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The secret messages woven into shawls: words by Lauren Chater

April 24, 2018

Lauren Chater is the author of debut novel THE LACE WEAVER, an anti-war story based during the Second World War in Estonia. 

The Lace Weaver is a compelling drama about two women who find themselves in a fight for life, liberty and love in dangerous times.

Check out our full review

Words || Lauren Chater 

In 2014, I was browsing the shelves of my local library’s craft section when I stumbled across a book called Knitted Lace of Estonia.

Curious to know more, I pulled it out and sat down to read, little realising that the book would be my portal into a world of lace shawl-making, Estonian folk tales and stories of anti-Soviet resistance. I soon learned that the little Baltic country of Estonia had been occupied many times throughout the centuries, starting with the Danes, who scoured the Gulf of Finland for fish, and then the Baltic Germans and finally the Russian Soviets and the Nazis.

Although there was a big picture story there, it was the intriguing detail of the lacemaking that drew me in; the idea that these female knitters, who had suffered the worst kind of atrocities under the heel of governing nations, had survived and managed to preserve their heritage in the form of these seemingly innocent looking shawls.

I decided I had to write a book that not only exposed the brutalities that Stalin’s Russian government inflicted on the Baltics but also celebrated the courage and fortitude of the Estonians who resisted and survived such terrible hardships.

I began researching by reading lots of books about both Estonia and Russia, and then I interviewed Estonian women, some of whom were lace makers. They proudly showed me their beautiful crafts and it was an honour to hear the stories behind the different patterns and how they came to be ‘master knitters’.

In 2015, I travelled to Estonia and Russia to do more on-the-ground research; the highlight of my trip was visiting Haapsalu where the tradition of making lace shawls is believed to have originated. In the museum, I was shown the famous ‘ring trick’ (Estonian shawls are so finely woven they can be pulled through a wedding ring) and also how the shawls are blocked and dried once the women finish knitting them.

Many of the patterns I included in The Lace Weaver are popular ones with an interesting history behind them; the Greta Garbo motif, for instance, was specially designed for the Hollywood film star and sent to her in the hopes she would wear it. Another style – the krronprintsi – was given to the Crown Prince of Sweden when he visited Haapsalu in the 1930s. Kroonprinsti was adapted from a pinecone shape originally found on an antique mitten (knitting traditions in Estonia extend to gloves, mittens, socks and scarves, too).

I also bought quite a few shawls while I was there and brought them home to study them. So you see, I had lots of wonderful inspiration for my book already. However, it was the characters of the women who made these beautiful shawls which fascinated me most. When I began to imagine how they must have lived, suffering under the daily oppression of the Russian occupation, the story really began to come to life and I couldn’t write fast enough.

I used the various patterns as chapter titles, partly to anchor myself to the story as I wrote and partly to convey themes or foreshadow events. I hope people enjoy that aspect of reading the story and that they’re inspired to find out more about them. The novel’s heart is the knitting circle, a place where women can be themselves, tell their stories and support each other.

The lace shawls become their voice, a way for them to communicate what can’t be said to the outside world and pass on traditions which must be kept secret.

I think that’s something worth writing and reading about.

Purchase a copy of The Lace Weaver || read our full review 


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