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Made in the Baltics

  • 2008-12-10
  • By Kristina Pauksens

HANDY ART: Street vendors in the Baltics peddle their homemade goods to tourists and locals alike. In addition to being a source of income, the practice helps keep old Baltic traditions alive.

One of the first and most memorable things that people notice when visiting the Baltics are the region's carefully crafted homemade handicrafts. Available from street vendors in town or on the Internet for Balts abroad, the products are still created in much the same way that they were hundreds of years ago. This week's Industry Insider takes a look at the business of handicrafts in the Baltics, the plausability of making a living by selling the goods online, and Estonians' efforts to keep the old traditions alive.

RIGA - One of the most wonderful features of the cultural history of the Baltic States is the fascinating legacy of handicrafts 's works of art made by hand, the old fashioned way.
These handicrafts are extremely popular among tourists hoping to take home an authentic little piece of the Baltics and also among locals hoping to keep national traditions alive in their modern lives.

The most typical place to buy handicrafts in the three Baltic States is at an outdoor craft market in the Old Town. Old Vilnius, Old Tallinn, and Old Riga are all home to numerous street vendors, and their little carts are full of pottery, amber, leather goods, mittens, socks and other fascinating items.
Sigmunds, a street vendor who peddles his wares behind the St. Peter's Church in Old Riga, is not only a handicraft salesman.  "I am an artisan, too" he told The Baltic Times. 

Sigmunds sells homemade woolen mittens, and other woolen goods, made by old ladies in various towns around Latvia 's but his specialty, and his true love, is amber.
Sigmunds and his family collect amber bits in Liepaja and Pavilosta, on the Baltic Sea coast near the Lithuanian border. He uses these bits to create unique amber jewelry and one-of-a-kind amber artworks.
These unique treasures begin with an ordinary print, often a nature scene, or a panorama of Old Riga.  The artisan then applies tiny amber bits to certain parts of the picture 's as the leaves of a tree, or as the sand on a beach for example.  The work is rimmed with amber, and nestled into a little wooden frame. These works can be found in many Latvian homes 's especially among members of the Diaspora community, where amber is considered a rare and exotic precious stone.

"All items that are sold here were made in Latvia," Sigmunds said. This was a common refrain amongst his competitors as well.
Beautiful handicrafts can be purchased in and around Daugavpils, in the far south east of Latvia, as well as in Riga. Here, the most typical and popular items are pottery and other works made from clay. It is possible to buy cups, candle holders, and adorable little clay devils. 
However, these are not necessarily appropriate for Satanists alone. In the Latvian tradition, devils do not represent the ultimate evil. Rather, they are pesky little creatures who bring mischief, but who can be easily outsmarted by good and clever people.

Woolen handicrafts are another extremely important handicraft in the Baltic States.  The Tallinn outdoor craft market is perhaps the most romantic and beautiful location to purchase woolen mittens, hats, scarves, and sweaters, in the Baltic States.  It is possible to purchase thick woolen mittens and socks with Estonian ethnographic symbols 's which are often similar to Scandinavian, and particularly Finnish, symbols.
Linen is another type of handicraft that is very popular in Estonia.  Stiff linen tablecloths, embroidered with flowers, animals and other patterns, can be found in souvenir shops around Tallinn. Linen can be purchased at a much lower price in Estonia than it can in the Americas and Western Europe.

Estonia is also well known for its aromatic wooden kitchen wares. Wooden spoons, bowls, and table protectors made of juniper are extremely popular, due to their wonderful fragrance which is said to last a lifetime. Estonian craftsmen also make beautiful wooden toys, shaped like farm animals such as pigs and sheep.

In Lithuania, handicrafts tend to take a Catholic angle, and carved wooden crosses and crucifixes are extremely popular.  The crucifixes are well known for their expressive nature.  The "Rupintojelis" (the suffering Christ) is also a common woodcarved craft item.
Although Catholic images dominate, wood carving of all kinds is popular in Lithuania, including pre-Christian style traditional carvings. Elaborately carved gnomes can be seen at the side of Lithuania's rural highway, as well as in souvenir markets around Vilnius.

Amber artisans in the Baltic States, and especially in Lithuania and Latvia, also create beautiful money trees. These wire creations, shaped like trees, have chunks of golden amber growing off the branches like budding leaves. According to legend, these money trees bring financial luck to their owners. They are also said to bring warmth, according to one vendor.

Baltic handicrafts are not only popular with tourists, but also on the domestic market 's and especially amongst young people. It is common for patriotic Latvian youth to incorporate folk elements into their weddings, and other important milestones. In August, the wedding season in the Baltic States, there is a great deal of this sort of business for shops selling quality handicrafts.

The Galerija Apside in the Textile and Decorative Art Museum in Old Riga, is a prime example of a shop selling "ethnographically correct" handicrafts, including mittens, crowns, shawls, and woven belts, as well as complete folk costumes. The shopkeeper proudly explained that her handicrafts are exported to far away lands, including America, for use in Diaspora Latvian folk festivals.

Baltic handicrafts are a wonderful manifestation of the unique civilizations which have lived around the Baltic Sea coast for centuries. And, according to one mischievous saleswoman with a twinkle in her eye, "every item has its buyer."