Lithuanian Folk Art: Generations of Tradition

Lithuanian folk art is a beautiful aspect of Lithuanian culture that connects the Lithuania of today with past generations. Some Lithuanian folk art has its roots in pagan belief systems, others stem from practical usage, and others are decorative elements made with materials found locally. Let’s dive into this world of earthy colors, geometric shapes, and imagination.

Straw Gardens

Straw gardens, known as sodai or šiaudinukai in Lithuanian, are decorative hanging elements made of geometric shapes. Thread is fed through pieces of straw that have been cut to similar lengths. The pieces are assembled to create a 3D mobile. Traditionally, straw gardens have been hung above a holiday or wedding table or the cradle of a new baby for good fortune and protection. Large ones can be as big as chandeliers.

Straw gardens are made from wheat, rye, or oat straw and are often made in a pyramid or cubic shape, from which smaller shapes are then suspended.

A Lithuanian straw garden hanging ornament for sale at an outdoor market
Photo 140859290 / Vilnius © Michele Ursi | Dreamstime.com

Decorated Eggs

Lithuanian decorated eggs are known as margučiai. These eggs, decorated for Easter, were traditionally dyed using natural materials, such as onion skins or tree bark. A design may be scratched lightly into the surface of the egg or the wax-resist method may be used. Lithuanian decorated eggs are known for the “teardrop” shape made by dragging a drop of wax to form symbolic patterns.

a basket of colorful, decorated Lithuanian Easter eggs
Photo by The Northern Vox

Wrist Warmers

Beaded wrist warmers, knitted of wool and decorated with find beading in traditional patterns, were a part of Lithuanian dress in the past. However, they have seen a resurgence in interest because they are beautiful, subtle accessories that can peek out from long sleeves while providing warmth.

Black Ceramic

Black ceramics are a tradition that dates back to the times of ancient civilizations and is produced in the same way today. Once the clay is formed into a vessel or dish, it is put into a kiln and smoked for long hours. It emerges with an almost metallic sheen, gray-black and dully shiny. Vessels made of black pottery were particularly useful because they were watertight due to the chemical reaction that occurs during the smoking process. While black pottery used to be common throughout ancient cultures, very few artisans continue to produce it today using the original technique. This makes it a prized form of Lithuanian folk art.

Lithuanian black ceramic vessels painted with red and blue flowers
Photo 109662879 / Vilnius © Ekaterina Pokrovsky | Dreamstime.com

Decorative Distaffs

The distaff was used in Lithuania to spin yarn prior to the introduction of the spinning wheel. Today, the distaff is a reminder of this past and may be used as a beautiful, unique ornament from the home. The original distaffs, also decorated with fanciful motifs, may have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, wood carvers create distaffs reminiscent of those earlier distaffs to sell at outdoor markets or Lithuanian folk art shops.

A man sells wood-carved Lithuanian distaffs at an outdoor booth
Photo 124149901 / Vilnius © Flavijus | Dreamstime.com

Papercuts

Papercutting is a beautiful, delicate Lithuanian folk art that practitioners have taken to amazing heights. Papercutting, called karpiniai, has been practiced in Lithuania since the 16th century. Imagery carefully cut out of a single piece of paper and typically affixed to a background of contrasting color was used for special occasions and to decorate homes. Often, the paper is folded and the cuts are made through multiple layers to give the resulting image symmetry. However, free-form work also exists.

Lithuanian papercut greeting card with a decorated egg
Photo 177395505 © Edita Meskoniene | Dreamstime.com

Crosses

Lithuanian crosses, called Lietuvos kryždirbystė, are one Lithuanian folk craft that can be seen throughout Lithuania in the cities and countryside. These crosses are anything but simple. Some are carved from a single tree trunk while others are adorned with gingerbread-like decorations. Some are also given metal elements.

A good place to see examples of Lithuanian cross-making is at the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, but you can also generally see them posted in churchyards.

Easter Palms

Lithuanian Easter palms are called verbos. In the absence of actual palm leaves, Lithuanians got creative with dried grasses and flowers, weaving them into colorful wands. Small verbos are good for taking to church before Easter, but large, pole-like verbos also exist, impressive in size and resplendent in intricacy and color. The regions of Lithuania each had their own favored way of making verbos, and today, you can see a great variety of them at Kaziukas Fair.

Lithuanian Easter palms made of dried flowers
Photo 65703006 / Vilnius © MNStudio | Dreamstime.com

Masks for Carnival

Made of wood, papier mâché, or other materials, masks for Carnival or Shrove Tuesday (Užgavėnės in Lithuanian) were worn as a part of the holiday’s celebrations. The masks were typically scary, representing evil characters from stories, such as witches or devils. As Carnival typically happens in February or March, the intention was to “scare” winter away with these masks. Unfortunately, Lithuanian winter often lasts well beyond Carnival. Nevertheless, the masks can be considered a traditional Lithuanian folk art.

5 Traditional folk craft Lithuanian carnival masks in different variations
Photo 11360514 © Birute Vijeikiene | Dreamstime.com

Weaving

Lithuanian weaving is a beautiful and useful folk craft. You’ll find colorful Lithuanian sashes woven by hand at markets, which were used to adorn traditional costumes in the past. You’ll also find Lithuanian linen woven into beautiful tablecloths or table runners, often using the natural colors of the fibers to create patterns.

A woman's hands weave red and yellow yarn
Photo by The Northern Vox

Amber

Baltic amber has been worked into talismans and jewelry since prehistoric times. This beautiful jewel, a gift from the Baltic Sea, was valued and useful in trade. In fact, just like the Silk Road ferried silk from east to west, the Amber Road saw Baltic Amber traded for goods and materials from the north, where it originated, to the Black Sea and beyond.

Different colored strings of Baltic amber beads
Photo 61279841 / Vilnius © Slowcentury | Dreamstime.com

Jewelry

Since ancient times, Lithuanian metalsmiths have been creating jewelry particular to the area to adorn clothing, decorated horses, and act as a portable “wallet” in the case of precious metals such as silver. Craftspeople today continue this tradition, using the finds of archeological digs for inspiration. Pendants of pagan motifs strung on a leather strap are a modern take on an old Lithuanian folk art.

Where to Buy Lithuanian Folk Art

Lithuanian folk crafts can be purchased in various ways.

If you’re in Lithuania, outdoor markets are some of the best opportunities to buy folk art. Here, you have the advantage of talking to the craftspeople responsible for upholding these traditions. Sometimes, they’ll even demonstrate their work for you. You’ll be able to get an explanation about the history and process behind the pieces and come away with a memorable souvenir.

Lithuanian folk craft and design shops also often sell Lithuanian handicrafts. You’ll find these shops in city centers. In Vilnius, you can stroll down Pilies Street for a good selection of linen, amber, and other beautifully handmade items.

If you admire an artisan’s work, it’s also possible to find out if they have a studio you can visit. There, you’ll get personal treatment and be able to choose a piece that suits you especially well.

Another option is to seek out Lithuanian folk art online. Various craftspeople sell through their own shops, crafts platforms such as Etsy, or shops specifically dedicated to Lithuanian art and design.

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