The beauty of the traditional clothes of Estonian women is mostly assessed on the basis of the patterns of the skirts and no one really looks underneath. However, the skirts hide an entirely separate world, which in the case of Saaremaa and Muhu girls and women is of a completely unique make and look. Women’s legs needed protecting regardless of the long skirt be it from the cold, the woolly skirt chafing, or a stranger’s eyes.
The colourful stocking patterns both protect the wearer and emphasise her beauty. Legs were left uncovered only on hot summer days when work was done barefoot, wearing a long shirt. In the olden days, women wore legwarmers and half-length stockings, which later blended into the now familiar folk dress stockings or, in today’s terms, woolly half-stockings, the pattern and colour combinations of which bore regional designations.
Muhu – a celebration of skills
The patterns of the beautiful Muhu stockings are the most lavish. Nothing was held back in the colour, patterns, crocheting and embroidery, creating a harmonic symbiosis of all those aspects. At the beginning of the last quarter of the 19th century, the Muhu islanders could be considered relatively modest – the main colours tended to be black, wilted red and white, with geometric ornaments as the main motifs. The turn of the century, however, saw a true rebirth. The island with its meagre agricultural resources was not able to properly feed all the local residents and thus people worked as farm girls and farmhands on the mainland. The most common workplace was the wealthy Lihula area, which was at the time experiencing a second blossoming of traditional folk dress heritage. The fancy fl ower patterned blankets brought from there as a gift for folks at home or as pay for work or as memorised images lay the foundations for a true burst of inspiration among the island women. Flowers first started appearing on the hemline of the skirts and on the edges of the small everyday coif, but soon also spread to stockings. The rosy Muhu stockings with lavish flower bouquets and blossoms embroidered straight onto brightly- coloured material are particularly well-known.
Beside the lavish bouquet-covered stockings, the knitted Muhu stockings which started appearing at the end of the 19th century are perhaps even more famous. The island women were generally very good knitters, as that was the most material- and time-efficient way to make clothes. Women knitted as they walked: driving the cattle to pasture, on the village roads, and on their way to church. Quite a few particularly hardy Muhu ladies have boasted that they even knitted while ploughing. When a woman’s hands hung idly by her side, others tended to tease her for just standing there like a boy. On old photographs we therefore always see the island women with knitting needles in their hands.
Regardless of the diverse range of patterns, the region is linked together by characteristic colour aesthetics. The most extraordinary colour on Muhu stockings is a sharp, almost neon pink, which the islanders themselves call Muhu pink (kiperoosa) as well as a robust orange, or golden-red, as the islanders say. The favourite colours also include cherry red and a brighter leaf green. In order to add more contrast to a pattern, a pinch of black and white and sometimes a drop of yellow is also added.
While on Saaremaa folk dresses disappeared from active use before World War I (except for the Sõrve region), about three quarters of the church goers at Rinsi on Muhu still wore folk dresses in 1934. The city fashion naturally seeped in and woolly stockings were sometimes replaced by silk stockings from a shop and the folk shirt was replaced by a more moderncut blouse, but the overall impression was still traditional. Older women could be seen doing their everyday chores in the yellow stripy Muhu skirts even in the 1960s, with cotton training pants instead of brightly coloured stockings underneath.
The characteristic sense of beauty that originates from the islands has also been reproduced later. The recreation of the cultural heritage of the re- gion received a particular boost by the foundation of the national art craftsmen association UKU in 1966, remembered mostly by the floral Muhu embroideries. That was why it seemed that there were more islanders and Muhu people at the Song and Dance Festivals in Soviet Estonia – mainland folks also liked to wear the folk dresses of the islanders, shins flashing in red or Muhu pink stockings.
Melanie Kaarma, Aino Voolmaa, “Eesti Rahvarõivad”. Published by Eesti Raamat, 1981. Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, “Meite Muhu mustrid”. Saara Kirjastus, 2010. Maret Soorsk, “Saare maakonna rahvarõivad”. Published by the Saaremaa National Culture Society in cooperation with the Saaremaa Museum, 2008.
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