Lithuanian knitting: unusual and approachable continuing traditions

Years ago, when I edited Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, I learned of Lithuanian textiles through weaving, by way of work by Antanas and Anastazija Tamošaitis and by Kati Meek and an awareness of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago (SS&D Summer 1986). Lithuania is one of three countries tucked into the curve at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea, along with Latvia and Estonia.

Later I met and published several books by Donna Druchunas, who has delved deeply into her Lithuanian roots with a special interest in the knitting heritage. Donna included some Lithuanian material in her Ethnic Knitting Exploration, for which I knitted the samples as part of the design and publishing process. Donna’s dedication and rigor make her a great working partner.

Donna-books

Knowing Donna led to my meeting June Hall, who lives in Cumbria, in northwestern England, with a flock of Soay sheep and has been my generous guide and connection to that part of the world. June, too, digs long and hard into the subjects that catch her intellect and interest.

Lambs

They both have studied the Lithuanian language, traveled to Lithuania, and now (over more than eight years) collaborated on a book: Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions.

Lithuanian-book-cover-small

 

It’s a great honor to host Donna here with a blog post celebrating the imminent publication of Donna’s and June’s book on Lithuanian knitting (and sheep and wool). She’s written us a splendidly technical introduction to how she came to know some of the techniques in the book—and notes as well that you can knit the book’s projects with the techniques that are already familiar to you. It’s just interesting, and possibly useful, to know exactly what methods Lithuanians use to make their stitches dance.

— Deb

June-Donna

P.S. I’ll be back with more blog posts before long. My time for writing posts has been consumed by other pressing needs, but it looks like some of those will soon be resolved.

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Guest post by Donna Druchunas

What is Lithuanian knitting?

What makes knitting Lithuanian? Is it special techniques that are used? A unique way to hold the yarn and needles? Certain combinations of colors? Interesting pattern stitches?

All of these things, and more. The techniques I’ve included in Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions are all based on vintage accessories in museum collections, reproductions of Lithuanian National Costume ensembles, or folk art pieces made by contemporary knitters. These instructions are adapted from Mezgimas (Knitting) by Anastazija Tamošaitis as well as other vintage and contemporary Lithuanian knitting books in my library, along with tips I’ve picked up from Lithuanian friends. I’ve modernized some of the decreases and made other adjustments to make the techniques easier for contemporary knitters.

I love vintage knitting books and have my own small collection of nineteenth-century English-language books, but the earliest Lithuanian-language knitting books I’ve discovered so far were published almost a hundred years later. Sodžiaus menas kn. 5: Mezgimo-nėrimo raštai (Village Arts no. 5: Knitting patterns), by Antanas Tamošaitis, came out in 1933 and Mezgimas (Knitting), by Anastazija Tamošaitis, Antanas’s wife, was published in 1935.

Together, these two books form a wonderful foundation in Lithuanian knitting. Antanas wrote about the spiritual significance of folk art and documented colorwork motifs and mitten and sock designs from regions around the country, while Anastazija wrote instructions for knitting a variety of accessories using traditional motifs and colors. Mezgimas also includes instructions for knitting techniques that were not traditional in Lithuania, but which Anastazija may have learned about in The Encyclopedia of Needlework, by Thérèse de Dillmont, which was published in 1884 and became a hugely popular reference throughout Europe.

Most of the Lithuanian-language knitting books in my collection were published between 1959 and 1979, during the Soviet period. Most were written by Lithuanian authors, but others were translated from Russian. I found these books on eBay and at used book shops, street fairs, and flea markets in Lithuania. These books are quite similar to the vintage English-language knitting books I have from the same period. They include basic knitting and crochet instructions, a stitch library, and a collection of projects. Many of the books also include basic dressmaking information, along with tips for sizing garments which may be quite detailed or as vague as, “Models are given in one size. If you make a gauge swatch, it will be very easy for you to determine the number of stitches to cast on for your own size.”

I’ve been learning to read and speak Lithuanian, so at first it was a challenge to figure these books out, but since I’m quite fluent in knitting and they all have lots of charts and diagrams, it’s been a good way to learn the parts of the language related to knitting.

Mezgimas

The basics: Grandmother’s knitting

My grandmother taught me how to knit when I was in kindergarten, maybe even before that. I started out with a stockinette-stitch swatch and wrapped the working yarn snugly around my left index finger, like a bobbin, to control my tension.

“When you knit the yarn goes in the back and the needle goes in the back of the stitch,” Grandma told me. “And when you purl, the yarn goes in the front, and the needle goes into the front of the stitch.” The formula was easy for me to remember and I learned to knit and purl with equal ease. I didn’t know that this was called the Eastern Uncrossed or Combination method of knitting, commonly used in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. To me, this was just Grandma’s knitting.

One of my favorite Lithuanian knitting books, a small volume called Megzkime Pačios (Let’s Knit) by O. Jarmulavičienė, presents the basic knitting stitches just the way my grandmother taught me. Other books offer up instructions for the standard modern-European style of knitting and note that this is the common method used in books, but in the old days, most knitters (in Lithuania) used močiutės mezgimas, or “grandmother’s knitting.” Both methods are interchangeable, the authors explain, as long as you pay attention to your work. In general, the books do not show drawings with hands, but the working yarn always trails off the drawings to the left, with the assumption that knitters will carry the yarn in their left hand, no matter which way they form their stitches.

Knit and purl stitches

Knit = back/back. To make a knit stitch, hold the working yarn in the back, and insert the right needle into the back of the stitch. Pick the yarn with the tip of the right needle and pull it through to form a new stitch.

Won’t you twist your stitches if you knit into the back? Not if you purl wrapping your yarn in the opposite direction.

Combination-knit

Purl = front/front. To make a purl stitch, hold the working yarn in front, and insert the right needle into the front of the stitch. Pick the yarn in the same manner as you do when knitting.

Combination-purl

With this technique, switching back and forth between knits and purls is easy and fast. After I practiced for a bit, the process became unconscious as the yarn “automatically” moved to the front or back of my needles as necessary for the next stitch. Ribbing and cables followed quickly for me, and I never realized that purling was supposed to be difficult. Moving your yarn to the front or back of the needles is something that is not even mentioned in Lithuanian knitting books.

Stitch-mounts

To knit without twisting your stitches, always work into the leading (or right) leg of the stitch. It doesn’t matter if it’s in front of or behind the needle.

Decreases

While I was doing my research on Lithuanian knitting techniques, I stumbled onto an interesting discussion in the Combination Knitters group on Ravelry about Lithuanian (and Russian) knitting and how to work left- and right-leaning decreases. This is an important topic, and perhaps the most confusing to knitters who knit in the Lithuanian fashion. Because your stitches are oriented on the needle with the leading leg of the stitch at the back, the normal decrease instructions in English-language knitting books don’t make any sense when you look at your stitches on the needle.

Left-slanting decrease 

A left-slanting decrease is usually worked as ssk in America these days. In my Lithuanian knitting books it’s usually called simply “knit two together,” but because the stitches are turned, you put the right needle into the back of the two stitches to knit them together and the final decrease leans to the left. Sometimes it is explained like this: 2 akys, sumegztos kartu gerai iš apačios (knit two together from the bottom, or back). But it’s not usually so simple, because knitting terminology is not standardized in Lithuania, so each author explains things in her own way.

  • If you knit in the Western fashion, with the leading leg in front, this will be twisted. You can turn the stitches around first so they don’t twist, if you prefer, which is usually called ssk.
  • If you knit in the Lithuanian fashion, with the leading leg in back, this will not be twisted.

Left-SSK

Right-slanting decrease 

A right-slanting decrease is worked as k2tog in America. In my Lithuanian books, this is sometimes explained as 2 akys, sumegztos kartu gerai iš viršaus (knit two together from the top, or front). This creates a decrease that slants to the right, but the stitches are twisted. Depending on the yarn texture and color, this may or may not be noticeable in the finished knitting.

  • If you knit in the Western fashion, with the leading leg in front, this will not be twisted.
  • If you knit in the Lithuanian fashion, with the leading leg in back, this will be twisted. You can turn the stitches around first so they don’t twist, if you prefer. There’s no formal name for this maneuver, but it is similar in concept to ssk. It is actually only necessary to turn the second stitch around. The first stitch will be the bottom stitch in the decrease, and will be hidden.

Right-k2tog

All of this is very technical and fascinating to me, but you can knit any of the projects in Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions in any techniques you like. In fact, most of the projects are knitted in the round, which eliminates many of the differences between močiutės mezgimas and standard Western knitting techniques.

A Lithuanian knitting book made with lots of Lithuanian involvement

I’ve been working on this book with my co-author June Hall since 2007, with several trips to Lithuania for both of us between then and now, along with uncounted hours of writing, knitting, and editing.* We are finally ready to send the files to the printer. To pay for this, I’ve been holding a Pubslush crowdfunding campaign (like Kickstarter but only for books) and we’re over 100% funded today with just 5 days left to go! I’m so excited that so many people are helping me make this dream come true in a way that will give back to the Lithuanian economy. The book is being printed in Lithuania, and the extra funds that come in will go to our Lithuanian art director, Marius Žalneravičius.

I hope you’ll take a minute to check out the fundraiser. If you like what you see, you can also pre-order your copy through this campaign and get some special rewards as an extra bonus!

Thanks!

~ Donna

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* Not to mention lots of language study, leading up to and during the project.

More from Deb: I signed on early at Pubslush to get one of the first copies of Lithuanian Knitting. This is going to be a very cool book that I’ve been following and supporting since it was a vague dream. If you go to the Pubslush page, you can see Donna’s video and hear some snippets of Lithuanian music and see preliminary pages—well worth the 4 minutes.

There are more posts in the book’s blog tour here. Felicity Ford’s post has a photo of Lithuanian coarse-wool sheep.

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One Response

  1. Donna, What an amazing project! (Not that I’d expect any less of you.) Congratulations on persevering, and on having the passion to give back to Lithuania too through the publishing process. And on making your Pubslush goal early–you go!

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