Much More than a Mitten: Latvian Symbology

Much More than a Mitten: Latvian Symbology
10 August 2016

If you walk through Old Town, you’ll quickly realize one of the biggest tourist items to buy is knitted clothes, mainly mittens decorated in elaborate designs. While hats and scarves are also popular, you can always find a full rack of these hand warmers, with their distinctive tipped ends and dense wool. As a big knitter myself (yes, I’m a dude, and I knit. It comes in handy more than you would think(: ) I passed by the souvenir carts in the opening plaza, at first not really convinced these mittens were that special or unique. I mean, you see that kind of stuff coming out of a bunch of different Eastern European and Scandanavian countries…

TURNS OUT, they’re actually a HUGE deal in classic Latvian culture. (my bad…) While you won’t find usual teenagers on the street wearing them that often, different colors and shades of yarn were used anciently to denote the specific area of Latvia the mitten was made in. In general, pairs for men are usually more dramatic and reserved colors, while women’s are more bright and cheerful. And ornamentation elements are often not region-exclusive, making color schemes the main indicator of mitten origin.

Ancient Latvian Holy Signs, often used in traditional clothing

Ancient Latvian Holy Symbols, often used in traditional clothing (or the mittens in this case)

Even more interesting (to me at least) is the even more anciently rooted mythology inherent to the patterns most commonly used. You will often see these same patterns (represented in the small image below) on small bracelets, jewelry, or traditional Latvian clothing. Each pattern though, sometimes separately and sometimes mixed with others, can be distinctly seen in these gloves even today. Granted, some modern pictures and styles have also become standard in mitten making, but underneath those you can often still see these styles permeate.

Interesting note: when researching this topic, I found an article about how at the NATO Summit in 2006, held in Riga, over 4,500 pairs of mittens (so 9,000 in total mind you) were made for guests coming to Latvia. The mittens were hand-knitted in the different ethnographic ornamentations and colors of the Vidzeme, Zemgale, Kurzeme and Latgale regions, and were presented as gifts to each delegate arriving. The 268 knitters were all Latvian, of which only 3 were men (Men knitters unite!), and they ranged in age from 30 to 86. Just kind of interesting to see how culturally significant these “hand heaters” really are…

If by chance you’re a knitter like me, and looking for a new project or a quality souvenir, I would suggest stopping by the knitting store near the Three Brothers, called “Hobbywool” (at address: Mazā Pils iela 6, Centra rajons, Rīga). Specific “Latvian glove kits” are for sale in a wide variety of colors and styles, and the staff is more than willing to help explain them to you. And for anyone looking for really nice hand-knitted products, their selection of pre-made knitted products is both extensive and high quality. I definitely would suggest stopping by.

So when you walk past a store selling some fancy looking gloves, just remember that there’s a lot of history there…

Mark Kennedy, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Riga. 

Posted by Mark Kennedy

Всем Привет! My name is Mark Kennedy, and I’m currently studying Russian at the Liden and Denz Language Center in Riga, Latvia! To say I’m excited to be here is a severe understatement. Currently I'm going into my fourth year at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where I'm enrolled as a dual-degree candidate, earning two degrees in Russian Language and Literature, and French Horn Performance. I started my study of Russian during a two-year mission for my church in St. Petersburg, Russia. Probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! My language learning started off as kind of a trial by fire: with only 12 weeks of training beforehand, I was thrown into Russia and expected (to attempt, at least) to hold full on conversations with people. In the beginning it wasn’t pretty, but the sink or swim mentality of it all forced me to work hard from the start, and motivated me to really overcome any issues I had quickly. Combined with a personally guided plan of language study and some study materials, I came to love the language and the Russian people a TON! Two years later and I’m still studying it… Outside of Russian language, my French Horn degree keeps me busy. Favorite composer is probably Richard Strauss, and my favorite symphonic work is The Rite of Spring Suite by Stravinsky. (Debussy Piano pieces are my favorite non-symphonic works). I’m also into basically anything arts related: singing, dancing, listening to Maroon 5, drawing Sharpie art, going to art exhibits, going to orchestra concerts, etc. In terms of sports, I was a collegiate rower for the University of Michigan in 2011-2012, when we won the National Champions Team Trophy, and I play Ultimate Frisbee. I’m excited for this opportunity to write for Liden & Denz, and to share my enthusiasm and excitement about Riga and the Russian language!

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