An Englishman in Latvia

On fashion and knitting

April 29, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 12
On fashion and knitting
An Englishman in Latvia
More Info
An Englishman in Latvia
On fashion and knitting
Apr 29, 2023 Season 1 Episode 12
Alan Anstead

Latvia has a long tradition in fashion, from stories from ancient times of knitted mitts and folk costumes to Latvia being the centre of fashion in the Soviet Union during the Riga Fashion House era, and to the present day - holding the only fashion week in the Baltics.  In this episode, we will explore folklore and traditions, and end with a wonderfully rich discussion with a former top Latvian model.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Latvia has a long tradition in fashion, from stories from ancient times of knitted mitts and folk costumes to Latvia being the centre of fashion in the Soviet Union during the Riga Fashion House era, and to the present day - holding the only fashion week in the Baltics.  In this episode, we will explore folklore and traditions, and end with a wonderfully rich discussion with a former top Latvian model.

Thanks for listening!

On fashion and knitting

Latvia has a long tradition in fashion, from beautiful stories from ancient times of knitted mitts and folk costumes with their symbolised designs, to Latvia being the centre of fashion in the Soviet Union during the Riga Fashion House era, and to the present day - holding the only fashion week in the Baltics.  We will explore folklore and traditions, and end with a wonderfully rich discussion with a former top Latvian model.

Folk costumes

The National History Museum of Latvia says that folk costumes are part of material culture in which the differences between different nations are most clearly manifested.  The costume depicts the traditions, aesthetic ideals, cultural connections and interactions developed over the centuries, the artistic styles of different eras and the cultural influences of cities.

Latvian traditional costume is characterised for me by women wearing long dresses, often in colourful stripes, and long shawls, often in delicate patterns with Latvian symbols woven into the wool. Delicate pillbox hats, too, to match the skirt colours. Deep reds, greens, golds. Men’s clothing is often less colourful, consisting of a long tunic coat, long boots, a hat and a belt.

Perhaps the most well-known Latvian traditional design is from a belt - the Lielvārde belt. It consists of a two-coloured red and white patterned band, most often with a green and less frequently with blue or purple threads woven in the middle or at its edges. It is usually 10 centimetres wide, and these woven belts can be very long - up to 3 metres. It was wrapped many times around the waist of the wearer. Lielvārde is but one of many traditional regional patterns. However, it is the most famous. One can see the popular pattern on the scarves and hats of young and old in winter. It is included within the design of the Latvian passport. It is even on my vehicle’s licence plate holder!


A great occasion to see the many variations of Latvian folk costumes is at the Latvian Song and Dance Festival every five years. The next is in July 2023, one of the world's largest amateur choral and dance events with around 40,000 performers, and held since 1873. My son’s school is participating in knockout competitions just to be able to perform at the festival. Groups will wear the distinct folk costumes from their particular location in one of the regions of Latvia: Vidzeme, Latgale, Augšzeme, Zemgale or Kurzeme. Each is a unique design.

Traditionally, costumes were handmade and often took a year to make. The materials used were mainly flax and wool. For the wool, one had to first shear the sheep, then wash the wool, dry it, comb it and gently spin it by hand. Processing flax for linen involved many operations in turning the rigid flax stalk into yarn suitable for weaving. A natural linen canvas is grey, so it is bleached in the sun to make it whiter.

Until the mid-19th century, natural plant dyes were only used in Latvia. They mostly dyed wool, not flax, because flax does not absorb the dye well. Some knitting enthusiasts today still know how to get bright, intense colours from plants collected in meadows, forests, and orchards. My wife is a test knitter - she tests knitting patterns before they are published, looking for mistakes - and has experimented with different natural dyes. The variety of colours and tones is remarkable – from black and blue to all shades of yellow, red, green, and brown. To obtain the desired result, the time when the plants are picked is just as important as the timing during the dying. For example, to achieve a bright orange colour, one must collect the lichen Parmelia saxatilis in the spring, allow the wool to soak in the dye for forty minutes, and then rinse and dry the wet wool in the shade.


The Symbolism of Mittens in Latvian Folklore

For this account, I am indebted to the academic and author, Professor Janina Kursite. If there is one item of clothing that to me characterises Latvia, it is mittens.

Mittens have been used extensively by Latvians both daily and on special and ceremonial occasions and in ritualistic contexts. During the 19th century, the German explorer and geographer Johann Georg Kohl, whose travels took him throughout Europe, wrote:

“Mitts, which no other nation uses to the extent that Latvians do, play a significant role vis a vis other clothing apparel. Hand attire seems just as necessary as foot or leg attire, so Latvians are almost always seen wearing mittens. When herding oxen or horses, a shepherd's hands are clothed in mittens; woodsmen hew trees as infrequently without mitts as they work without an axe; even men, loading manure, handle forks with mitts, as if they were doing this for the sake of cleanliness. [...] In particular, many mittens are given as gifts to all guests at a wedding.”

The symbolism of mittens derives from the symbolism ascribed to hands. A mitt is like a mask under which an individual hides either an aggressive hand clenched into a fist or a kindly hand. That is why, even today, a glove must be taken off when shaking hands in greeting. The mythological perspective on mitts, similar to clothing attire in general, is that these cannot be considered separately from the individual. Mitts also have been widely used in folk magic.

In ancient times, an agreement was often expressed symbolically. One of the most frequent affirmative means was the giving of mitts as a gift to a suitor. Mitts had to be multi-coloured, not white or of a single colour, to signify fertility. The colours most frequently employed were black and white, symbols for the sky and earth, the masculine and the feminine, the material and the spiritual, and the unity of light and dark. The second most widely used combination was white, black and red - the addition of red symbolises the sun, energy and the power of life. When the suitor had gladly received the multi-coloured mitts, white ones were put on in their place. On driving to the wedding ceremony in the church, the bride and groom wore white mitts and white socks. White is the colour of a transition ritual and a sign of innocence and pure intentions.

A bride’s dowry would contain at least a few hundred mittens she had knitted herself. This large quantity was because the bride was supposed to gift mittens to the bridegroom’s relatives, guests, and musicians during the wedding party. Even the horns of cows that were part of the dowry had to be decorated with mittens!

Mittens knitted in a cross pattern were regarded as magical protection to ward off evil spirits and powers. Such specially patterned mitts were perceived as effective protection against evil spells. A pattern of crosses, or the so-called skujina - fir needle pattern, was knitted for funeral mitts to provide magical protection. According to oral history, older women knitted their funeral mitts to be given to the gravediggers, cross and coffin bearers. Geometric patterns predominate in Latvian mitts - squares and triangles are repeated in succession, alternating with the so-called zalktis - a grass snake pattern, several forms of crosses, among these the fir, star or sun patterns. The symbolic basis of these patterns reflects the cosmos promoting harmony. 

Latvians are familiar with the fairy tale about the older man's mitten from childhood. In the fairy tale, one fine day, the older man goes into the forest to get firewood, and on the way, he loses his mitten. Various live creatures find shelter in the mitt - beginning with the smallest and ending with the biggest: a fly, a mouse, a hare, a wolf and a bear. They all crawl into the mitten and dance, wishing to warm themselves. Out of nowhere, a rooster runs up and sings out: Cock-a-doodle-doo! This frightens the dancers, and they, rushing about in fear, tear the older man's mitt to shreds. From that time onward, the older man has only one mitt.

A mitten in folklore is also related to sexual prowess. Such an image is often played out in erotic songs. Most often, a Janis or some other male gender character protects in a mitten, not his hands but something else. Usually, this protection lasts for a mystical cycle of three years. In the fourth year, sexual potency is considered to be of an adequate level for the man to be able to go to seek a bride.

We have seen that colours and patterns are essential in creating mitts. The third most important component was the yarn, from which the mitts were made. The wool was dyed in specific colours, and a spell was placed upon it through special incantation. Of course, the talk here is not of everyday mitts but those knitted for special occasions. These were mitts for going into battle, for being wed, and so on.


An interesting story I read in the Latvian media recently. In the third knitting donation drive, Latvian residents handed over 9,600 kilograms of knitwear to the Latvian postal service between 6 February and 17 March 2023. During the campaign, Latvians were invited to donate all kinds and sizes of socks, gloves, scarves, and hats for adults.

To put this in perspective, this weight equals about 96,000 pairs of knitted socks, according to the organiser ‘Mēs Iecavai’ (‘We Embrace’ in English). The Association Tavi Draugi (Your Friends in English) delivers the donated knitwear to Ukrainian soldiers, civilians and refugees.

Beāte Bēvalde, the spokeswoman for Tavi Draugi, said, “It's not easy to sympathise with someone else's grief and trouble. It is simple to say how sorry you are, but another thing is to show your compassion in action.

We see these good works daily in the association, and we know that the people of Latvia are prepared to support the people of Ukraine. We can only admire the Latvian knitting family for the enormous patience, diligence and love with which these shipments come. We hope it will warm and inspire the hearts of the people of Ukraine!" 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been three knitting campaigns supporting the people of Ukraine. The first of these began in March 2022.

Lovely knitting story!



In 2019, Asnāte Smeltere wrote a book ‘Fifty Years in Riga Fashion’ that reflected her long fashion industry career. This began in the 1960s at the then-legendary Riga Fashion House and the magazine Rīgas Modes (Riga Fashion), both well-known in the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, when Latvia regained independence and Asnāte had finished modelling, she created a fashion label called Salon A. This formed an important part of Latvian fashion for more than 20 years, representing elegance and sophistication and maintaining the best traditions of local fashion.

Her book is a personal story in which she describes the fashion era through her own experience: she speaks only of those events where she was present. She mentions people who were influential in her professional life. Yet the book is also a significant testimony of fashion as an integral part of Latvian culture and that era of Latvian fashion history.

The main impulse to write such a book was the desire to record what seems to be disappearing. In an interview with Latvian Radio’s Kultūras Rondo programme, she said, "However, there is an idea that maybe someone will still be interested in it. Many ask what you will write about from old decades in this information-rich world. I started talking to young people who might be interested. It turned out that they are interested in an endless amount, down to the most ridiculous details.” 

The two parts of the book cover drastically different periods before and after the regaining of Latvia's independence, and these are reflected in the field of fashion. In the first part, Asnāte talks about her arrival at Riga Fashion House and her experience with its managers, fashion artists and costume designers. She discusses the positioning of Riga as a fashion centre in everyday life, and the reality of Soviet life with its exclusive privileges for a few people - for her, trips to fashion shows in foreign countries.

The book's second part is devoted to creating her ‘Salon A’ and the experience gained during its existence, which included both glory and misery - not finding support in privatisation battles, which resulted in the popular salon being forced to close.

While writing the book, the word "change" emerged frequently. What changed in fashion also changed the political and economic system.

In the book, she writes, ”We are so infinitely different. We have different understandings of what is beautiful, or not, of bad or good. We speak different languages and live different lives. But the picture of the time says: You are alike! How? You are like your time. Fashion is the similarity that brings us all together in our time. Even if we have no notion of it.”


I visited the Fashion Museum in Riga Old Town at the weekend. This small museum - two rooms and a corridor - has a lovely collection of British and French dresses, many from the 1960s. Little on Latvian fashion, however. Next to a mini skirt, there was one board that caught my attention. It read:

“1968 - the explosion of the mini in fashion.

At the time, the creative director of Riga Fashion House was Aleksandra Gramolina. She was full of enthusiasm and creative energy, and her vision and work ethic enhanced the reputation of the Riga Fashion House beyond the borders of Latvia. She was the one who began the craze of the mini in fashion that swept the whole Soviet Union at a head-spinning speed. The footwear department of the Fashion House produced a pair of footwear to go with each new collection.”

One of the Fashion Museum founders from 2016, Alexandre Vassiliev, is an interesting character. The exhibits in the museum are from his extensive collection.

He is a fashion historian, collector, stage set designer, lecturer and author. He was born in 1958 in Moscow into a celebrated family of artists. His late father designed for the Bolshoi Theatre, and his mother was an actress. He graduated from the Moscow Art Theatre School. Then in 1982, Alexandre emigrated to Paris, working with famous opera and ballet companies and teaching fashion history. He has been collecting fashion clothing pieces for over thirty years, and the collection is considered to be the third largest in the world, with more than 55,000 items. Much of the collection is stored in Lithuania, his ancestral home and the headquarters of the Alexandre Vassiliev Foundation.


I wanted to know more about Riga Fashion House and the boom time for Latvian fashion. So I spoke to Astra Purina, a former top Latvian model.

Me: Tell me about Riga Fashion House and Rigas Modes magazine. Was it the high point of Latvian fashion?

Astra: I worked in Riga Fashion House at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. And I couldn't say that for Latvia that was the highest point in fashion because Riga Fashion House was very popular already in the 60s, 70s. In the 70s there were very high standards of models, and they were very popular in all of the Soviet Union and everywhere. I remember one trip with fashion shows in Siberia and in Russia and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan.

And we were like abroad, sometimes in Europe. And our fashion, of course, was different to another country. For me, this was, I think, the highest point. I was very proud that I could work in the Riga Fashion House because it was an amazing world, a totally different world.

This show was made together with the most famous directors and choreographs and DJs and music, and that was really, really a very interesting time. I'm happy that this time was in my life. 

Me: It’s interesting because the end of 80s and early 90s was a time of change. Independence was regained, but Riga Fashion House already had a high reputation. During that change, how did it keep that reputation? How did it keep being important and not being thought of as Soviet Union or Russia at that big time of change?

Astra: Yeah, that was a big change. But we didn't trust and believe that really this change will give to us freedom. When we got this freedom, then we didn't understand what to do with it. We didn't know how to do business and therefore, actually the Fashion House and magazine is no more in existence.

Me: Did Latvian fashion and the scene change that much after independence was regained or was it a continuation of what was there in the 80s when you first started as a model? 

Astra: Actually I think that didn't change a lot because always Riga Fashion House had very high standards. This was really like art, like we showed through this fashion our our mentality, our culture, good taste, I can say. I really think that it still keeps these standards.

Me: I remember, as a diplomat at the end of the 1990s, for some reason, I got invited to some fashion shows. I was on the list - possibly because I was young and a bit different. I liked the scene - I like going clubbing and things and so I got on the list and I enjoyed it. It was such a great scene: music which I loved anyway, the lights, the fashion, the clothes and everything. It was wonderful. And well, now you're a teacher at university. Do you miss the buzz of that catwalk and modelling? Or is it like life moves on?

Astra: Actually, I couldn't say that I don't do that anymore. Because sometimes I'm still invited to some fashion shows. After working in Fashion House I taught catwalk. And actually, I think that I keep this catwalk in my life. I'm like a model all the time, full-time job still! In my job at the university sometimes my colleagues ask me, "Oh, Astra, you have this blouse and this jewelery and the small things." I say, "Yes, it's from Fashion House times. It's like a stamp. Yeah, but nobody can take."

Me: I totally agree with you. I've never been a model, of course, but I did teach at university for two years and I found that, having never taught at a university before a friend asked me to teach public relations to first-year university students, and I found that what really worked was a performance - big screen, audio-visual, playing with them as it were and that really got them interested it was like a performance. It’s something similar to, I think, what you're describing. You've got to get that interest.

Astra: You can get that interest by being a bit different, by doing things a bit differently. Yeah, it's really interesting.

Me: A last observation from me from the 1990s was that when I was there at that time in Riga, there were quite a few boutiques of different name shops and I never, well practically never, saw anyone inside them and though I had no evidence I thought, possibly a bit of money laundering going on there. And now, looking at Riga, most of those boutiques have gone and it's replaced with mainstream fashion, the big European shops basically. What do you think of Latvian fashion now compared to when you were very active in what we've been talking about in the late 80s and 90s? Is it for the better, just changed or has it kind of dropped off a bit? 

Astra: Of course, I would say dropped off, but we must understand that we are getting older and there is a new generation with a totally different view of things and fashion. I understand that fashion is a very, very difficult art, and to make some success in this area, you need to make some scandal of some sort. Make something stupid so that maybe somebody will remember you and you can get this popularity.

But you can't say this about everything. My friend's son, he works now in Milan, and he made this suit by hand. And that is totally another story. And I think in the Soviet time too was good fashion, good art and also bad art. I remember at that time, my grandmamma was in shock that we went with this short mini-skirt, and now we are a little bit in shock. Therefore I think everything is okay, and it is how it must be.


Riga Fashion Week took place at the end of April for the 36th time. The focus of the event this year was sustainability in fashion. Fifteen fashion designers from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia presented their latest collections. As the organisers of Riga Fashion Week admitted, the pandemic has had a negative impact on major designers. However, it has allowed new talent to emerge. Elena Strahova, the president of the Baltic Fashion Federation, said, "A lot of new brands appeared this time. A few years ago, competition was considered the norm, but now it seems that everyone has to cooperate. Designers also see this, and collaborations are popular worldwide and within Latvia.” She went on to say, 

"Latvian fashion brands are in the niche of sustainable fashion. Latvian fashion is slow fashion. Everything is produced right here. Quality fabrics are chosen, and a lot of manual work is involved in developing the designs”.

As a supporter of the similar slow food movement, I'm all for slow fashion. Latvia may no longer be at the pinnacle of fashion, but maybe it has a bright future in focusing on sustainability.


In conclusion, as with most things in Latvia, tradition plays a strong part. Pagan symbols and warding off evil spirits have appeared in nearly all my podcast episodes! However, it is a rich tradition that is kept alive, especially through the importance Latvians place on the five-yearly song and dance festival. That Riga, rather than Moscow, Warsaw or East Berlin, was the fashion capital of that former bloc of countries is a testament to this small nation's design skills and sheer chutzpah. Focusing on sustainable fashion is surely the way to go forward. May it all continue!

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