Knitting, Make & Hue

Carrying on the Line

Photography by Silvia Soide

I knit because of my grandmother.

This statement is one I make often when someone asks why I started knitting, or how long have I been knitting for. It’s a statement which I’m sure so many other knitters also make – that the reason they knit, or crochet, or weave, or [insert ANYTHING here] was because it was taught to them, passed down to them, by a parent, grandparent, or loved one. This here is the story of how, without me even realizing it, knitting was passed on to me  and the reason for the importance it now holds with me today.

In truth, I was only taught how to crochet by my grandmother. When I was young, she had been injured in an accident and my cousins and I went to help her during the summer (I’m sure we were more work than help). We would watch Sound of Music almost daily, eat coffee candies, and crochet as our grandmother had taught us. It was my mom who had started my sisters and I knitting. She never continued on with it herself but wanted to make sure we learned, so printed how-to instructions, gave us each a skein and needles, and away we went.

The main reason I continue to knit, and have a strong appreciation for all textile and fibre arts, is because of my grandmother and the culture she carried with her from her homeland. My grandmother, my “vanaema”, was born on an island in Estonia called Kihnu. For an island only 7km long by up to 3.3km wide and with an approximate population of 600-700 residents, I’m always amazed at how many people know about this small place. Yet,  at the same time,  I can understand why. The lifestyle of language, music, dance, and handicrafts make this island unique, and it impresses me how they have maintained their cultural traditions over the years. The women still wear bright, red woven wool skirts and folk costumes on a daily basis, whereas in many other areas across Estonia, they are more commonly worn only on festive occasions – such as at song or dance festivals, or national events.

My vanaema was taught how to knit by her aunt when she was young. She grew up learning the folk culture of Kihnu, and when she fled in 1944 due to the threat of deportation to Siberia, she carried this knowledge with her. In the dark of the night, she left by boat to Sweden, and years later moved to Canada, eventually ending up on the west coast in Vancouver.

Throughout these years and travels, my vanaema would speak Estonian in the home to ensure the language would continue on with her children and continued to make the handicrafts she had learned when young. She took a tailoring class to make her own suits, and used patterns from a popular Canadian-Estonian women’s magazine, Triinu, to make her own folk costume clothing, accompanied with items kindly gifted from family and friends in Kihnu. She knit many Kihnu “troi” – stranded colourwork sweaters – as well as “sukad” knee-high socks, mittens, gloves, hats and more, all based on patterns from her home island.

When I wear these Kihnu costume pieces, I wear them with absolute pride. My entire family treasures all of her handicrafts she has gifted to us. I feel a strong connection to these pieces and patterns, and appreciate the beauty, life, and tradition which lives on in them.

I’m thankful to still have a connection to her home island today as my youngest sister has lived there for the past 11 years and we visit our family and friends there as often as we can. During these visits, we learn even more stories about the Kihnu costume and why something may be “just so”. This information is so important in appreciating how these patterns and traditions have continued on over the years. I’m also thankful to hear stories from members in our local Vancouver Estonian community who have carried on traditions from their own home villages and kept them living on over the years despite being far away from their homeland.

Strangely enough though, despite having books and pages of patterns sitting on the shelf, I still have yet to knit any of these Estonian patterns myself. I’m not sure why something I hold so fondly can’t translate down to my needles. These woven twist and turns; the many stories which have continued on over generations. It could likely be intimidation of my  vanaema’s talented  hands – of wanting to get it right the first time (that is so just like me). Or it could be the sadness of coming to terms with the fact she can no longer knit herself. But I know when the time is right, I will knit these patterns and find comfort in the line continuing on. I will think of her and feel at home.

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