Estonian lace

Estonian lace

Estonia is located on the Baltic coast, neighboring Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east and Finland to the north.

Estonia has a long history of Knitting and is the origin of many of the oldest knitted objects in Northern Europe, dating back to the late 13th century. The making of gloves, mittens and socks has been part of Estonian customs for hundreds of years.

On Estonia's west coast lies the seaside town of Haapsalu, famous for its 13th century castle streets, medicinal mud baths and beaches.

Russia ruled Estonia from the beginning of the 18th century until 1918. It was during this period that Haapsalu became a tourist destination and a thriving seaside town. The women of Haapsalu, being hardworking and creative, started a small local industry of knitted lace shawls which lasted into the 21st century.

The start of a tradition

Despite the lack of a precise date, it is estimated that the beginning of lace knitting in Haapsalu was at the very beginning of the 19th century, at the same time when the city was becoming a popular destination for well-heeled tourists of Russian, German, Swedish and European origin in general.

Haapsalu's appeal was mainly its medicinal mud baths. The first sanatorium was opened in 1825 and the second in 1845.

Haapsalu became the favorite destination of Tsar Nicolas I (1796-1855) and Alexander II (1818-1881). This is how the city acquired royal status.

The tourists, whose number reached 3,000 by the end of the 19th century, were dressed in the latest fashions, which naturally included pieces of finely knitted lace shawls and stoles. It is undoubtedly in this way that the knitters of Haapsalu found their inspiration to develop their own lace patterns.

Tradition says that the talent for knitting these shawls could come from a family of Swedish origin who settled in Haapsalu. No matter where the idea came from, the knitters of Haapsalu created a local industry in which they excelled.

The knitters gathered on the promenade along the seaside, sitting in groups with their baskets full of shawls, their knits in hand, and selling their works to the tourists on the go. Many vacationers bought these shawls from Haapsalu as gifts and soon these shawls were going around Europe and the Nordic countries.

Knitters also gathered at the port where ships bound for St. Petersburg stopped. Thus many bulk purchases of "Theatrical Shawls" were made by Russians to be resold to wealthy women in St. Petersburg. These shawls reached the height of their popularity at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

An accomplished knitter could complete 20 to 30 shawls during the winter season; a family uniting together could complete 70 to 80 shawls. Young girls were taught to knit "knee to knee" very early by their mothers. They learned simple patterns from the age of 4 and when they were 8, they were trusted to knit the lace borders that would be sewn on the central pieces.

Estonian women had no written instructions for their patterns, techniques and patterns were passed down from hand to hand from generation to generation.

Knitted patterns were preserved on a long swatch that strung them together or in individual squares.

The knitter would study the swatch and then be able to knit the pattern without the aid of charts or written instructions. If a knitter borrowed a sample, she repaid her loan by adding a new pattern to the collection. It was not until 1930 that the first written patterns appeared.

In the 19th century, there were only a few motifs such as the branch (Haga), the leaf (Lehe), and the silver (raha). Since then, several dozen designs have been developed, many of which are inspired by everyday life and Estonians' deep love of nature.

To name just a few: The butterfly (Liblikakiri), the blueberries (Mustikakiri), and the wild cherry branch (Kaselehekiri) and the very popular lily of the valley (Maikell).

The Lily of the Valley pattern and its many variations, as well as many other patterns, incorporate the "Nupps" technique. This small ball of wool is an Estonian specialty and is used to add texture to openwork patterns or to create designs on a jersey base.

Shawls were traditionally sold by weight and those using Nupps were heavier and therefore could be more cost effective. The nupps were, and still are, proof that the shawl was knitted by hand because they cannot be made by machine.

The first Haapsalu shawls were knitted in a fairly thick flax, single ply or two-ply knitted by hand with the wool of local sheep. Despite the poor soil around Haapsalu, the sheep survived on the grass between the juniper trees. The best wool for these shawls was harvested from the backs and necks of the youngest sheep.

Thick yarns were spun on bobbins, but the best yarn for lace knitting was spun on a spinning wheel.

Fine yarns were prized and industrially spun wools, often imported, became popular as soon as they were available in stores.

The first shawls were simple, without the lace trim. Later, when mill-spun wool became available, shawls became airier and more complex with the addition of an openwork border.

Tradition says that the finest shawl could be slipped through a wedding ring, a way of determining the quality of this type of knitting. This thinness was a marketing asset to encourage sales. The most popular color was, and still is, white.

Some shawls were made in pastel colors while those knitted with gray or black wool were typically reserved for personal use.

Traditionally, knitters used straight needles that were carved from lilac or apple wood, two species common in gardens. The needles were polished, sanded and oiled with lanolin (fat from sheep's wool). They were made in sizes from 2.75 mm to 4 mm.

The size of the needle was determined by passing it through a hole in a sheet of paper. The needles were short and measured 25 cm long, they were also light, smooth with rounded, not sharp, tips.

Today, these knitters continue to prefer short commercial needles, made of wood or bamboo; they would never use metal needles because they consider them too heavy.

Haapsalu knitters traditionally hold their thread in their right hand and “throw” it in the “English” way.

The traditional shawl

The classic Haapsalu shawl, so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was square and measured approximately 1m x 1m or larger. It consisted of three distinct parts: the central part, the frame and the border.

The center and the frame were knitted together and, although these two parts were openwork, only the border was described as “lace”.

Traditionally, the edging was knitted separately in two parts and then sewn by hand to the main piece. This border was worked in two parts (often containing more than 250 stitches each) because only half of the stitches fit on the needle. Knitters did not use the circular needle (which is a modern invention) or double pointed needles.

Square shawls were traditionally folded in half and worn over the head so that the lace trim frames the face. If, during the winter, one wore a hat, then the shawl covered the hat.

In addition to patterns inspired by Nature, accomplished knitters developed designs to honor celebrities.

Thus, a shawl was made with a “Greta Garbo” (1905-1990) pattern, incorporating a heart design, and it was sent to the star in 1935, with the hope that the actress would wear it in one of her films and thus, highlights the art of Estonian lace.

Another shawl was knitted with the “Crown Prince” pattern and then given to the Swedish prince Gustav Adolf (1882-1973) during his visit to Haapsalu in 1932. This pattern was created by Matilde Möll who was one of the first to grid her patterns and probably the first to knit triangular shawls.

More recently, Linda Elgas, a renowned knitter from Haapsalu, created a beautiful pattern by combining the design of “Liblikas” (butterfly) and “Maikelluke” (lily of the valley). A shawl knitted with this design, slightly modified, was given to Sweden's Queen Silvia (1943-) when she visited Haapsalu in 1992 and thus the pattern was named "Queen Sylvia".

The tradition continues...

During Estonia's first period of independence (1920-1940), knitting classes were taught at the local technical college to encourage and organize Haapsalu knitters. This is where teachers were trained and students could take courses in the specifc techniques of these shawls.

This period was a golden age for Haapsalu shawls, which were promoted internationally in the 1930s. At this time, many Estonian knitters took part in international exhibitions in both Berlin and New York.

A master knitter, Anette Martson (1879-) had more than 50 knitters who worked under her and to whom she supplied the wool. She finished their shawls by washing and blocking them as well as arranging their sales.

In the 1930s, more than 500 inhabitants of Haapsalu were involved in making the famous shawls. Anette's shawls were presented in numerous exhibitions and received several awards.

Rising prices for fine wool imported from Sweden, England and Lithuania discouraged their imports. Some knitters emigrated to Lithuania and Finland in order to continue practicing their art. Others abandoned shawls for openwork sweaters.

The Second World War interrupted the export of Estonian products. During the Soviet occupation (1944-1991), knitters continued to knit shawls and scarves. They were produced in a cooperative, UKU, which ran a production workshop in Haapsalu.

Each knitter in the cooperative had to complete a quota of 9 shawls or 12 scarves per month! Older knitters with disabilities had a quota divided by 2. UKU provided wool to each knitter who were paid a pittance for their work.

In 1970, UKU director Leili Leht began collecting and photographing shawl and scarf designs. According to Linda Elgas, in her book “Haapsalu Rätikud”, these archives formed the raw material for the 3 editions of the book “Pitsilised Koekirjad” by Leili Reimann. This author is not a native of Haapsalu, but her book contains many patterns that originated in Haapsalu and made them available to knitters around the world.

Pattern editions

During the Second World War, many Estonians fled to Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United States. Despite the few possessions they took with them, the women brought back their knitting skills and their traditions. In order to preserve this precious culture, especially for generations who would grow up far from their roots, the Triinu magazine was created and began its publication in 1952 (last edition 1995).

This magazine is an example of the struggle to keep a culture alive despite emigration and estrangement. It was published quarterly, containing articles on poetry, art, literature, health, nutrition and... knitting patterns.

The editors and contributors were all volunteers and worked for the magazine between their regular jobs and family activities. They were motivated by nationalist fervor and goodwill and none received financial compensation. It is difficult to explain the impact that this magazine had in promoting and preserving Estonian cultural heritage.

Another source of traditional shawl patterns was the book “Haapsalu Rätik”, published in 1972 by the Estonian Women's Club Federation in New York. This publication offered a history of the art of Estonian knitting and patterns (unfortunately written...) for the central parts, borders and lace to combine.


Today, there is a thriving market for Haapsalu lace shawls, both in the town itself and across the country. Haapsalu knitters continue to knit their shawls in the traditional way, with the lace trim, if there is one, sewn to the central part.

Although some shawls are still knitted in squares, most are now rectangular or triangular. Lace knitting has become popular throughout Estonia. Although the patterns or techniques are not all the same, the title “Haapsalu Rätik” (Haapsalu shawl), is given to both scarves and shawls knitted anywhere in Estonia.

Although some shawls are still knitted in squares, most are now rectangular or triangular. Lace knitting has become popular throughout Estonia. Although the patterns or techniques are not all the same, the title “Haapsalu Rätik” (Haapsalu shawl), is given to both scarves and shawls knitted anywhere in Estonia.

Traditional techniques

The assembly of the stitches

The stitch cast-on is a very elastic cast-on. It is started from a slip knot. There

stitch thus formed on the needle is knitted without being released and the new stitch thus formed is put back on the needle.


To ensure a regular border in which it will be easy to pick up stitches, each first stitch at the start of the rows is slipped as if to knit it backwards.


The nupp is a small “bubble” of wool that is found in many Estonian patterns. Nupps are made from 5, 7 or 9 stitches. Typically, 7 stitches are used for fine to medium threads, 5 for coarser threads and 9 for very fine threads.

There are several ways to knit a nupp, the preferred method of Nancy Bush (a specialist in Estonian lace), is to knit it from the right side of the work.

We knit in the same stitch in a flexible manner, leave it on the left needle then alternate a yarn over and knit the same stitch again until you obtain the desired number of stitches, ending with a knit stitch. On the next row, on the wrong side of the work, knit all the stitches thus obtained together (This is why it is important to knit them very flexible) in order to return to the original stitch.


Swatch Chart

Here is the star stitch chart used in the LAMINARIA shawl by Elizabeth Freeman.

The symbol > 3 < means: Knit 3 stitches together without letting them fall from the left needle, make a yarn over then knit these 3 stitches together again. From 3 stitches we get 3 stitches again.

On the right side of the work, all stitches are knitted and on the wrong side of the work, they are knitted.

To practice, we will cast on 21 stitches (8 stitches for the point + 7 stitches for symmetry + 6 stitches for a foam border of 3 stitches on each side).

Knit 3 rows garter.

Row 1: 3 garter stitches, place a marker, repeat the pattern 2 times, place a marker before the last 3 stitches and finish with 3 garter stitches.