For today’s post we are in Lithuania where the word for sheep is avis, and the word for wool is vilna. We are drawing from the wonderful information on the sheep and wool of that country from the two authors of Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions – Donna Druchunas and June Hall.

Donna wrote a fantastic blog post about yarn shops in Lithuania around the same time that the book was going to press, and it is from this blogpost that these paragraphs are taken:

Linen is everywhere in Lithuania, especially in the summer. Although the summers are short here and I’ve been told that wool has been much more important to Lithuanian culture because of the cold climate, with most of the garments constituting the national costume being made of wool, this isn’t apparent if you look at what’s been written in books about history and culture or if you look at textile exhibits in museums. In print and in exhibit you will find much more information about flax and linen than about wool. You will see many more photos in books and museums, and find many more tools and artifacts on display. There are folk tales and sings about growing and processing flax, none about sheep and wool.

For me, this is quite disappointing because wool is my favorite fiber for knitting. On the other hand, it’s exciting that June’s chapters on sheep and wool will include information that is almost impossible to find in print. In fact, it’s taken June years of traveling around Lithuania gathering first-hand info from farmers, knitters, mill owners, spinners, and weavers to complete the research for her portion of our book.

There are two reasons you don’t find very much Lithuanian knitting yarn. First, merino and alpaca and mohair are all hugely popular and available from so many sources. Second, the wool from Lithuanian sheep breeds is somewhat coarse and the woolen mills that are here prefer to import merino from New Zealand. Apparently this is also less expensive than processing wool from Lithuanian sheep which must be sent to Poland to be scoured since the Soviet collective farming system eliminated all wool scouring locations in Lithuania.

Lithuanian knitters tell me all the time how coarse Lithuanian wool is and what poor quality the yarns are. But I don’t agree. The wool is certainly softer than Navajo Churro, Herdwick and other coarse wools that are used for rugmaking and the like. And while it might not be the quality of the higher end yarns such as Rowan and it may not have the unique features of boutique yarns like Koigu, Lithuanian wool and wool blend yarns are affordable, functional, and aesthetically appealing. It works well in most texture knitting and is excellent for the colorwork designs used in Lithuanian mittens, gloves, and socks. (Although you can find stronger wool for socks, with a tighter twist and a better ration between wool and man-made fiber.)

'This is a photo of a Lithuanian Coarse Wool sheep. A very old and rare breed that they are working to bring back from the brink of extinction because the breed wasn’t appreciated by the Soviets who controlled farming during much of the 20th century' - photo © Donna Druchunas
‘This is a photo of a Lithuanian Coarse Wool sheep. A very old and rare breed that they are working to bring back from the brink of extinction because the breed wasn’t appreciated by the Soviets who controlled farming during much of the 20th century’ – photo © Donna Druchunas

The book to which Donna refers there is Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions, the result of a seven year research project conducted by Donna Druchunas and June Hall. It was published last year.

Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions, by Donna Druchunas and June Hall, published October 2015
Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions, by Donna Druchunas and June Hall, published October 2015

The following is excerpted from June Hall’s chapters in the book:

Domesticated sheep have inhabited the lands of Lithuania since at least 2000 BCE. Throughout the country’s history and under its shifting political regimes, sheep have been valued providers of meat, wool, and skins.

The sheep indigenous to this region is the Lithuanian Coarse Wool (šiurkščiavilnė, abbreviated SV), which in the 1920s was crossed with imported breeds from Britain (mainly Shropshire and Suffolk) and from Germany, to produce the Lithuanian Blackface (juodagalvė, abbreviated JG). Unrecorded crosses confuse the picture of sheep in the past, and further recent introductions and crosses have led to greater variety, but the Coarse Wool and the Blackface are now being conserved in national flocks.

During the Soviet era, Lithuania’s livestock farming was concentrated on rearing pigs and cattle to supply pork and dairy products, and sheep-keeping declined.

Sheep numbers were at their height in 1926, with 1.5 million countrywide, and fell to a low of 11,500 in 2001. Since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, sheep are regaining importance in agriculture, and numbers have been increasing year by year.

The situation is changing rapidly, as farmers are being encouraged to cross their Lithuanian breeds with heavier sheep from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands to produce more meat. By 2006, meat from Lithuanian sheep was being exported to Germany.

Lithuanian Coarse wool sheep

Lietuvos vietinės šiurkščiavilnės avys - Lithuanian Coarse Wool sheep, image found here on the website of the Lithuanian farm animal genetic resources coordination centre
Lietuvos vietinės šiurkščiavilnės avys – Lithuanian Coarse Wool sheep, image found here on the website of the Lithuanian farm animal genetic resources coordination centre

The preservation of genetic diversity of farm livestock has been required by law in Lithuania since 1922. Scientists realised that old breeds faced extinction, if they had not already been lost. They searched the country for survivors — not on large modern farms, but on remote, rural small holdings, where “lonely old women” kept a few animals. The Lithuanian Coarse Wool was saved through these efforts.

Lithuanian Blackface sheep

Lietuvos juodgalvės avys - Lithuanian Blackface sheep, image found here on the website of the Lithuanian farm animal genetic resources coordination centre
Lietuvos juodgalvės avys – Lithuanian Blackface sheep, image found here on the website of the Lithuanian farm animal genetic resources coordination centre

The Lithuanian Blackface breed was created in the mid-twentieth century by crossing the local Lithuanian Coarse Wool sheep with English Shropshire sheep, to shift their wool quality to a softer, more readily marketable type, and with German Blackheaded sheep, to increase the income from their meat. They have become, therefore, multipurpose, productive animals, and they have been bred to be without horns (that is, to be what is called polled).

To maintain a flock of purebred Lithuanian Blackface sheep as a nucleus for breeding, farms at Pasvalys and Telšiai were established in the 1950s. In 1963, breeders began a flock book to keep track of breeding programmes, along with a system of sheep identification and marking.

From Sheep to Yarn

Within living memory, Lithuanian knitting wool was produced by families in the countryside from the fleeces of their own sheep. Shearing, washing, carding, dyeing, winding, and spinning were regular chores for which wooden equipment, often homemade, can still be found in homes and in museums.

Jonas Tamulis remembers life in the 1950s and ’60s, when he and his younger brother were growing up in the village of Kentriai, in the Kelmė region. This was during the Soviet regime, when farming was based on the collective system which had been introduced in 1947. Families were allowed to keep a few animals of their own, and Jonas’s family had two cows. His aunt, who lived alone, had one. A specified amount of produce had to go to the collective—eggs, wool, geese—to feed town dwellers.

The Tamulis family also kept three sheep, each a different colour. The breeds were unknown and unimportant; the colour and quality of wool were their main concerns. Blackfaced sheep had thicker wool and quieter temperaments than other types. Jonas’s mother taught the boys to spin and knit. He remembers knitting socks in his free time between school lessons, when pupils could walk round indoors during the cold winters. He used five needles made from bicycle wheel spokes—which he describes as “good metal.”

Hand carders were used to comb wool for spinning, and some ingenious devices were invented to improve efficiency, including a carding “horse”. Most communities had a hand-operated carding mill, and a few hand-operated carding machines still survive.

In Jonas’s village, the privately owned carder was nationalised in Soviet times. However, the former owner remained in charge of it, as he knew how it worked and was able to maintain it in working order. People took their fleece along and operated the machine themselves. Turning the large handles, one on either side, was “strong man’s work,” not considered for women. The wool came out as batts—flat layers of wool with the fibres combed in one direction—ready for spinning or felting.

Industrial woollen mills

At Lygumai, in the Šiauliai region, Anatolijus Morozovas has a working woollen mill called Siūlas (Yarn), producing knitting yarn and carded wool to fill what he refers to as blankets but I think of as quilts, or duvets. These are promoted for their health-giving properties, because the wool used to make them can “breathe,” wick away moisture, and insulate well, and is also fire-retardant and natural. Although he uses Merino wool from the Southern Hemisphere, some local wool from Lithuanian sheep is also processed here, in its natural colours. The women who keep one or two sheep near Žagarė send their wool to this mill. Anatolijus collects it at the Žagarė market and sends knitting yarn in return. The three carding machines, made in Germany, are around a hundred years old. The spinning machinery is Russian.

As we write this chapter in 2013, the wool industry worldwide is in a period of change. As of 2011, when we reviewed the statistics, China was buying a large percentage of the Australian Merino which previously went to other industrialised countries. Meanwhile, in the European Union, legislation for the handling, transport, and scouring (washing) of raw wool has served to restrict production while new arrangements are being worked out.

Links:
Lithuanian Knitting: Continuing Traditions, Hardcover: 224 pages | 25 Patterns | Full Color | Ribbon Bookmark
Publisher: Double Vision Press; First Edition (October 1, 2015)
Litwool – www.wool.lt | www.etsy.com/uk/shop/litwool

Many thanks to Donna Druchunas and June Hall for producing this amazing book – it gives a fantastic overview of the culture and history of Lithuania, and knitting patterns that allow you to celebrate Lithuania in your own knitting; the excerpts here come from much longer chapters but we think they are particularly pertinent to our theme of The Politics of Wool, explaining some of the ways in which Soviet rule impacted on rural life in Lithuania, and also giving an insight about how in more recent times, the European Union has played a role in the continuation of Lithuania’s native wool trade.

5 thoughts on “Avys ir vilnos in Lithuania

  1. That was a wonderful review. SO glad the sheep are getting their due…..coming back! I personally like coarse wool to work with and to see how far I can push it to make what I want 🙂

      1. Your book has been wonderful for publicising and celebrating the rich history of sheep breeding and knitting in Lithuania, it was a joy to revisit it for the purposes of writing this post.

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