One of my greatest struggles in learning Estonian crafts has been in learning how to knit in this very tiny, tight knitting style that Estonians have traditionally used to construct their extremely intricate mittens, stockings, and other knitted items. I, unfortunately, am a loose knitter. I had some nasty bouts of tendinitis some years ago, and I retrained myself to knit more loosely in order to avoid future trouble. I’ve been doing it for years, so my stitches tend to be pretty uniform, but uniformly loose. With most projects, this isn’t a problem — I just go down three (yes, three) needle sizes and call it good. I have generally knitted more lace and slouchy hats than mittens and socks, so the type of work I’ve done has often benefited from airy knitting. In addition, I learned stranded colorwork knitting from a teacher who told us that we must knit more and more loosely to get a good texture, and that the only way to handle the yarns effectively was to hold one in each hand and both pick and throw at the same time. As with many weird educational experiences, it was a matter of a teacher conveying one way dogmatically as the only way.
As the time to leave for Estonia drew closer, I started to worry about my skill level. I was going to one of the greatest knitting cultures in the world, and I didn’t want to look a fool or not be able to keep up! So I started practicing, and, frankly, I was terrible! I couldn’t get gauge for anything. I kept at it, though, and I took two knitting classes this semester that helped me learn some of the basic techniques used in knitting Estonian folk mittens. After a year and a half (so basically forever), I finally can comfortably do reasonably tight colorwork on 1.5-2 mm needles. This means that I can knit a mitten in my size that is up to about 84 sts around. That still isn’t small enough for the super intricate mittens, but there is a pretty wide variety of mittens that come in around 76-90 sts/round, and it won’t look terrible to lose 6 sts or so to make them work for me. I don’t want to touch the ones that are 100+ sts; at that point, it would substantially change the appearance of the pattern to adjust them to a size and stitch count that I can manage and that would fit my hands. It will just have to be the next goal — get down to something like 1-1.2 mm and 100 sts/round.
So what changed that allowed me to knit at a smaller gauge? Well, a lot of things! There were multiple steps that each made a substantial difference in the quality, comfort, and texture of my knitting. The first thing was simply to realize that tighter knitting doesn’t have to feel bad! I’m prone to tendinitis, but I’m knitting something like 7-10 hours a day right now to make up for being way behind in my schoolwork (partially due to having to run myself ragged trying to catch up to the level of my classmates!), and my hands only mildly ache like one does after a workout. I was afraid of hurting myself again, but it turns out that good technique can help a lot with that — not just ergonomics, but also finding that right balance of tight stitches that are still easy to work. The needle should have no problem getting into and working the stitch, but the stitch should be as tight as possible within those parameters.
Another important factor is the size of each movement. I’m trying to keep my movements as small as possible, which tends to help with not pulling the stitch loose and with not stressing my body. The other side to this is that it can lead to a cramped position, so it’s important to get up and stretch periodically. I went to a spinning workshop with Carson Demers a couple of years ago, and I continue to think about how and where I sit and how to stretch based on his advice.
Kait Sepp, an excellent knitter and Estonian-to-English translator of craft publications, among many other accolades, took some time to teach me how she holds her needles. The breakthrough for me was learning to engage my whole hand and rest the far end of the needle in my palm. I was also tensioning my yarn in a way that was leading to stress and cramping, so she helped me to fix that. That session make a huge difference in my knitting style and my confidence in my ability to eventually work out a knitting style that would work for me.
Finally, I learned that some people who carry two colors in their left hand reverse one color on their index finger so that the two are kept a bit separate. That was the last piece I needed for being able to keep even tension on two yarns at once without tangles and all sorts of annoyance. I found that knitting with one yarn in each hand as I had been taught did not result in a flat, even fabric for me (it’s a matter of personal style/comfort), so keeping the yarns in one hand was an important goal for me.
Once I figured all of that out and started to consistently apply it, I was off! I started a whirlwind of knitting in an attempt to knock out all of the class projects that I had struggled to complete. First came Riina Tomberg‘s Kihnu Island mittens, pictured at the top of this post. For our class, she asked us to combine different elements from mittens from Kihnu Island that are in the collections of the Estonian National Museum (ERM). Kihnu mittens are some of my favorites, and they have several distinctive features in the colorwork and in the cuffs that can be a bit difficult at first. I had struggled through two different Kihnu cuffs, and then I magically hit the point of being able to knit tightly when I was about 2 cm into the colorwork section of my first mitten. Suddenly, my 1.5 mm needles produced a mitten that would not fit an adult hand! I had to rip it back to the cuff and switch to 2 mm needles. After that, I pushed through the entire pair of mittens in about a week. There are some things that still need improvement, such as my transitions between needles, which tend to be too tight, and I wish that I had handled the decrease to the tip in a different way (basically, I wish that I had decreased in pattern instead of creating a black outline, as one can see on museum examples). I also realized that I did the cast-on a bit incorrectly, but I think that it’s still pretty. They fit perfectly, and I’m so very happy with them overall.
After finishing the Kihnu mittens, I jumped straight to the project for Kristi Jõeste‘s class — we were tasked with reproducing a pair of mittens in the ERM. I decided on a mitten from Tartu, ERM 9100, which was said to have been made around 1873 and was collected in 1913. I just finished knitting the first mitten, minus the thumb, as I plan to knit the thumbs last. I started out by looking at the charts in the book Suur kindaraamat (Big glove/mitten book), and then I went to the museum to visit the mitten and develop the rest of the chart, match yarn color, etc.
Unfortunately, I put too much stock in the chart in the book, and I noticed a 2-stitch error in the motifs after the first pattern repeat was complete. However, I also like it a bit more than the original, and the knitter of the first pair was not totally consistent in how she rendered the pattern (she did render it as charted at least once), so I don’t feel too bad about it. I decided to keep it in, so the whole mitten will be consistently erroneous! I also could not get row gauge, so my mitten is a bit shorter than the original (by 3 cm!), and I had to place the thumb slightly differently due to this. It’s possible that the difference in row gauge also has a bit to do with wear over time. We all get a bit stretched out after 40 years of hard work! We’ll see, but blocking might also change this. The row gauge already shifted a bit in the right direction after I steam-ironed the mitten.
The main difficulty I’m having with this kind of colorwork is that sometimes a bit of white will peek through between the blue stitches. I’m hoping that washing and blocking will help. It’s very subtle, and I think that the culprit might be that the white yarn is just a bit thicker than the blue, and indeed, the blue does not peek through the white in the same way. It’s also just more noticeable than it would be because the blue background is so uniform and in such high contrast with the white.
At any rate, I have some hope of getting these done in time for grading, although I don’t know how I’ll get everything done — there’s still weaving, embroidery, and even more knitting to do!
It’s been a huge struggle, and I’ve gotten kind of emotional over it at times — I identify pretty strongly with being able to make textiles, and I came halfway across the world to do this research that hinges on being able to practice the crafts that I study. It was a big fear for me that I would get here and not have the basic skills needed to learn complex Estonian knitting. However, I’m so grateful for the work and for the patience of those who have coached me through it. I see knitters post online all the time about how they’re afraid to try a certain technique, how they’re intimidated by the complexity or don’t have time to do something that takes that amount of focused practice. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest craftspeople in the world and to have the time right now to really focus on honing my own craft skills. Being in Estonia has completely changed how I approach my craft, has made me more patient with slow processes, and has taught me to create and appreciate fine details, even when they’re fiddly and time-consuming. I’m glad that I’ve finally improved enough that I can enjoy the process again and move on to learning more complex techniques and motifs.