Estonia: The mysteries of Kihnu Troi – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 1)

Underway! Knitting mittens from a traditional Kihnu island pattern

Kihnu Troi – it sounds like a character from a Star Wars film, but is in fact a very distinctive style of Estonian men’s sweater with a unique two-colour braided cast-on!  Kihnu (the ‘h’ is sounded) is an island lying in the Gulf of Riga, Troi their famous traditional knitwear originally worn by the men of this fishing community.

Like exquisite Shetland lace, or Fair Isle sweaters, each region of Estonia has its own unique, intricate and colourful designs. Socks, mittens, jumpers; all as bright and hard-wearing as anything we have in Scotland. Kihnu patterns use black and white wool, with contrasting red bands around hems, cuffs and necks: bands that were believed to grant protection to the wearer.   Knitted from very fine wool, all these garments can last for more than a lifetime.

The powerful medieval Bishop’s Castle on the island of Saaremaa

Estonia’s geographical position has had a profound influence on its turbulent history. Being flat and fertile this small country has found itself repeatedly in the path of invading empires: from ferocious Viking raiders to German, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Nazi and Soviet occupations. It’s a country that has certainly experienced more than its fair share of history!

I’ve visited Estonia a number of times now.  Like Scotland, it’s a country with many islands around its coast, and while geographically different from Scotland (unlike Scotland Estonia is very flat), the inhabitants of these Baltic islands have experienced harsh and difficult conditions that have influenced their lives just as much as times of great hardship have shaped the character of Scotland’s island communities.

But trials and tribulation can breed determination and resilience. Difficulties are overcome and life goes on.  In 1991 Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union and the road to recovery began.  Huge changes had to be faced politically and economically, but face them they did.

Suitsuräime – smoked herring Estonian style on the island of Muhu

As in Scotland, the days of the great fleets of trawlers are gone: instead the focus is now on good, sustainable local produce, with smoked Baltic herring, sprats and eels being the most popular.  We tried some of these specialties: suitsuräime (smoked Baltic herring),  suitsuangerjas (smoked eel) and suitsukilu (smoked sprats).  Not quite Arbroath Smokies, but tasty nonetheless!  And if you’re on foot on the island of Saaremaa, the Pithla Õlu, a beer so close to home-made that it only comes in barrels, and Saaremaa vodka (especially the rhubarb one) are worth a shot (or two)!

Beautifully restored wooden houses from the Tsarist era

The knitters among you will know just how complicated Kihnu Troi cast-on is, and I have to admit that I didn’t quite manage it this time.  But the end result – my first pair of Estonian mittens – give me real pleasure and they will stand me in good stead in the coming winter months.  It wasn’t easy to find wool as fine as that recommended in American knitter Nancy Bush’s pattern book “Folk Knitting in Estonia” but I was fortunate to find a Shetland wool equivalent in The Yarn Cake, a great little knitting shop in Glasgow.

Estonian mittens I knitted based on Nancy Bush’s Kihnu pattern

I’ve written about some of the similarities between Scottish and Estonian islands in Scottish Islands Explorer: Two countries very different in some ways, but also with many shared characteristics when it comes to their islands.  Long-standing and deep-rooted traditions help hold these communities together through thick and thin.  And that adds strength and stability to the nations they are part of. Estonia is a beautiful country, steeped in history and well worth a visit.

And perhaps the madder-red bands of my Kihnu mittens will indeed give me added protection from danger!  I hope so.

Links: The Yarn CakeKihnu Troi Braided Cast-on  and  Nancy Bush: Folk Knitting in Estonia