Keeping it Alive: The Skirt Weavers of Kihnu Island

In our photo journal series Keeping it Alive, we meet the people preserving fragments of cultural heritage across the world. This week, we land on the tiny Baltic island of Kihnu, to visit the women weaving their life stories into colourful traditional skirts

As we make our way between the four villages found on the Estonian island of Kihnu, it's clear which of the women we meet are local and which are just visiting. The island is the only place in Estonia where folk dress is still worn daily. You can instantly recognise a Kihnu woman by her kört - a woven woollen skirt with distinctive stripes, paired with a paisley or floral apron if the wearer is married.

The skirts aren't just practical - they express inner emotions. "We still wear these skirts daily because they represent the cycle of our lives," explains Mare, as she leads us into her loghouse. This is where she keeps the wooden dowry chest that contains her skirts and other homemade and heritage items - knitted gloves and socks, embroidered blouses, cotton kerchiefs, intricately woven belts, blankets and rugs. "A woman can have a lot of these skirts," she says, pulling out körts with red stripes, blue stripes or half blue and half red. "Because the different colours mean different things."

Black leinakört are worn when mourning a close relative, and the blue-striped sinisetriibuline kört just after, or if it's a distant relative who died. "You don't just jump back to wearing full red stripes," says Mare. "Your skirt mirrors your emotional journey, and the red gradually increases. The older you get, the more modest the stripes, as this colour is associated with youth."

Read the full story in Vol. 39: Ritual​​

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