Even though Lithuania is a relatively small country, about the same size as West Virginia, it has five ethnographic regions. Each region has a unique natural environment and historical economic base, the people speak a distinct dialect, and – most importantly to us – there were interesting differences in traditional knitting patterns and clothing styles in each area.
There are four major areas of Lithuania:
Aukštaitija (Highlands) is the historical center and core of the Lithuanian state. It was here that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was founded in the 11th century. The largest area in Lithuania and a popular holiday destination in summer, Aukštaitija is known for its beautiful lakes and forests, as well as its beer. In this rural area, most people lived on small farms and individual homesteads rather than in villages or towns, and were known for their hospitality and community. Flax was grown in abundance in this part of Lithuania, and homemade costumes were still worn here in the beginning of the twentieth century. The national costume and knitted accessories here are known for their bright, vivid colors and were made with simple colorwork patterns for both holiday and everyday wear (although men’s accessories were made out of neutral, natural shades of wool). Crocheted mittens were also quite popular in this area, and not seen elsewhere in Lithuania. Knitted wrist warmers were made in rich shades of red, green blue and brown, sometimes with multiple colors of beads. Red and white striped women’s socks were made in two fashions: with stripes knitted from separate red and white yarns, and with hand-dyed self-striping yarn. Men’s socks were knit out of natural shades and often felted for extra warmth in winter.
Žemaitija (Lowlands, often called Samogitia in English-Language publications), is the north west region of Lithuania, traditionally an area well known for dairy farming and and its local rare breed of horse. In this region, the people are known for being hard working, faithful, and stubborn. Because of their resistance to change, this was the last area in all of Europe to remain pagan. Some of the knitted accessories from this area are closely related to Latvian knitting in both pattern and style, others are made in simple patterns and subdued colors. Wristers here were often knitted with two colors of yarns in a stripe pattern, and decorated with white beads on dark yarn, or colored beads on light-colored yarn. Mittens were made in multiple colors with a wide variety of patterns with geometric shapes and motifs inspired by nature and mittens were much preferred over gloves for the extra warmth they provided and men often wore solid-colored felted mittens in winter. Red and white socks were popular for women here, as they were in other regions as well. According to the Official Lithuanian Travel Guide website:
Crafts flourished in Žemaitija: carpenters built houses, made furniture and weaving wheels; coopers, clog makers, shoemakers, tailors, weavers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and tanners also had things to do. Potter’s craft was popular most of all; the prevalence of this craft and a diversity of articles brought Žemaitija ahead of all other Lithuanian regions. The town of Viekšniai has remained the centre of potters till the present.
Crafts were followed by artistic pieces “for the soul”, monuments of small architecture. At the turn of the last century Žemaitija was dotted with wooden roadside shrines built on the ground or in trees as well as pillared shrines, roofed pillars and crosses decorated with polychromic figures of the Saints being the unique works of the region.
Dzūkija (or Dainava, Land of Songs) is spa country, with health resorts scattered throughout the region. The land is somewhat infertile, but covered with beautiful, dense forests where mushroom and berry picking are hobbies and businesses for many locals, who sell their fresh-pick from their cars on the side of the road. There are also a lot of bugs, and after spending an afternoon and evening outdoors in the southern resort town of Druskininkai at a wedding reception during one of my summer visits, I found my shoulders and legs covered with so many bug bites, I was afraid people would think I had the measles! In Dzūkija, people are known for their optimism and for preserving older traditions:
Dzūkija has retained most of its ancient crafts. Many homes, furniture and utensils are handmade. The region is proud of its carpenters, potters, blacksmiths, wickerwork makers, wood carvers and masters of black ceramics. Girls from Dzūkija can also work miracles; they are the most creative weavers in Lithuania, also good at knitting, embroidering and straw tatting. Textile from this region is full of flowers and leaves as in the attempt to capture nature’s beauty.
Wristers in this part of Lithuania were made in dark, rich colors and decorate with white or yellow beads, and often had a decorative edging of beaded picots or crochet shells. Mittens and gloves were conservative with subdued colors from natural dyes and small patterns. Every-day mittens were made in solid colors and plain stockinette stitch, while holiday handwear had color and purl stripes as well as colorwork patterns. Here openwork cuffs with brightly colored linings were also popular. Socks were also plain for everyday wear, with holiday stockings being decorated in colorwork (for winter) or lace stitches (for summer). Mens socks were solid, sometimes with an contrasting color heel and toe.
Suvalkija is named for a town that is now part of Poland. This south western region of Lithuania is small, with very few trees and soil free of rocks. Most of the region is quite flat and open, except for Vilkija, perhaps the hilliest town in Lithuania. Farming and agriculture have traditionally been quite important here, not only because of the quality of the soil, but also because serfdom was abolished here earlier than in other parts of Lithuania, enabling farm workers to have a greater degree of freedom and opportunity to make money for themselves. The people here are said to be clever and clear-thinking, but quite frugal. One story claims that Suvalkijans cut the tails off their cats in winter so they can pass through the door more quickly, thereby saving heat!
Mittens here were sometimes made with gauntlet cuffs and in various textured patterns. Wrist warmers were also made with texture stitches and cables, in addition to the most popular style across the country: garter stitch with beads. Gloves were usually not knit in color patterns, but when they were, the same patterning was used on the hand and fingers, whereas in most other parts of the country glove fingers were knitted plain or in a simple alternating color check design. Some socks worn here had turn-down colorwork cuffs and plan feet, or with ribbed or striped cuffs and colorwork on the legs and feet. A second pair of wool socks were worn for extra warmth in the coldest weather. Summer gloves and socks were knitted and crocheted in openwork patterns using handspun linen yarn.
The fifth ethnographic region, Mažoji Lietuva, was actually a part of East Prussia known as “Little Lithuania” until the middle of the 20th Century. Today Mažoji Lietuva is usually translated as “Lithuania Minor” and much of the region is inside the political boundaries of Russia’s Kaliningrad district. Because of this, Mažoji Lietuva is often excluded in discussions about the regions of Lithuania. However, this area was very important in the development of the 20th century Lithuanian national movement and during the period when printing books in the Latin alphabet was prohibited by Russia, many books were printed in East Prussia and smuggled into Lithuania. The most recognizable part of this region is the Baltic Sea Coast and the Curonian spit, a thin peninsula of sand dunes and pine forests that extends into the sea. For beach tourists, Palanga is the place to go for a Coney-Island experience and party atmosphere and Nida, to the south, is the quiet destination of choice for nature lovers. The knitting in this region was especially rich and detailed, with large and small patterns and colorful striped cuffs on gloves and mittens. Some gloves were also made using Bosnian slip-stitch crochet.