Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 20 - Latvian Mittens Warm NYC Holidays

There is currently a traveling exhibit of Latvian mittens in New York's largest needlepoint and knitting store Annie and Company, located at 1763 2nd Avenue on the SW corner of 92nd Street, and it is going to be there until December 31, 2017. This exhibit has already been in San Francisco and Denver, and will be traveling to St. Louis, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Seattle in the upcoming year. Volunteers from the Latvian community and American knitters who admire Latvian mittens are hosting the exhibition.

What can we see in this exhibition?

A collection of 45 pairs of mittens from the American Latvian Association’s folk art collection at Priedaine, Freehold, NJ; these are ethnographically correct reproductions of mittens found in Latvian museum collections. They were knitted for the museum's collection by Latvian Americans during the 1970’s through the 1980’s. There are also posters and several informative books about Latvian mittens.

How did this exhibition come about?

As every great idea – it’s a combination of being in the right place, at the right time… On an August night in 2016, on the last evening of the Latvian cultural camp "3x3" in Gaŗezers, Michigan, no one was going to sleep although the formal event was finished. We all knew that many of us would not see each other until the following August, and more than one new friendship had been made, and fantastic ideas born.

I was discussing Latvian folk costumes with a friend from the East Coast when she mentioned that there are more than 300 pairs of Latvian mittens at the ethnographic museum. Her name is Lilita Bergs, and she has been in charge of the American Latvian Association’s folk art collection at Priedaine in Freehold NJ for 30 years. We kept talking about the museum and folk costumes into the night, and the next morning I went back home, to California.

A few months later in San Francisco, people from all the Latvian organizations in Northern California came together to brainstorm "How to celebrate Latvia100." I was thinking along the lines of “what do people know and like about Latvia,” and as a knitter of many years and familiar with the online knitting community, I was aware of the interest in Latvian mittens. I asked the knitters in (Facebook for knitters, very addictive, think twice before you join!) if people would be interested in an exhibition of Latvian mittens, and received a positive response.

As a result, the idea was born; I knew that there was a Latvian mitten collection, and I knew that there was interest in seeing it – if I could connect the two...

The funny thing is, that from the beginning I sort of knew how I would exhibit the mittens; I would secure them somehow, maybe even hang them... That’s how it started, with the image of beautiful mittens hanging in the air and people seeing them and figuring out how they were made. I called Lilita Bergs and said "I have an idea, your museum’s mittens traveling around U.S. Latvian centers." Lilita agreed.

I talked for many hours about the logistics of the exhibit with Lilita and my friend Una Veilande (who is deeply involved with all Latvian organizations in Northern California), both of whom had very good ideas and suggestions (which I “borrowed”).  At one point the plan became clear; Lilita would send me a box of mittens and a few books about mittens. We would make posters. The exhibit would be big enough to fill smaller rooms, and to inspire larger Latvian communities to add other materials and activities to their local events, but also small enough so that it would not be too expensive to send it to Latvian centers around the United States. Each city can decide for themselves how many resources and volunteers to devote to the project: they can organize lectures about ornaments and patterns of mittens, hold basic or advanced knitting workshops, have books, articles and magazines about mittens and Latvian folk costumes, offer Latvian food, feature activities for children, and exhibit mittens owned by local Latvians with stories about their origins... The last one was my favorite part of the exhibition in San Francisco.

For our mitten exhibition at the San Francisco Latvian Hall we decided to have a “mitten book library,” food, a lecture about the history of mittens, a beginning knitting workshop “What my Grandmother told me” - and my favorite - mittens owned by local Latvians. 6 weeks before the opening of the exhibit I invited members of the Northern California Latvian community to participate by contributing mittens from their homes, and to write a short description about their contribution. In a week mittens started to arrive. Opening the packages was better than Christmas! I can’t decide if I was more impressed by the patterns and tautiskie raksti (folk symbols) on the mittens, or by the stories that came with them. I got a box with mittens from a storage facility near Los Angeles from the Latvian Art exhibition of the 1989 West Coast Latvian Song Festival. Then I received a pair of mittens made in a Displaced Persons Camp in Europe after WWII around 1947 when Viviana was 17; the mittens look uneven, because they are made from a ripped sweater. (Viviana‘s friend got some blue yarn and Viviana got the red & white, and although the mittens were made in terrible conditions after the war by a young knitter, they were still decorated with rich symbolism.) There were white gloves from Rūta's parents’ wedding in the 1930s - a rare example of pre-WWII wool from Latvia. One pair of mittens was made by the granddaughter of so called “Old Latvians,” Latvians who moved to San Francisco before WWII; the knitter didn’t know too much about Latvian culture, but she bought Lizbeth Upitis’ book and learned how to knit Latvian mittens.

Before this exhibition I didn’t know too much about Latvian mittens, but that has changed. For example, I learned that we have a tradition to give tautiskie cimdi as a present for almost every occasion. Being on a “mitten high” I decided to give a presentation on the history of Latvian mittens, and I started reading every Latvian mitten book I had and corresponding with the authors about copyrights. As a result I had a reason to reconnect with my friends in the knitting community in Latvia, Canada, and the United States, and I made a few new friends as well. There are so many of us who like to talk about the symbols and patterns of mittens!

For Latvians, mittens are part of our cultural heritage. They were a demonstration of a young lady’s craftsmanship, and expected from future wives. They were given as presents and were a symbol of good luck. At some point in history specific types of mittens were used as a “yes” to a marriage proposal, as a thank you, or to cement an agreement. A young bride had been making mittens for her wedding since she was young girl, since for an average wedding at least 40 pairs of fine mittens would be needed as gifts. The volume of mittens in a wedding was also proof of the family’s wealth and social status.

Home-dyed wool yarn in a wide range of slightly muted natural shades was used until the middle of the 19th century, when aniline dyes were invented and Latvian women started incorporating bolder combinations of colors and shades into their knits. Latvian women know the common motifs by name, as well as their meaning. For example, the symbol that resembles two letters “E” back-to-back is called Ūsiņš, and represents the figure from Latvian folklore who was responsible for the horses. Mittens that incorporate the Ūsiņš symbol protect the rider during trips, and it would be logical that this mitten would also be given to someone who takes care of horses. There were also special mittens made for funerals.

American knitters admire craftsmanship. They are interested in patterns and techniques. The knitters want to know how mittens are made, what kind of wool was used, and why this specific example was made in the “S “direction. What kind of needles are used?  How do you hold your hand? Which way do you manage several threads? And, yes, of course - what kind of sheep did you have back then? Well, the night between the first and second day of the exhibition in San Francisco was spent googling everything I could find about sheep in Latvia in the 19th century. (It turns out Latvians used to breed short-tailed sheep!) I truly admire the enthusiasm with which I was met in the international knitting community. We Latvians don’t often think of how our way of knitting fits into the world’s knitting tradition. We just knit the way we learned from older family members, a tradition that may be on its way of getting lost in the modern age.

This exhibition was one of those happy projects where many people volunteered their time and skills... There wouldn’t be posters without Linda. Countless hours by Džoanna and Ilona in San Francisco cutting paper and working on the displays, Rūta and Madara who took care of the Latvian food. Una who kept everything going and did most of the paperwork. Raita with her team to organize the exhibit in Denver, and Jeanny for telling her story about her love for Latvian mittens. Inga in New York who is hosting the exhibition now.

Thank you to all the friends who agreed to host the exhibition next year! I’m very grateful for your help and willingness to do this. The exhibit is traveling to the following Latvian centers in 2018: St. Louis at the end of January, Cleveland at the end of February, and Minneapolis at the beginning of March. Seattle will host the exhibition at the end of May, and there is a possibility of the exhibit traveling to Latvian centers in the Midwest afterwards.

If you are interested in hosting this exhibition, please contact Māra at Latvian Mittens, Traveling Exhibition could be available to come to your city as early as June of 2018.

A big paldies to Māra for introducing the Latvian Mittens exhibit to 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! Our local Latvian community hosts a table at the International Festival in Spartanburg every year, and the most popular items are usually our tautiskie cimdi, so I have no doubt the exhibition will continue to be a success!

To stay updated on the travels of the exhibit, please follow the Latvian Mittens, Traveling Exhibition Facebook page. This traveling exhibit is presented as part of the celebration of the Republic of Latvia’s 100th anniversary; information on LV100 can be found on the Centenary website, as well as on the American Latvian Association Centenary website for events occurring in the US.

Please join us again tomorrow on the winter solstice with a quick jaunt to Seattle, Washington and the Christmas bazaar there

(Knit Like a Latvian, now available for pre-order!)

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