Inara Porietis relates her Latvian mother’s refrain during her last few years of life, which was said only partially tongue-in-cheek: “I can’t die yet. I don’t have enough mittens knitted!” The “enough mittens” refers to the Latvian tradition of giving mittens to the people involved in the funeral ceremony, including the pallbearers and the presiding minister.
For centuries, life passages in Latvia were marked with the gift of mittens. A bride-to-be would often have a dowry of 100 pairs of mittens or more. These would be distributed to the groom’s family and symbolically offered throughout the new household, including mittens carefully placed on fruit trees and beehives, asking for future productivity.
According to Maruta Grasmane, author of Mittens of Lativa, the archaeological evidence shows that Latvian mittens as we know them now first appeared in the 1500s. Designs and color ways evolved that were specific to the four regions of Latvia. Villages would have further stylizations that were specific to the community. The mittens evolved from something very practical to something that was a proud marker of one’s regional identity. It was also a way to show the artistic skills of the women in one’s family.
What is as remarkable as the beauty of Latvian mittens is the recognition and appreciation these practical, knitted items have received in the culture. Textile arts have just become recognized and respected in the world of museums and galleries, and in Western culture generally, in the last 50 years. The Latvians have known that they have a good thing going for the last 500.
Dainas are four-lined Latvian folk songs and they provide insights into the world of those who sang them. This ancient oral tradition was preserved in the 1880s by Krisjanis Barons, who collected thousands of the verses. Knitting and mittens were frequent subjects in dainas, such as this one:
I was knitting color’d mittens
At the birch tree gazing round;
Many leaves are in the birch tree,
Many colors – mitten mine.
This verse appears in Lizbeth Upitis’s book, Latvian Mittens; Traditional Designs and Techniques, along with a verse that reflects how many a young bride must have really felt when she had to give away the store of mittens that had taken her years to knit:
Singing was I knitting mittens,
Even as my hands were freezing;
Crying gave I them to others,
In a warm room, far from my homeland.
Mittens were also the subjects of many sayings, e.g. “Do not wipe your nose with a mitten. Those who do, never grow rich.” It is debatable if this superstition came into being because someone saw a correlation between uncouth behavior and poverty or if mitten-knitting women said this to ensure that their gifts were treated with the proper respect.
Learning to knit a Latvian-style mitten may seem daunting, but it can be done. Ingebretsen’s is fortunate to have two skilled and reassuring teachers, Diane Thomsen (learn more about Diane’s philosophy of teaching and knitting here) and Inara Porietis. Inara learned from her mother and grandmother and will be passing along her skills in a class starting March 24. Further mitten classes will be scheduled for this spring.
If you still feel that these mittens are beyond you, please remember the advice given by the redoubtable Elizabeth Zimmerman and repeated by Lizbeth Upitis – Everything is knitted one stitch at a time.
When you’re not knitting, you may want to read some of the following resources on Latvian Mittens:
Dzērvīte, A. Latvju raksti – Latvian Design.
Toronto: Latvian Federation in Canada, 1973.
Grasmane, Maruta. Mittens of Latvia.
Riga, Latvia: Senā Klēts, 2014.
Lesiņa, Irma. Latviešu cimdu raksti (Ornaments in Latvian Gloves and Mittens).
Lincoln, NB, USA: Augstums Printing, 1970.
Slava, Mirdza. Latviešu rakstainie cimdi (Patterned Mittens ofLatvia).
Riga, Latvia: Zinātne, 1990.
Upitis, Lizabeth. Latvian Mittens: Traditional Design and Techniques.
Dos Tejedoras, St. Paul, MN, USA, 1981.
Thank you to Inara Porietis and Laila Svalbe for sharing their knowledge and resource materials – Carstens Smith