Back in the field on Kihnu Island

I have been itching to get back to work on my dissertation research, which was delayed not only because of the COVID-19 shutdown, which ended earlier here in Estonia than in many other places, but also because I had been working on a lot of basic craft skills that were to lead up to better fieldwork later — that “later” supposedly being in March! So there was a delay from getting sick last summer, then school and all this handicraft practice, and then COVID, all in a row. Not that I haven’t had great fieldwork experiences already and lots of other relevant educational experiences in Estonia, but there is simply so much still to do! One very important thing was getting out to Kihnu to learn about their traditional methods of sheep husbandry, wool processing, and spinning, but I was absolutely terrified of going too early, catching something on a bus, and becoming the plague rat that destroys the island. So I lingered at home and was very conservative about my plans. Finally, several weeks after the islands reopened to non-residents, and right when the threat level was reduced to the very lowest level, I arranged with the Kihnu Museum to have a personal spinning and carding workshop with one of the elders, Kalju Elvi.

I only was able to be there for two magical days on this trip, as I had a rep weaving workshop to attend at the end of the week, but it was fantastic and totally worth it. Elvi taught me how she spins and cards, and Maie Aav, my contact at the museum, was kind enough to give me some archival images and film footage that show how spinning was traditionally done. I want to show all of this here, but I’m kind of sitting on the photos and video I took for an eventual publication, so I’ll mostly share some museum photos and sheep!

In the Kihnu Museum — a very typical spinning wheel, a lazy kate, a bobbin lace pillow and stand that I really wish I could own, and some lovely mittens on display behind. Forgive the low museum lighting!
Weaving swords used for making traditional patterned belts, like those on the left.
The traditional skirts are always an amazing sight! I saw as many being worn by locals as there were on display in the museum.

Maie Aav told me that the islanders keep the sheep in sheep sheds during the winter, but that they let them graze the coastal pastures during the summer, thus contributing to coastal conservation through environmentally friendly and culturally appropriate pastoral management. There are also Scottish highland cattle grazing in the same areas. After my spinning lesson, I went out by bicycle to find some sheep. That took some time, but I literally followed my nose until I found them (yes, I can definitely tell the scent of sheep vs. other livestock!)

Before the sheep, I found some cows. I was cursing my foolishness for forgetting my zoom lens at home, thinking that there was no way that I could get a nice photo of any of the animals. I wondered if I could get close enough for them to seem like something other than a fuzzy lump in the background. As this went through my head, I rounded a corner on a dirt road and came upon a mother cow and her two calves right next to the fence! I came to a stop and reached sooooo slowly for my camera to not frighten them. Instead, momma cow walked right up to me, probably hoping for treats. I had no idea that they were so short! We weren’t much different in height, but she easily outshone me with her fabulous Fabio hairdo. She and the calves posed for me for a solid five minutes while I took glamour shots of the trio. Then I gave her a few little pets on the nose, and we parted ways.

You can just barely see the dock on the upper left.

The sheep I found lounging in a gully by the shore. They weren’t that close to me, but I did the best I could with photos. The much better opportunity came the next day when I found a much larger flock that were right by the fence. This is the time of year when all the lambs are small and are starting to form gangs and run off from their mums, and so the little brats almost caused all the sheep to run away from me by acting all freaked out when I approached. The ewes started to run, then looked more closely and realized that their kids are just silly and it was totally fine. At this point, I was able to get some video and images of them at pretty close range. It was an incredible scene. The sheep were grazing by the marshy shore and standing around an abandoned wooden boat, and the dock where the ferry arrives was clearly visible in the background. Above, a hawk hovered and shrieked.

Bye-bye wool

One exciting part was seeing two sheep that were clearly shedding their coats. Whether they would do this was a question I had asked in the past, and I had been told that they do not. I expected that it was possible based on how ancient their genetics are. However, it isn’t easy to say whether these two sheep were of the more ancient native sheep type, as most of the sheep I saw on Kihnu were not obviously from the Kihnu native sheep breed. I would say that they were some kind of Estonian native sheep, but that’s all I can say about them. This, of course, inspires more questions — how many Kihnu native sheep are actually on the island? What is the typical genetic makeup of the sheep on the island, or is there a wide variety? To what extent do local people control the breeding of their sheep, and on what basis do they decide which ewes to breed to which rams?

This is the guest house where I stayed. The hobbit hole is cold storage. You can find structures like this all over the island and even on the mainland as well, as I discovered on the way back.

The next step is to try to find a local translator, as I found that I had a lot of trouble understanding the Kihnu dialect. I’d like to visit some of the people who raise and shear sheep and interview them about their experiences. I’d also like to film sheep shearing and hear more about traditional husbandry practices on the island. There’s a lot of work to do!

Link: — for more info about the island and how domesticated animals fit into its environment — check out other links on this site for more information about Kihnu’s culture and handicrafts. — for more info about the Kihnu Museum (Chrome will do a decent job of translating this from Estonian if you need the help!)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh, how I envy you! I guess you are studying at Vijandi university in Tartu. That is a dream of me.Perhaps in a few years. Up to then I like to read about Estonian needlework – so please keep on writing! 🙂
    Best wishes


    1. tillytilia says:

      Thank you for the kind words! I am glad to hear that you enjoyed my writing. Yes, I am on exchange with Viljandi Culture Academy while I do research for my PhD. It is a marvelous opportunity, and I hope you can come here to study someday as well.


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