Mud baths, Haapsalu shawls and the start of a tradition

With its fierce winters and changeable weather, a delicate lace shawl may not be the first item of clothing on your wish list when visiting Estonia. So you might be surprised to learn that there has long been a tradition heralding from the seaside town of Haapsalu for hand knitted lace shawls fine enough to pull through a women’s wedding ring.

Created using lambs’ wool, the tradition started when members of the Russian aristocracy  including the royal Romanov family  visited the famous healing mud baths at the start of the 19th century.

Haapsalu shawl 11, Photo by Alex KullarandAs they walked from the warm baths into the chilly courtyard outside, these women would fling a delicate shawl around their shoulders to keep warm. These garments inspired local Estonian artisans to start creating their own designs.

Fitting with tradition each garment should be square and around 100 cm by 100 cm and made up of several pieces stitched together. The first few efforts were a bit rural, but soon became more stylish and elegant as time went by.

And because of this, Haapsalu is the only place in Estonia where a beautiful lace tradition started. There is even something which makes the shawls one of a kind – nupps.

Nupps are small balls of yarn and you won’t find them in any other shawls. As the women who knitted were paid by the gram for how much the item weighed, they added nupps to make the knitter more money.

This could add a considerable amount to the price. Even though a shawl can only weight 84 grams, if the nupps wouldn’t have been in there, they probably would weight about 60 grams. Even these days it gives the shawl something special.

The shawls are still appreciated nowadays, although they aren’t sold on the boulevard any more. However, you can still find the shawls in the tourist shops. Modern versions of the shawl differ from the traditional shawl in their colour and use of yarn. Yet, mostly the same patterns as 150 years ago are still used.

Haapsalu shawl 6, Photo by Alex Kullarand

And then there is also the annual Haapsalu shawl day – so prepare yourself for the Estonian summer nights with the original Haapsalu shawl.

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You can also find a few books which have more information on the Haapsalu shawls and lace knitting in Estonia (including patterns). Read also: A trend in tradition: fashion designer Liina Viira modernises the traditional folk costumesThanks to The Dutch KnittersPhotos by Alex Kullarand.

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About the author: Harm Jonker

Harm Jonker is an IT specialist who also loves music, singing and writing. Apart from writing articles, columns and short stories, he also writes poetry and lyrics. He fell in love with Estonia during a holiday several years ago and since then has regularly visited Estonia.