In 2011, I had the good fortune to be part of a textile tour of Estonia led by Nancy Bush. I had traveled a fair swath of Europe and the UK previously–as far south as Crete and as far north as the enigmatic Old Man of Wick at the northern tip of Scotland–but the Baltic region was a totally new adventure. My friend Susan Markle and I also spent several days in Helsinki, Finland, to complete our three-week Finno-Ugrian expedition. We arrived in early June, so the weather was beautiful. It was sunny and warm nearly every day. The lilacs were blooming in every direction, and I learned that in Estonia, “white nights” near the summer solstice means that the golden sunset lingers through until morning.
Each day was packed with unforgettable food, new friends, and vivid textiles. The most memorable part of the trip for me was our time on Kihnu, a small island that lies not far off the southeast coast of Estonia in the Bay of Riga. We stayed at the Tolli Turismitalu, where I slept in a traditional log barn with a thatched roof. It was perfect. I didn’t sleep much while I was there, as I watched the sun not quite set over the bay only a few hundred feet away.
Kihnu has a unique men’s sweater tradition. The Kihnu Troi, as the sweater is called, is knit using the color-stranding technique in white on a dark background. Indigo-dyed blue was typically used in the past. Black, brown, and occasionally green are used, with black being the most common color of the modern Troi sweaters that I have seen in shops and displays in Estonia. Many sweaters also incorporate red bands into the hem, cuffs, and neck edge, which is believed to help protect the wearer from danger. When the sweaters were newly knit, they were worn to weddings and special events. As the sweater aged, it was used as a work garment and is often associated with the island’s fishermen.
While in Estonia, I eagerly searched out every Troi I could find. With Nancy’s help, I was able to get a close look at three older examples in museum collections. I love looking inside old sweaters. One of my favourite Troi sweaters had armholes cut into the body and sleeves sewn in place with fine handspun linen instead of wool. From the ferry returning me to Helsinki, I watched Estonia fade into the distance. I pulled out my needles and began swatching and sketching a Troi sweater, incorporating all that I had learned in the past weeks–and here it is!!