13 Apr 2011
mitten with faded colors

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Yesterday I was reading a 1930s book written in Lithuanian, and it said that in the old days (pre-1930 obviously) there weren’t very many white Lithuanian sheep and most of the yarn that was dyed was muted colors because a) it was all natural dyes and b) it was mostly overdyed on grey. After chemical dyes and imported white-wool became available, people switched to using much brighter colors in knitting and for making other parts of the National Costume ensembles, especially aprons. I have no other sources to check this info, but I found it quite interesting. I did notice some older, muted color items in museums, but some were faded (you could see bright colors under the thumb for example), so I’m not sure if this author took that into account. Of course, natural dyes can be quite bright when used on white fibers (just recall the Red Coats of the British soldiers in the American Revolutionary War). But with natural dyes you never get the garish, neon-shades that are possible with chemical dyes, and colors never clash.

natural dyed sock

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Before 1856, all dyes were derived from plants and bugs. Out of the 80 dye plants in Lithuania, here are a few that were frequently used in Eastern Europe before the invention of chemical dyes:

  • Dried birch leaves for yellow and yellow-green shades
  • Onion peels for browns and golds
  • Oak bark for grey
  • Alder bark and rust for black
  • Lady’s bedstraw or marjoram for red
  • Dried flowers for various light shades, such as corn-flower petals for blue grey

In addition, Polish cochineal insects were used to get pure, bright red shades (called “St. John’s Blood”). Wool fibers were simmered in a dye bath with alum or vinegar used to set the color. Other blue colors were obtained from woad, which was used in a completely different, and quite complex, dye process.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Lithuania is comprised of 5 ethnographic areas. The basic elements of traditional clothing was the same across the country. However, in each area, the colors predominant in the National Costume were what distinguished the regional designs, along with the patterning.

  • In Aukštaitija, for women, white, red, blue, and green, predominated, with accents of yellow and purple. For men, grey and brown were most common.
  • In Žemaitija, the predominant color in women’s clothing was red. Green, yellow, violet, dark red, white, and black were used as accent colors. Men’s clothing was mostly made from natural wool colors, dark green, or black, with red and white scarves.
  • In Dzūkija, clothing was known for it’s bright shades. Red and white were predominant, with accents of black, green, dark red, violet, blue, and other bright colors. Men, wore undeyed grey, or brown, with bright embroidery on their shirts.
  • In Suvalkija, the colors that were most prevalent in women’s clothing were dark red, blue, violet, and green. Black, white, and red were used for decoration. Men wore clothing made from light grey or white wool, and white shirts with some embroidered accents.
  • With the arrival of Lutheranism, Lithuania Minor became known for it’s dark clothing. Women wore dark blue, dark green, and black, with some accents of  dark shades of green, blue, and yellow. Red and white were more common, along with other brighter colors, in earlier times. Men also wore dark blue or black, but also wore decorative socks, because shorter pants became popular in this region.

Knitting was used only in small parts of the national costume: Socks, mittens, gloves, and wrist warmers. Just as with their clothing, men’s accessories were often made with natural-colored grey, black, brown, and white wool. However, sometimes knitted accessories were the most colorful, decorative pieces of a man’s outfit. Women’s accessories were still more colorful, as their clothing was. I haven’t found much written about the colors of knitting patterns in the various parts of Lithuania, and I haven’t done an extensive enough study to come to any conclusions myself. In my book, I am including some observations that Anastazija and Antanas Tamošaits make in their 1979 book, Lithuanian National Costume.

Lithuania had more influence on the world than I ever knew, even in small ways concerning dyes and knitting patterns. At one time, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe, so it’s not surprising that its influences are present in European culture. But although it was an empire on par with Rome during the Middle Ages, I never heard anything about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in any of my history classes. As I’ve been studying Lithuanian knitting, all along I’ve been assuming that most everything I saw in the patterns and colors and construction of knitted items originated elsewhere. But recently I’ve begun to think that this is mistaken.

It turns out that several very important dyes may have originated in Eastern Europe.

  • Woad, the only blue dye in Europe before indigo was imported, is a native of the Central Asia and Russia, and grows wild on the Baltic coast. Reproductions of pre-historic Lithuanian clothing, based on fabric fragments found in 7th-8th century burial sites, includes many blue garments.
  • In medieval times, while most of Western Europe used the root of the madder plant as a red dye, in Lithuania the Polish Cochineal insect was used as a unique source of red dye. Alas, the insect and it’s host plant were over harvested. But by then South American cochineal had been discovered.
  • Onion skins have been used in Eastern Europe for a very long time as a natural dye source, for dyeing both fabric and Easter eggs. (Although the eggs weren’t called Easter eggs when Lithuania was still pagan!)
Lithuanian Easter Eggs

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Knitted accessories in Lithuania have been made in texture, lace, and colorwork patterns. In general, the lace and texture patterns are not exclusively Lithuanian, in the way we consider nupps to be Estonian or traveling-twisted stitches to be Bavarian. But there are quite a variety of uniquely Lithuanian color designs, as well as many other colorwork designs that are common to several Baltic cultures in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the now-extinct Prussia. However, there are also many patterns that Lithuanian knitting shares with Fair-Isle and Scandinavian knitting traditions, and some patterns, like the one pictured on this sock, that are present wherever knitting is found.

It’s quite possible that Lithuanian knitting influences spread outward from the Baltics into Scandinavia and even to Scotland. In the classic books, Traditional Scandinavian Knitting Traditional Fair Isle Knitting, Sheila McGregor suggests that Fair Isle color-work patterns and various Scandinavian designs were inspired by the brightly-colored stranded knitting in the Baltics, which was often decorated with small, geometric patterns and frequent color changes. So perhaps stranded knitting should be generally categorized as “Lithuanian Knitting” instead of Fair-Isle Knitting”!

Today, many different colors are used in Lithuanian knitting, and the clothing is as diverse, mass produced, and fashionable as in any other Western nation. The colors of the flag – red, yellow, and green – have become quite popular for accessories, although these are more popular with tourists than they are with locals, except for crazy sports fans and on Lithuanian Independence Day.

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