Although I haven't knitted anything in several years, when my son and daughter-in-law told us that they would be moving to Riga, Latvia, my mind immediately jumped to mittens. For a couple of years, I flirted with Latvian mitten projects but somehow quilting nudged out the knitting and the mittens took their place on my 'I really must get back to those some day' list. Would I be able to find authentic Latvian mittens on my trip? Um...no problem.
Pre-trip, I had pestered asked the kids about the mitten possibilities around Riga and was assured by them both that they knew where we should go. Sure enough, on my very first day there, Heather suggested we go over to Old Town, where, a mere 20 minute stroll from their place, is the mother lode of Latvian mittens, Sena Klets.
Sena Klets, which means 'ancient barn' in Latvian, is the National Costume Center, the only shop in Latvia to specialize in all aspects of authentic national costume. Not only do they sell a variety of regional costumes and pieces thereof, they also sell the striped fabrics to make the skirts and provide historical pieces for costume exhibits around the world. It's not a large place, but it's endlessly fascinating to anyone with an interest in textiles. In my many stops here over my two trips, I always found something new to fawn over. But my first visit was all about the mittens!
Many of the mittens at Sena Klets, a cultural/educational center as well as a shop, are for display purposes only and each are tagged with the region/town from which that particular design comes. A clever 'mitten map' is displayed in the costume area to give visitors an overview of mitten styles and their region. It seems somewhat contradictory to describe such simple, almost peasant style mittens made from the most basic wool as dazzling, but that's exactly what these are, especially when grouped together. Intoxicated by the patterns, I couldn't stop snapping photos.
While the hanging mittens are for display, many mittens are available for sale and these are arrayed, roughly by color, on a long table underneath.
Many of the mittens for sale are duplicates of some of the display pieces while others are not. I can hear everyone saying, how can you choose? But actually, one's choices are whittled down quite quickly, for two reasons. First, although they look gorgeous piled in a heap, you can quickly weed through to find real gems among the plainer designs or color combinations. And secondly, the mittens aren't sized. Meaning, there are no uniform proportions among the selection.
Sena Klets employs knitters out in the countryside and as I understand it, sends the patterns and yarn out which returns as these gorgeous mittens. Knitters may understand this better, but the stitch numbers in different patterns vary so some mittens end up larger than others. Also, gauge varies among knitters working with the same yarn and needle size. As a result, some mittens are long and narrow, some wide and loose. It's a real hunt to find a perfect match of preferred design, color and fit.
Would you laugh if I told you I didn't intend to purchase any mittens, just soak up the inspiration? Yeah, I thought so.
What started as a quick run into the shop ("Don't worry, we'll be in this area regularly during your stay!") evolved into a good chunk of time as Heather and I ogled and considered pair after pair. I chose a couple that I couldn't leave without and, noticing that during our time there, several pair were purchased by other tourists, I asked a sales woman how often the mittens were restocked. It was our first day of a two week trip! It may have been a language problem, it may have been a brush-off, but I got a quick and curt, "This is all we have" so I headed over to the sales counter to make my purchase. Just as I was about to hand over my mittens, another employee, who had minutes before walked through the door with a large cardboard box, approached me, asking if I'd like to see what had just been delivered. With a quick glance and grin between us, Heather and I trotted right behind her.
Such an unassuming cardboard box, filled with newly knitted mittens! Ziedite Muze, our new best friend, explained to us in perfect English that some of these mittens would be for sale, some were slated for display and some, in fact, were single mittens, what I'm assuming were test pieces for color schemes or perhaps a new knitter's 'application' for consideration, all sent from one region of Latvia.
She started unloading the box, enjoying our anticipation and doing a quick examination of each pair before relegating them to one of two piles, for sale and for display. Some were spectacular, some were more common, but each added made the collection even more breathtaking.
When these several pairs came out of the box, I almost keeled over.
While we examined and considered, Ziedite tagged the mittens that would be added to the sales table. What a dream job to be surrounded by such beautiful handmade items every day!
***I have so much more to share, about Sena Klets and other mitten tales, that I've decided to break this into a couple of posts and continue with part two on Monday. Our Christmas tree and boxes of decorations await and really, how much of this visual textile feast can you take in one bite?