Estonia – a small, country in Northern Europe bordering the Baltic Sea – is a country rich with traditional folk patterns of knitting, weaving, crochet, and embroidery. Patterns which vary in style and technique from one region to the next, and wherever you look, one pattern is more beautiful than the last. But of all these handicrafts, the Haapsalu shawl has become one of the most popular and delicate.
Haapsalu is a small resort town on the West Coast of Estonia. The town is famous for it’s 13th century castle ruins, curative mud baths, and legend of the ‘White Lady’ – a ghost figure of a young maiden who appears on the inner wall of the castle during full moon nights in August. Beyond this though, almost more fame and recognition of the town has been brought to Haapsalu by it’s hand knit lace shawls and scarves.
The art of shawl knitting has been passed down through the generations, from mother to daughter, master knitter to student, since the beginning of the 19th century. Women who did handicraft in the home were looking for ways to earn money in the city, and because looms were too large to fit into their homes, the alternative of knitting became popular. In the summer months, wealthy Russian aristocrats visited Haapsalu to bathe in the healing mud baths, and fell in love with the handicraft of the Haapsalu women. Because of this, the demand for the delicate, airy shawls not only grew in St.Petersburg and Moscow, but also in other large cities. According to legend, a lace shawl was gifted to the Russian Emperor which was so delicate, it could fit into the shell of a walnut.
Along with the development of the city and the growth of tourists, the demand for shawls grew into the winter as well – thus giving further work to the women of the resort town. During the rest of the century, Haapsalu shawl knitting had become a very important income for families. Some children were already beginning to knit at the ages of seven to nine, with some talented families knitting around seventy to eighty shawls in one winter.
Many master knitters have created their own companies and hired groups of women to help them knit. The shawl measurements and weight are predetermined for each shawl, and are constantly controlled. One of the most famous Haapsalu shawl masters is Linda Elgas. She has knit over 1,000 shawls, and has passed her knowledge on to many students.
In 2001, along with the help of the Knitters Guild of Haapsalu, Linda Elgas released a collection named “Haapsalu Scarves”, comprised of 20 pattern schemes and photographs. Her work has also been shown in exhibitions around the world. So much attention has now been brought to Haapsalu because of the knitted shawls, the city now has festivals and knitting competitions during the year, all dedicated to the preservation of these traditional pieces.
A traditional Haapsalu shawl – ‘sall’ – is a delicate lacy rectangle consisting of three parts: a centre section, border, and lace edge which is knit separately and later sewn to the shawl. A Haapsalu scarf – ‘rätik’ – is always triangular. The yarn typically used is soft, double-ply fine wool yarn (28/2 – 32/2), with one shawl roughly requiring 70-100g of yarn. In the end, the shawl should be soft, delicate, and thin enough to pass through a woman’s wedding ring. However of course, there are no limitations to these patterns. Many knitters today use thicker yarn for more warmth, and in turn to make the knitting process faster. And although Haapsalu shawls are traditionally knit in natural white, many knitters today enjoy knitting a variety of coloured versions.
In the final process of completing the shawl, blocking involves stretching it out on a wooden frame with wooden pegs or rust free nails, where the points of the lace edging arelooped onto the nails of the wood frame. This is when the pattern’s beauty can be seen.
It is very common to see these fine shawls proudly worn at formal events, both in Estonia and in Estonian communities abroad. They are the admired piece in the room – appreciation toward the time and skill which has been dedicated to the knitted piece, as well as the history behind it. One must imagine that while knitting these patterns inspired by Estonian nature, they are not only knitting for themselves, but are carrying on hundreds of years of tradition.