Knitted Shawls with a Past and a Future

Photograph from The Haapsalu Shawl

Not so many years ago, I barely knew where Estonia was. One of those former Soviet Socialist Republics, which called up vaguely grim pictures in my mind? But no! It's a charming little country on the Baltic Sea, with beaches and picturesque houses—and a glorious knitting tradition. I want to go there!

I would probably still be living in geopolitical ignorance were it not for the three—three!—books about Estonian knitting in the Interweave catalog. The first two, Folk Knitting in Estonia and Knitted Lace of Estonia, sprang from Nancy Bush's passion for this knitting tradition. The newest, The Haapsalu Shawl, comes from the knitters of Estonia themselves (with some help from Nancy on the English language edition).

I wondered what another book could add. The answer is, A lot! First of all, it's gorgeous. Beautifully designed, a real book-lover's book. Second, it's loaded with wonderful historical photos going back as far as the 1880s. You get a real sense of a real place, a lovely place that survived the ravages of war and occupation with grace, tough perseverance, and unrelenting knitting. Third, the authors can write! Beautiful, touching prose is a rarity in knitting books, a treat to be savored.

Photograph from The Haapsalu Shawl

And then there are the shawls. Haapsalu is a spa town with famous mud baths that have attracted well-heeled visitors for almost two hundred years. Its skilled knitters are noted for delicate lace shawls that echo the gingerbread trim on its houses and provide delicate, airy warmth against cool sea breezes. The shawls are a point of cultural pride, and they have provided important income for the  women who knit them through thick and thin. It's an enduring tradition: one delightful photo sequence includes a group of nineteenth-century knitters, a group of today's master knitters in traditional dress, and a group of young women in tights, jeans, and form-fitting tops—all knitting Haapsalu shawls.

Photograph from The Haapsalu Shawl

For instruction, the book gives a strong tutorial in technique, with detailed instructions on the centers, the frames, and the lace edgings, as well as on blocking. An extensive stitch pattern compendium gives not only charts and photographed samples, but also historical background on many of the motifs, complete with vintage photographs. Special motifs were designed for Queen Silvia of Sweden, Queen Sofia of Spain, and various First Ladies. They're all here.

The Haapsalu shawl tradition endures, but it also grows and evolves. New patterns are being developed continually, many grounded in the natural world around the knitters. It's a lovely combination of tradition and invention, a gift to the knitting world.




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