Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: The Haapsalu Shawl

The Haapsalu Shawl, by Siiri Reimann and Aime Edasi (translated into English by Maret Tamjärv)
Saara Publishing House, 2009 (184 pages)
ISBN 978-9985-9925-9-3
$60.00 – $65.00  US; 19 €  in Europe

hs-cover If  Nancy Bush’s Knitted Lace of Estonia made you fall in love with Estonian shawls, nupps and all, you’ll want this book for your coffee table. Like hers, this book celebrates the history and traditions of the ethereal shawls from the Estonian resort town of Haapsalu on the Baltic. It was published in Estonia with the direct input of master Haapsalu knitters working today and financial support from the Estonian government and various cultural groups. The financial support shows – it is a positively lavish, well-printed book with many color photographs. 

The Haapsalu Shawl expands on the same territory covered in Knitted Lace of Estonia (Nancy Bush served as consultant and editor for this English translation) with more historical information and more stitch patterns. Wonderful period photos are scattered through the opening chapter on the history of these shawls, knitted for the tourist trade. One page pairs a photo of today’s master knitters seated in a row with their knitting, decked out in lace hats and aprons; below them, a photo of tomorrow’s masters – half a dozen young women from Haapsalu High School with their knitting – bodes well for the future.

hs-1 Unlike the Nancy Bush book, which has 14 patterns with start-to-finish instructions, The Haapsalu Shawl has no actual shawl patterns in it. Instead, a short but detailed illustrated overview of traditional construction methods gives you all the information you’ll need to knit a scarf or shawl with the stitch patterns you choose from the stitch dictionary. Briefly, the traditional designs consist of a square or rectangular center section in stockinette-stitch lace with a garter-stitch frame, and a separately knitted edging which is sewn onto the finished center section. Square shawls may have a wide lacy border between center section and edging as well.

The edging technique is interesting. Unlike the sideways-knitted lace edgings of the more familiar Shetland shawls, Haapsalu shawl edgings are cast on along what becomes the outer, scalloped edge, and knitted toward the center. This 90-degree difference in the knitting direction creates a whole different look. Traditionally, the cast-on uses two strands of yarn, which makes a bold outline for the outer edge.  Edgings are worked in two halves and joined at two of the four corners (because the tradition predates circular needles, they were not originally worked in the round). There is no mitering of corners; instead, enough stitches are cast on to ease the edging around the corners. Edgings are usually garter-stitch lace, contrasting prettily with the stockinette ground of the center section. Nancy Bush's book suggests alternative, modern ways to knit and attach these edgings.

hs-2 The technique section of the book is well-written – it tells you how to calculate stitch counts for center section and edging (adding the right number of stitches for corner ease), and specifies the right cast-ons and bind-offs to use, with illustrations. Very detailed instructions are included for sewing the edging to the body of the shawl. There’s also essential information on blocking and on the traditional yarns used. An explanation of the chart symbols used and an illustrated stitch guide round out the technique chapter.

Now for the fun part. Most of the book is devoted to stitch patterns. There are 120 of them; each gets a full page to itself, with a generous, high-quality swatch photo (white wool on medium gray background) and a nice big chart. No written instructions are included. Patterns are grouped into families, interesting because it’s easy to see how small stitch variations alter the look of the swatch. Many of them are nupp-free (nupps apparently are prized as proof that a shawl is hand-knit - knitting machines can't do nupps). There aren’t too many edging patterns – only 9, arranged three to a page to finish the book.

Sprinkled throughout are 22 finished shawls, artfully photographed in full color in varied settings, many in scenic outdoor locations that make me pine for a summer holiday in Haapsalu. Some are modeled by Estonian women of all ages – the acknowledgments charmingly thank “the fair ladies who model the shawls in this book.” The knitter is always credited, welcome evidence of the respect given their work, and thanks to the book’s thoughtful layout, the stitch pattern used always appears on the facing page.

Any lace knitter who’s completed a shawl or two will be able to use this beautiful book to knit a wide variety of square shawls or rectangular stoles, no specific pattern necessary. With a bit of experience, it wouldn’t be too difficult to adapt the techniques to triangular shawls.

The Haapsalu Shawl is available in the U.S. from Schoolhouse Press and Halcyon Yarn, and in Canada from Elann and Needle Arts Book Shop, among others. You can also order it directly from Hobipunkt in Estonia; shipping doubles the cost for a single copy, but it may be worth it if you’re buying more than one. They also sell traditional yarns used by the Haapsalu knitters.

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