Baltic folk art has well-established traditions in folk culture and reflects the environment and beliefs of the peoples who originally developed them—with regional differences, of course!
If you love folk art, especially Northern European or Eastern European folk art, the folk art of the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia will delight you with its colors, patterns, and symbolism—as well as its frequent usefulness!
Here’s what you should know and understand about Baltic folk art, whether you’re shopping for souvenirs, trolling for antique examples on the internet, or recreating your own following ancient traditions.
The Baltic peoples, over the course of their development, have had a strong connection with nature and their environment. And the environment is where they gathered materials for art, tools, items for the home, and objects used for protection. Some of the most common materials for folk art in the Baltics include:
- Wood—for furniture, utensils, or toys
- Flax—for making linen clothing
- Wool—for spinning yarn and weaving
- Straw—for decorative elements
- Flowers and herbs—for use while fresh or dried, or for making dyes
- Metal—for creating details for the home or making jewelry
- Baltic Amber—for making jewelry
- Leather—for clothing and personal-use items
- Clay—for making pottery and ceramics
Baltic Folk Art Symbols
Baltic pagan symbolism can be found in many examples of folk art from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Many of these shapes are geometric and represent cosmic bodies such as the sun, moon, or stars; religious symbols such as the cross; and organic forms such as leaves and flowers.
Various color combinations are also symbolic, for example, the white and red that trims some Estonian mittens to ward off evil. Red and white also essentially features in Latvian folk art belts.
Some symbolism or color combinations are particular to specific regions. For example, the Muhu Island embroidery of Estonian folk art is especially bright and floral.
Types of Baltic Folk Crafts
As you may imagine, Baltic folk art, in addition to being made from materials in the environment, was also made with the idea of making clothing, the home, and other objects beautiful. Details, such as colors and symbols, also sometimes made objects lucky, protective, or magical in other senses.
National clothing is important to note when it comes to discussing the art of the Baltic region. It’s true that regions have their own design elements, but some aspects of national dress became prevalent over wide swathes of territory.
Woven sashes or belts are common in all three countries, though Latvia even takes the woven belt as a symbol representing the nation.
Mittens, often used in gift-giving and incorporating meaning through the symbols and colors knitted into them, can be found widely in Estonia and Latvia.
Of course, those who are very seriously interested in the traditional clothing of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia can visit dedicated shops or craftspeople who are recreating national costumes in the traditional way. Others may purchase national dress-inspired items, such as t-shirts with traditional designs or bags that bear typical color schemes or embroidery.
You can learn about traditional costume at ethnographic museums.
In all three of the Baltic countries, you’ll easily be able to pick up finely crafted wooden spoons, trivets, cutting boards, and other kitchen utensils.
More elaborate carving may also be found, for example, on furniture pieces or decorative boxes. In Lithuania, the Rupintojelis is a “worried” Christ figure typically carved out of wood. Carnival masks can also sometimes be found rendered from wood.
Baltic folk art jewelry is beautiful and wearable. Particularly in Lithuania and Latvia, amber jewelry is crafted and sold.
However, shoppers can also purchase copper, bronze, silver, and gold jewelry that mimics designs found in archeological digs. These recreations are timeless symbols—again, many of them pagan—which complement even modern outfits.
The Latvian Namejs ring is filled with meaning, and its twisting design is representative of the unity of the Latvian nation. This unique symbol also makes a special souvenir.
Various folk art items are associated with important holidays.
Though they quickly wilt, during Midsummer, the people of the Baltics craft flower wreaths or crowns from wildflowers.
Nativity scenes with Baltic folk art flair can be found at Christmas markets in ceramic, wood, or other materials.
Easter eggs are a long tradition in the Baltics. Natural dyes are often used, rendered from plants, flowers, and other organic materials. Eggs can be dyed simply with the imprints of leaves, or they can be decorated using the scratching or wax-resist technique.
Easter palms, woven from dried grasses and flowers, serve in place of actual palms—for Lithuanian Easter, they are called verbos.
While decoration also often served to ward off misfortune or weave other types of spells, today, some Baltic folk art objects are merely decorative.
Straw gardens—hanging ornaments made of straw—form light geometric shapes that turn in the air when they are hung from the ceiling or over a baby’s crib. These ornaments may be as big as chandeliers or as small as Christmas ornaments.
Distaffs for spinning have also achieved the status of folk art with elaborate carvings. Today, they are often hung on the wall.
Papercutting is also an aspect of Baltic folk art. Intricate scenes are cut into paper that is then laid on a contrasting background. These scenes may be of trees and birds, peasant life, or fairy tales.
Baltic Folk Art Today
Of course, artisans and craftspeople have adopted traditional designs for modern life.
Ceramics, though they can still be found in their traditional forms, often have updated shapes and decorations that reflect Baltic folk heritage.
Lithuanian linen—and linen in Estonia and Latvia—is turned into modern fashion and accessories, as is wool and felt.
Leather craftspeople create book covers, bags, wallets, and even jewelry in up-to-date designs.
And even amber has gotten a facelift, incorporated into trendy jewelry and paired with not-so-traditional materials to make a beloved favorite new again.
Where to Buy Baltic Folk Designs
The Baltic capital cities—as well as cities throughout Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—often have outdoor markets where artisans sell their wares. Try Kaziukas Fair in Vilnius or the permanent outdoor market in Riga.
Another good option to look for regional crafts is at Christmas markets. Check out Christmas markets in Estonia, Christmas markets in Riga, and Christmas markets in Vilnius during the month of December.