Symbols and Ornament in Lithuanian Knitting

Please don’t pass out from shock, but I’m writing a blog post! If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve already seen this snapshot of what I’m working on for the stitch library in my book on Lithuanian knitting. (If you’re Lithuanian and some of this is bullshit, please let me know! I’ve been doing research and have several different sources, but I always have my doubts about this kind of information.)LithuanianKnittingBlogPostImage2

There are so many interesting types of colorwork patterns in Lithuanian knitting that I am finding it difficult toto decide what to include. I’ve decided that I need to include charts in each of these categories:

Geometric Patterns

Small all-over repeating geometric patterns are the oldest knitting designs found in Lithuania. Squares, stripes, zigzags, chevrons, diagonals, diamonds, lattices, and crosses are all popular. Some of the designs, especially when used in combinations and in certain colors, are uniquely Lithuanian, while other patterns are ubiquitous and found wherever stranded-color knitting is worked.

Although these stitches may seem to be arbitrary or purely abstract, the shapes actually have meaning in the context of Lithuanian folk art dating back to the stone-age. Similar designs have been found in ancient ceramics and bronze jewelry, as well as in wood carvings.  Although it’s difficult to determine what pre-literate people thought about the art they were making and what meaning they may have assigned to abstract, geometric patterns, and the meanings assigned to various motifs change over time, I have found several references that explain how some of these symbols may have been interpreted over time. (I’ll talk a more about this in the book.)

Circles represent the sun, moon, or stars, and circles with spokes represent the sun and light. These shapes have been very important in Lithuanian folk art for centuries, although circular motifs are difficult to represent in knitted fabric, which is basically a rectangular grid of stitches and rows. The designs, used continuously since prehistoric times, have always been present on Lithuanian folk art including ceramics, wood carvings, painted easter eggs, and bronze jewelry.

Stars, mostly with 8 points, are popular wherever knitting is found. This motif has been used in Lithuania since at least the 16th century. In most parts of Lithuania, this design is perceived as a star. In some regions of Russia, it is recognized as a sun. The 8-pointed shape is also related to Lithuanian floral designs (see below), and was known as a blossom (žiedas) in Lithuanian Minor, and a rose or rosette in Denmark. The 8-pointed star became very popular in Lithuanian knitting in the 20th-century, along with simple geometric designs, perhaps indicating that women had less time to spend knitting complicated motifs that were difficult or impossible to memorize. (Knitted items made out of thicker yarns also appear in the 20th century.)

Crosses have been important symbols in Lithuania long before the arrival of Christianity. Cross motifs are very common in Lithuanian wood carvings, woven fabrics, and embroidery embellishments. A variation of the 8-pointed start is the Ausekla Zvaigzne (star cross, or morning star), which symbolizes the Lithuanian goddess Ausrine (Venus), daughter of the sun. The decorative cross wood carvings found around the LIthuanian countryside combine pre-Christian/pagan symbology with Christian iconography, with the elaborate cross being adapted from older designs of the cosmic tree (Tree of Life). Before the arrival of Christianity, different cross motifs may also have symbolized knots, made to bring protection to families and to ensure a happy, prosperous life. Crosses may also signify fire, and diagonal crosses were sometimes known as “witches crosses” in the countryside.

Swastikas, axes, and related symbols. Sadly ruined by the Nazis, swastikas (and related motifs) have a long history in the Baltics. Variations of swastikas represent Perkunis and Laima (god and goddess, depending on the direction of the spiral), snakes, the moon, and even phallic symbols (perhaps not suprising, since the axe is wielded by Perkūnas, the Lithuanian sky-god in folk lore). Amber axe amulets were popular in the Late Stone Age, and geometric patterns with similarities to swastikas have been important in Baltic art ever since.

Snakes and reptiles are sometimes represented by the axe or swastika symbol, especially when the shape is more curved than angular. According to Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (more about her in the book, too), snakes and reptiles were very magical, respected creatures in Lithuanian folk-lore in the past, although they rarely occur in contemporary beliefs. Catholic monks and missionaries who visited Lithuania from the 14th century onward were dismayed at how the Lithuanian peasants revered snakes, toads, and reptiles.

Simple geometric shapes such as zigzags, triangles, and diagonal lines date back to the 2nd-4th centuries B.C. Some patterns became more complicated and elaborate over time, and grew to include rectangles, ovals, and diamond patterns used individually or interlocked to form chains, lattices, and all-over patterns.

  • Zigzags represent the Earth Mother or waves of water.
  • Diamond motifs are frequently found on Lithuanian woven sashes and may be interpreted as suns, stars, earth, and fire.
  • Triangles may represent the sky god (pointing up) or the Earth Mother (pointing down), as well as man and woman. These symbols are used today to identify men’s and women’s rest-rooms in Lithuania.
  • Chevron and arrow patterns represent trees.

That’s all I have time for today. Next up: flora and fauna, patterns from weaving, and medieval-style knitting motifs from the 20th century.

There are also lace and texture stitches in Lithuanian knitted accessories, but these are less “Lithuanian” than the colorwork patterns. What I mean is, there’s nothing special like Estonian nupps or Shetland and Orenburg pattern stitches to make the lace and texture patterns used different than what you’d find in knitting books around the rest of Europe and the USA. Of course, I’m including a selection of charts of these types of patterns in the book as well, because they are used frequently for socks, gloves, and mittens. Combined with colorwork patterns or even in single-color projects, there is still a Lithuanian feel to the finished items. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to articulate what that is from.

Read part two of this article.

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