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Estonia’s Craftswomen: Preserving Handicrafts Through Soviet Times


After the Great Patriotic War, when those Estonian artists who had been evacuated to the rear of the country and those who had survived the fascist occupation, united into homogeneous collectives, new vistas were opened up to Estonian artists. The working man, creator of his era, now held the place of honor in art. And this is not a man toiling in the sweat of his brow to earn his daily bread, he is now the dignified builder of a new world; vigor has supplanted oppression; the joy of life has overcome fatigue.

Aino Kartna, Soviet Estonian Art, 1967

This paragraph of Soviet propaganda published halfway through Estonia’s fifty years of Soviet occupation is replete with Moscow turns of phrase. “Evacuated to the rear” refers to the forced deportation of artists to other parts of the Soviet Union. “United homogeneous collectives” were the only way artists could earn a living; joining them gave preferential treatment including salary, art supplies and for some, the extra benefit of travel outside the Estonian borders. And the “new art vistas” had to be Soviet approved first.

Today, wandering the art galleries and stores of Estonia’s towns, it’s difficult to imagine the repressive crush of Soviet policies on its artists from 1942-1951. Colorful, traditional, handknit mittens, hats, socks, lacy shawls, fanciful felted hats, purses, tablet covers and oven mittens of vividly striped woven cloth dominate its handicraft stores. Tallinn alone has four stores belonging to the Estonian Folk Art and Craft Union and a guild of women artists working in textiles, leather, glass and metal.

A smiling Estonian woman with handknit goods.
Knitter at Tallinn Medieval Days.

Outside Tallinn in Tartu, Parnu and Viljandi are more art guilds, composed mostly of studios belonging to women. In the spa town of Haapsalu, the women artists of the Lace Centre can demonstrate how an entire shawl of finely knit wool can be drawn through a wedding ring. On Kihnu Island women showcase their weaving, knitting and embroidery of everyday wear that is both a living tradition and a UNESCO World Heritage recognized cultural artifact.

The post-Soviet era resurgence of women handicraft artists owes itself to four factors: Moscow’s peculiar brand of absorbing its occupied countries into the USSR; its hierarchy of art mediums; the female handicraft rituals embedded in Estonian culture; and sheer perseverance of Estonian craftswomen.

Soviet national policy in its newly acquired satellite states permitted art that was predicated on Lenin’s philosophy of state-sponsored nation building. Art could be Estonian Nationalist in form but had to be Soviet Socialist in content. Disagree or disobey and there were repercussions. Those artists who did were arrested and deported. Official estimates concluded that one-third of Estonia’s creative artist population fled during Soviet times, largely to Sweden and Germany. Farms were collectivized uprooting local rural handicraft associations. Organizations supporting artists were forced to disband and the country’s art school and elementary and secondary school arts curriculums were nationalized. Private sales of any kind of art were forbidden under a Soviet-run commerce system.

The impact was particularly severe for the artists high on the Soviet arts hierarchy – painters, sculptors and graphic artists. Curiously, Moscow wanted to showcase some of the traditional art of its newly acquired republics. “Domestic handicrafts,” considered women’s art, wasn’t subjected to the same level of censorship.

Prior to the Soviet occupation, a government effort had emerged as part of Estonia’s “National Awakening” to promote traditional handicraft arts. Textile art had historically been the domain of Estonian women who were the artists doing the weaving, sewing, knitting and embroidery of clothing and decorative objects. Craftswomen who had been toiling away in obscurity suddenly found their work recognized and promoted.

Bonifatius Guild in Viljandi
Bonifatius Guild in Viljandi

Opportunities to learn new techniques were created. In the early 1900s, Estonian textile handicrafts became part of the required curriculum in schools. All students learned to crochet, knit, sew and embroider in grades 1-3 and girls continued to study handicraft arts in grade four and beyond. In 1914 the Tallinn Arts and Crafts School was established. In 1927 the “Domestic Handicraft Cooperative” was created to promote textile arts for trade. In 1929 the Estonian Folk Art and Craft Union was founded, whose mission was “advancing handicrafts at home, improving skills and explaining their usefulness to the general population.” Those disappeared or were nationalized after the 1941 Soviet occupation.

Despite some leniency as a lower tier art form used to promote the culture of the expanded Soviet states, there was still a creative price for Estonia’s handicraft artists. In addition to the disappearance or Russification of their earlier support systems, their new work co-operatives were based on the Soviet industrial model requiring quotas and mass production of art using limited materials; what the Soviet Union promoted as “the beauty of homogeneous industrial production”.

At home, however, that was another story. There, as Estonians say, “Grandmothers kept the traditions alive.” The cold winters had always been the season for women to spin yarn, weave cloth and make clothing for the family. During the lean Soviet years, family members still needed gloves, hats, skirts, textiles and shawls for everyday wear and special occasions, particularly weddings and church. On those, the knitters and weavers could individualize, adding creative Estonian patterns to the mittens and weaving skirts that told a story about the woman wearing it.

A woman standing at her loom.
Mare Pernik, Weaver at Mary Magdalene Guild.

Weddings, an important rite of passage for Estonian women, had a tradition of handicraft rituals. When a prospective bride was courted, she sent her admirer a pair of hand knitted mittens or socks as her sign of her approval. A bride’s dowry chest, which she began filling as a young girl, was filled with handmade woven and knitted accessories to distribute over the multiple days of the wedding festivities to the groom’s family, the wedding party, musicians, cooks and the wedding officiant. On Kihnu Island, women changed their striped skirts as the wedding progressed, adding more red stripes to the skirt pattern each day as a symbol of their increasing happiness. Knitted mittens and socks were part of Estonian folklife and folk medicine beliefs, their ethnographic symbols protecting wearers from evil, helping lost travelers find their way and curing people and animals.  

After the demise of the Soviet Union, handicraft artists quickly regrouped, a resurgence led mostly by women. A year after the Soviet exit, the Estonian Folk Art and Craft Union was reconstituted and now supports and certifies small handicraft businesses throughout the country. Handicraft programs in universities and vocational schools were revitalized. In 1995, a group of Tallinn’s female artists formed Katariina Guild; a modern throwback to the Estonian guilds that once forbade female members, with open studios and master artists teaching classes. Inspired by that effort, Anthony’s Guild opened in Tartu, Bonifatius Guild in Viljandi and Mary Magdalene Guild in Parnu; all showcasing women artists, many of them working in textile art. In 2002, Estonia’s education officials revised the country’s elementary and secondary school handicraft curriculum adding twenty-one new forms of textile arts including felting, quilting and silk painting.

Modern Estonia is rightfully proud of its rich handicraft tradition. You can see it in its celebrations and purchase examples in its stores. It was the persistence of its craftswomen that assured its traditional artforms and creative contemporary products influenced by traditional designs survived a generation of Soviet censorship.

Photos: Ann Randall

2 thoughts on “Estonia’s Craftswomen: Preserving Handicrafts Through Soviet Times

  1. I have weavings from the 1980’s trip I tokk to meet family, and I have later weavings. When I’ve returned to Estonia, I have always looked for more of these table runners and other woven items. They are harder and harder to find. I treasure the ones I have.

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