you Kristi! I got so enthusiastic about the books that I heard what I wanted to hear 🙂 After having seen the mittens you’ve knitted I have an idea of the tremendous work that has to be done for those books. We are many who appreciate your work.

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