I wrote Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions to share some of what I’ve learned in my travels and research with the English-speaking world. There are some wonderful old and new books about knitting in Lithuania that are available, but they are not in English.
I’ve been working on this book since 2007 and it’s going to the printer very soon. In 5 days, on April 15, 2015, I will be starting a Pubslush crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the printing. Read more about it here.
Books I Can’t Read
Originally posted 15 Aug, 2009
Recently I’ve acquired two books I can’t read. Not even a tiny bit. But I love them both. And someday — not any time in the near future — I hope to be able to read one of them at least a little bit. Although I can read Lithuanian, when the subject matter is unusual or complex I still feel illiterate. So I’m also including one Lithuanian-language book in this post.
1) Baltic Folk Costumes: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. This Russian-language almanac was compiled in the 1970s. It contains photos and drawings of historical clothing and accessories collected throughout the Baltic region during Soviet times. (Galina Khmeleva once told me that to thoroughly research Lithuanian knitting I would have to go to St. Petersburg because the Soviets collected — some say stole — artifacts from all over the USSR and put them in museums in what was then called Leningrad.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, the items were not returned to their counties of origin.) Whatever you think about the Soviets and the way they (mis)treated the people in their sphere of influence, they did collect a lot of ethnographic information that is useful for anyone studying Eastern European textiles.
There are maps that go with the book, but I don’t have those. I do, however, have photographs of the maps. Now I just need someone to help me translate the captions!
2) Belarusian Ornament, Weaving, Embroidery. This book is written in Belarusian (Byelarussian). It is not about knitting. My friend Olga bought this book for me in Minsk. She said that she talked to several people who told her that there is not much of a knitting tradition in Belarus, but embroidery, weaving and other textiles were prevalent in the past and are represented in the national costume and as embellishments on towels and other accessories.
I particularly like these stylized icons of women that are used in many designs. Olga also told me that this book explains the meaning of many of the common symbols and designs used in embroidery and weaving. She’s going to translate part of it for me, so someday I will know more! Here’s some fascinating info in English for those who want to know more now.
3) In my research, I have not run across anyone in Lithuania who mentioned any kind of meanings to the patterns used in weaving, knitting, and embroidery. But I found an old book on eBay that talks about cosmological symbology in Lithuanian textile patterns.
The website Global Lithuanian Net has similar information in English:
Along with roofed poles, symbolic representation of the Sun, Moon, stars and other celestial phenomena can also be identified in folk-art artifacts of wood and crochet pieces… The same archetypes have ben preserved throughout millennia, which is confirmed by grave finds of amber, bronze and iron artifacts and also ornaments and crochet works used in the attire of the dead. In Fig. 8 the symbolic representation of some heavenly bodies and atmospheric phenomena is shown.
The sequence of symbols in a sash in Lithuanian is called “raštas”. The same word is used to denote the idea of “writing”. Therefore, the ornament of a sash can also be understood as the remains of a pictographic writing which might have been used long ago.
The word raštas — or actually plural, raštai — is also used to describe knitting stitch patterns. I discovered this on my own, because most printed dictionaries only include the main definitions of words, and when there are multiple definitions the most common is not generally the meaning related to textiles. I saw a book called “mezgimo ir nėrimo raštai” on my first trip to Lithuania, and tried to figure out what it was about. The first words, “knitting and crochet” were easy enough to decipher, but raštai took a little creative thinking because my dictionary did not list “pattern” as one of the definitions. I’m not sure about the conclusion drawn about the patterns in sashes (and other woven, knitted, embroidered textiles) being the remnants of an ancient writing system, but the idea certainly is intriguing. I have no idea how one would go about researching such an idea.
Marija Gimbutas also wrote about similar subjects, but it seems like her work has been discredited in the larger academic community. Without doing further research, I can’t say whether or not I agree. I generally — and tentatively — align my opinion with the academic consensus until I have time to look into a topic in depth on my own. Still, her work is very interesting and thought provoking, and I don’t think it should be ignored. In addition, according to Wikipedia and other sources, “Joseph Campbell … compared the importance of Marija Gimbutas’ output to the historical importance of the Rosetta Stone in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. Campbell provided a foreword to a new edition of Gimbutas’ The Language of the Goddess (1989) before he died, and often said how profoundly he regretted that her research on the Neolithic cultures of Europe had not been available when he was writing The Masks of God.” That strengthens my own interest in her work.
In the folk culture of Lithuania, for instance, that Gimbutas experienced as a child, the ancient songs, stories, dances, seasonal celebrations, communal rituals, sculptures, textile patterns, even architectural features are elements of a complex fabric of ancient beliefs arising from a deep respect for the natural world. She observed people kissing the earth in the morning and in the evening as though the earth was their actual mother. The life-giving, death-wielding, and regenerative powers of nature are venerated in zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms. In the Baltic pantheon, Laima, the cosmic goddess of Fate, who controls the powers of creation, is a shape-shifter who can appear in human form, or as a bear, sacred tree or waterfowl. She can be touched as stone, or heard in the voice of the cuckoo.
The Earth Mother Zemyna, related to seasonal awakening, creates life out of herself and represents justice and social conscience. The death goddess Giltine can appear as a slithering snake or can be seen in human form standing at the head of a dying person. Ragana, the death goddess who oversees regeneration, is a seer who sometimes appears as a snake or bird of prey. Vaizgantas, the male god of fertility, rises, dies and resurrects as the flax (Gimbutas 1999:213). Gimbutas’ early experience of these ancient beliefs within a still-living context informed her study of Old European symbolism.
–From The Iconography and Social Structure of Old Europe: The Archaeomythological Research of Marija Gimbutas by Joan Marler.
Lithuanian folk lore is amazingly rich and interesting. These are topics I shall certainly continue to research further, but will likely only briefly discuss in the Lithuanian knitting book I am writing now. The textiles of Eastern Europe are also very rich and beautiful, although there are several countries with no large knitting tradition. I think I may expand the scope of my future interest and study to include other types of textiles because my interest in Eastern Europe runs deeper than knitting.