patterns originated in the Baltic countries and were imported to Fair Isle in the first half of the nineteenth century.”
Folk art symbols
Many of the symbols found in folk art in Lithuania since the Neolithic period are the same symbols that frequently appear in weaving, embroidery, and knitting. In the 1930s book Sodžiaus menas. kn. 5: Mezgimo-nerimo raštai ( Country Arts #5: Knitting Patterns), Antanas Tamo aitis wrote that the most powerful symbols of a culture are its mother tongue, folklore, and folk art. These elements, he claimed, embody the Lithuanian people’s essence, because it is with these symbols that each group of people expresses its uniqueness.
Over time, folk art creations tell us about the spirit of the people who created them. Although people pass away and cultures change, folk art and folklore are national treasures that live on through the ages.
I have always loved folk art, folk tales and myths from around the world. It was only natural that these obsessions would intersect with my interest in knitting. When I discovered Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian archaeologist and expert in Lithuanian folklore who emigrated to America after World War II, it was immediately obvious that I had to learn more about her life and work.
Combining her expertise in these fields with her experiences growing up in the Lithuanian countryside, Gimbutas saw meanings in many of the symbols found on ancient artefacts. Joseph Campbell called her book, The Language of the Goddess, the Rosetta Stone for understanding prehistoric archaeology and anthropology. Gimbutas’ career lasted from the early 1940s until her death in 1994. Much of what she wrote about the meaning of ancient Baltic symbols throughout that time still informs studies in the field.
Gimbutas claimed that we can learn about more than just early tools and artefacts from archaeological sites. There are stories hidden in the symbols and motifs used to decorate found items. Though we can sometimes only guess at the precise meanings that the symbols may have held for their creators, we can follow clues embedded in folklore, folk songs, language, and superstitions that have survived to the present day.
Very few fragments of cloth survive. However, we can make inferences from the motifs found on stone, metal, amber and clay artefacts. The story found in Lithuanian archaeology is a narrative of its people.
03 In my mitten pattern on the next page, I combine chevrons, triangles and circle-diamonds. Lithuanian symbols are closely tied to nature, and geometric motifs often represent celestial objects.
Triangles may represent the sky god (pointing up) or the Earth Mother (pointing down). In fact, triangle symbols are used today to identify men’s and women’s restrooms in Lithuania. Chevron patterns symbolising trees are commonly found on beaded wristwarmers and sock cuffs.
Circles represent the sun or moon, while circles with spokes represent light, and have been used in Lithuanian folk art for centuries. Circular motifs are difficult to represent in knitted fabric, so diamond motifs may be interpreted as suns or as fire.
On stone carvings, amber amulets and bronze jewellery, on ornate wooden crosses, and within decorative weaving and embroidery patterns, the same motifs appear over and over again. Eventually they found their way onto knitted accessories. Knitted pieces and other folk art creations are not only important as physical items, but also for the story and history of rural culture, ritual, and society that they embody. Deeper meanings in the patterns tie both the artists and those who appreciate their works to the past. Even if the actual meanings of the symbols are forgotten, the items themselves have become symbols and remembrances of the heritage in which they took root. Today, we can continue to remember the deep roots of these traditions in our own knitting. Visit www.sheeptoshawl.com for details of Donna’s research, books and patterns