Aleks Byrd Designs


Behind Estonia's Folk symbols and motifs

Searching for meaning in long held traditional motifs and patterns can be challenging but sometimes you can hit gold! In Estonia, tradition and cultural tradition is absolutely vital and important to Estonian identity throughout a tumultuous past. Because Estonian are so fervent about their traditions, best expressed visually in handicrafts, there has been a lot of research and methods of sharing this research to the growing younger Estonian generations and the wider world to keep traditions and cultural identity alive. What I was lucky enough to stumble upon in my research was research on folk symbols and motifs used to present to create lesson plans for Estonian children to learn about aspects of their cultural identity- I was excited to find this since I didn't learn this growing up as an Estonian abroad! I have translated the website from Estonian to English, all the quotes are my translations from the original website article.

Most symbols and motifs have roots in nature- taking inspiration from elements of nature such as leaves, blossoms, and flowers as well as location. These natural elements were later translated into more geometric patterns.

Estonian mitten and sock patterns for the most part are geometric. Sometimes they use plants (nature) ornamentation, but even there you can find the the beginnings of the old geometric shapes. The last are now used for new patterns - blossoms and leaves for continuing to move forward. The embellishment of mittens in folk art used base elements and things derived from them. Simpler base elements include dots, triangles squares crosses, parallel lines, sloped lines and many different types of star motifs. From the base elements are formed different complex ornaments. Mitten patterns that are seen as folk art they echo the surrounding nature and other elements in the area... there are many patterns tied to animals like, flea patterns, louse pattern, fly pattern, frog pattern, cabbage worm pattern, snake pattern, beetle pattern, leaf beetle pattern, goose eye pattern, cats paw pattern. Those which derive from plants are: thistle, strawberry leaf pattern, flower pattern, maple leaf pattern, cabbage pattern. Things seen in nature include stars, snowflake pattern, big cross, chain pattern, windmill pattern.There is also the eight sided stars, which was a symbol to protect from disease or evil. It also celebrates the lifecycle. On Muhu it was called Muhu pine. The cross  was worn to bring the wearer luck and strength and was said to push away bad forces. The sun which was symbolized with the cross and the cross in a ring has through time symbolized life and nature.

Most meaning associated with motifs that I've uncovered are linked to guarding the wearer and bringing them luck.

The older folk patterns include the circle, triangle, diamond, and cross as well as parallel lines, angled crosses, braid,and zig zag. These were thought to guard people and keep evil away. The most beloved motifs were eight heeled, cat paw, angled crosses and squares windmill arms, bear paw, bean leaf, wheel, and deer antler pattern... The oldest nature patterns came from southern Estonia around the 19th century, that have recorded unique plant patterns. The detailed crosses, rings blossoms branches and asterisks. These symbols had meaning and were always located in a set place, but over time they just became embellishments, but they are still seen as bringing the wearer good luck and holding away evil.

Some pattens that continued the auspicious meaning have archaic roots. These archaic roots can be connected to Christianity as well as cosmic meanings. The patterns include braids (very prevalent in knitting in Estonia and Latvia), crosses, spoke wheels, and eight pointed stars (seen so much through out my research from Estonia to Norway to Shetland!)

 Archaic nature motifs the main one is the braid which symbolized never ending, order and harmony, it also symbolized life, stars, and the passage of time.

Many people around the world use the cross as a magical symbol. Even in historical times in Estonia the cross was the witches symbol to turn them away. This was put on everything to keep the devil away. Using the words of witches the cross could be used for curing illnesses and afflictions. The original meaning of the cross  was the showing of the world in the horizontal and vertical. 

Spoke wheels are ancient mythological symbols of holiness and luck, fate and happiness and has lasted for centuries in many European countries.

Eight pointed stars-the luck star. This symbol has been widely used in Estonian folk costumes and household elements. (I think that is not much information for a widely used motif!)

Having seen so many versions and apparent love of the eight point star all throughout Northern Europe, I am curious whether there is more to the story of this motif than being a good luck symbol. 

Display of eight point star variations ( Saarso).

Display of eight point star variations ( Saarso).

The original belt patterns and old embroidery and mitten patterns geometric ornament whose base element  is the square, cross, zig zag,triangle, stitch square. These have a world wide holy meaning, that originated thousands of years ago. They are tied to star gazing, nature and fruit of the earth. These had mystical meaning and later they became more of an aesthetic. The mix of what is aesthetic and what is symbolic over time can be blurred. They certainly symbolized strength, luck and protection. Often where the opening on a shirt around the neck at the bottom on the sleeves and these were decorated to protect the wearer. These patterns were passed from generation to generation. The symbols had clear meaning and used specific colors. These were particularly rich in Estonian folk costumes which used flowers and stripes.

This line from the block text quote stood out to me and my research at large:

The mix of what is aesthetic and what is symbolic over time can be blurred.

As I've read about different locations and cultures the concept of blurring between symbolic meaning and cultural aesthetics continually pops up. Its seems an that these motifs have been around so long that we often don't question where they come from and maybe we don't know exactly what the meaning/story behind them is because time has altered or blurred it. This first came up reading Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle , Starmore describes Fair Isle knitting born more out of ease and practicality for knitting than an underlining meaning connected more to the  people's cultural mindset of practicality, more in keeping with the aesthetic side than symbolic meaning (Starmore p.13).This obscurity or blur is something to ponder as to whether it is truly unknown or not and maybe that's part of the aesthetic appeal.


Saarso,G.A. Rahvuslikud sümbolid. Available at:

Starmore, A. (2009) Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.