14 Apr 2011

To continue talking about the Stitch Library chapter I’m working on for my book on Lithuanian knitting, I’d like to start with a short overview of symbolism, in general.

Folklore and spirituality, or religion, have been tied tightly to the symbols used in weaving in Lithuania, as well as in other forms of folk art, since the Neolithic period. In the 1930s book I mentioned yesterday, Sodžiaus menas. kn. 5: Mezgimo-nėrimo raštai (Country Arts #5: Knitting Patterns), Antanas Tamošaits wrote that the most powerful spiritual and cultural symbols of a culture are the mother tongue, folklore, and folk art. These elements, he claims, embody the Lithuanian people’s essence, because it is in these ways that each group of people is unique. Over time, folk-art creations come to life and tell us about the spirit of the people who created them. Although people pass away and cultures change, folkart and folklore are national treasures that live on through the ages.

Check out my new Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions book available in fall 2015. More info.

It might be said that folk art symbols are the oldest form of writing, a pictorial language that was in use for millenia before a more direct form of writing, recording actual words and sentences, came into use. The Lithuanian word for “patterns” is raštai. This word, along with the singular, raštas, can also mean paper, writing, letter,  or document; and rašytojas means writer. (Mezgėjas means knitter, in case you’re wondering, from mezgimas, knitting, but if you’re a female, drop the s from the ending.)

Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian archaeologist and expert in Lithuanian folklore who emigrated to America after WWII, combined her expertise in these diverse fields to interpret many of the symbols found on ancient artifacts. Joseph Campbell called her book, The Language of the Goddess, the Rosetta Stone for understanding pre-historic archaeology and anthropology. Much of what Gimbutas wrote about the meaning of ancient Baltic symbols throughout her career that lasted from when she obtained her Phd in Germany in the early 40s, until her death in 1994, is still accepted in the Lithuanian literature. I covered this briefly in my earlier post on symbols in Lithuanian knitting patterns, and will add some additional detail and lots of illustrations and examples in my book. (Full disclosure: there is some controversy about some of Marija Gimbutas’s conclusions, especially about the role of the Goddess and women in early European civilizations, in the American archaeological community. Not really surprising, I suppose. Yes, that’s a smirk on my face.)

Types of colorwork patterns

Earlier I wrote about the old geometric and pagan designs, with cosmological and mythological meanings, and discussed a little bit of how some meanings changed with the arrival of Christianity. There’ll be more of that in the book. Today I’d like to talk about some newer types of designs in knitting.

mittens with lilly designsImages of people and animals, while rare, are found on Lithuanian gloves and mittens occasionally, and images of flowers and trees are especially prevalent in knitting as well as in weaving and embroidery decorating women’s blouses and aprons. Lillies are probably the most popular motif found on mittens and gloves, both in the pieces I’ve seen in museum collections and in the mittens sold in tourist markets and folk-art galleries. Often depicted with multiple shades of green on the leaves and multiple shades of yellow, red/pink, or blue on the flowers against a black background, or with the pattern worked in a dark-brown natural wool color on a natural-white background, these designs have become synonymous with Lithuanian knitting. Tree designs, and geometric patterns that symbolize trees, are common on beaded wristwarmers and as bands around the cuff of socks.

European elk on Lazdijai coat of armsMary Thomas featured a photograph of Lithuanian gloves with a reindeer/elk motif in her 1938 book, Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book, and I’ve seen several other examples of gloves with similar designs that have been made in the Western part of Lithuania, formerly East Prussia, as well as one pair of gloves in the Aušros Museum in the city of Šiauliai. Were these copied from Nordic designs? Perhaps, but I’m not entirely convinced. The image of an elk is one of the oldest zoological symbols seen in Lithuanian art, along with the wolf and the bear. I’ve also seen one or two examples of designs with birds on them, a more common motif in neighboring Belarus (which was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for centuries), and a pair of mittens and socks with dancing ladies.

Many geometrical patterns have been adapted woven fabrics and sashes. I’m quite sure that many of the geometric motifs I wrote about the other day were used in weaving and embroidery long before knitting came into popular use in Lithuania, and the lilly motifs shown above are certainly adapted from those used to decorate aprons. But the designs I’m talking about here are visibly recognizable as being weaving designs. In fabric weaving, the patterns are categorized as squares (including harrows and crosses), circular (apples), and oblong (cucumber or oak leaf). Rather than being used as individual motifs, these are all-over interlocking patterns that are quite common in Lithuania even today.

lithuanian hand-woven fabrics

gediminas castle in vilniusIn the twentieth century, around the same time that animal motifs are found, other newer motifs (medieval designs) started to be seen in knitting, although still less common than the older geometric designs and floral motifs. Castles, knights, zodiac, dancing ladies, and realistic-looking roses were made by knitters in different parts of Lithuania. The knight riding on a horse is the symbol of Lithuania, as is the very recognizable outline of the Gediminas Castle in Vilnius. The realistic rose motif was particularly popular, but only for a short time, in Lithuania Minor on the Baltic Sea. It probably fell out of fashion as mass-produced garments became more available and women had less time to spend on complicated knitting projects. After the rose motif fell out of fashion, there was a resurgence in the popularity of geometric patterns with easily memorized repeats.

Occasionaly, knitted pieces, as well as woven sashes, include monograms or sayings. One pair of gloves, probably made to be displayed in an early 20th century folk art exhibition in Paris or Germany, is proudly marked, “Made in Lithuania,” just above the cuff. The only early example of a knitted sweater I’ve ever seen, photographed in several old books, also features a knitted-in monogram.

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