From family tradition to national consciousness: an ethnographic study of Estonian knitting



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Tartu Ülikool


Knitting has been widely practised and appreciated by Estonian people as an indispensable part of Estonian cultural heritage. As a traditional handicraft skill with hundreds of years of history, knitting is not only of practical importance considering the nature condition but also to a certain extent being constructed as a symbol of Estonia throughout the twentieth century as well as nowadays. This dissertation is an ethnographic study focusing on Estonian knitting, in particular, on the point of the role of knitting in the process of national identity construction. To dates, there is still a knowledge gap in the field of study on Estonian knitting in English-speaking academia. Apart from a limited amount of Estonian authors either being translated or write in English (for example Anu Pink, Siiri Reimann, Kristi Jõeste), the only English-speaking author whose work is regularly mentioned as a reference and to a certain extent considered to be with an academic character is Nancy Bush. Most of the publications on Estonian knitting have only focused on its practical aspect, i.e. patterns and techniques. In this dissertation, I aim to explore the function of knitting being a means of identity construction and link between individuals and nation space in Estonia. My theory bases are material culture studies and semiotic studies: I study knitting as material culture; my focus on the semiotic approach is made for decoding the meanings behind knitting and setting Estonian knitting as a signifier of collective cultural identity. I use ethnography as a method for this research project. In this dissertation, I present data collected during my fieldwork (including participant observation, visual data collection, interviews) period from September 2017 to August 2018. I also make autoethnography as a highlight considering my own identity of being at the same time an estophile and a knitter researching Estonian knitting. This dissertation aims to explore the unique role of knitting in Estonian culture both on family and national levels. Specifically, I present my findings of knitting being a symbol of the cultural root in Estonia, in particular for those people who knit. Thus, knitting helps to construct a part of Estonian national identity and enhance people’s sense of belonging to Estonia. I also attempt to show the importance of knitting in constructing a new image of the Estonian nation in a post-Soviet context.