Traditional Latvian belts – Patterns and stories

Belts from the crafts exhibition

Traditional Latvian belts are precious artefacts, which are worn with pride as a part of the national costumes. The amazing variety of colors and patterns in the hand-woven belts reflect different Latvian regions. Our residency project began in Riga where we started learning about the traditional belts by visiting a crafts exhibition at the Riga ArtSpace. We were lucky to have as our guide, Lilija, one of the professional weavers who taught us belt weaving.

According to Lilija, the traditional belts accompany Latvians from early childhood until the end of life. Belts have been used for hanging babies’ cradles, they are present in festivities and family occasions, embellishing the national costumes, and finally, in funerals the belts serve the task of setting down the coffin. Just as there is a great variety in the belts themselves, there are also several ways to make them. We learnt from Lilija that there are nine different belt-making techniques, which range from braiding with fingers to using different kinds of looms. The yarns used for making belts are usually linen and wool. However, the wool should not be stretchy, and needs to be usually hardened by soaking it in water before weaving. And not all belts are made with yarn, but materials such as metal, leather and beads are also used.

Belt patterns

The magnificent patterns that form the rich visual language of the traditional belts can also be made in different ways. For example, when Lilija introduced card weaving to us, we learned that patterns can emerge solely from the way that cards are threaded, or from turning the cards in different ways during weaving. It seems that even with one technique, the possibilities are endless. What we found also remarkable is that over the years Lilija has investigated numerous actual belts and photographs to understand their structure and make instructions on how to weave the traditional patterns. We were truly amazed by her enormous pattern collection –
what an invaluable source for future generations!

Lielvarde's belt

One belt with particularly spectacular patterns is the the Lielvārde’s belt (Lielvārdes josta) from the Vidzeme region. It is the most well-known Latvian belt, and served also as our inital inspiration. Lielvārde’s belt is about three meters long, woven in red and white, and contains unique arrangements of mesmerizing, geometrical patterns. Its special characteristic include also a braided, rather than fringed, ending. You can see the belt in the picture on the right.

Lielvārde’s belt carries in its history many interesting and mystical stories. Before going to Latvia we had read that even the origin of cosmos may be encoded in its red and white patterns. Fascinated by these stories, we wanted to know more, and asked our other weaving master, Laima, about the mythology behind Lielvārde’s belt. She confirmed that the stories we had heard were indeed legends associated with the belt – mentioning also that such stories should not be taken for granted without some healthy criticism. One of the stories that Laima told us was about finding one’s personal symbol from the Lielvārde’s belt. The idea is to touch the different patterns in the belt – the one that feels warm is the person’s symbol. The pattern presumably resonates with the person’s energy and can be used in other textiles such as shirts and shawls as a protective sign. However, not all Lielvārde’s belts may enable you to find your personal symbol. The prerequisite is that the belt is made correctly. The order of symbols should follow tradition and allow energies to flow through the patterns without any blockage. What the correct order of the patterns is, remains still a mystery to us.

Crafts marketThe discussions with Lilija and Laima were truly enjoyable and shed light to the secrets of Latvian belts in a way that would not have been possible to us via reading books or online articles. And we even got to experience few more nice things in Riga that educated us further about the traditional belts. One of them was a craft market that took place during the ongoing Latvian Song Festival. Walking around a big park filled with traditional crafts and craftspeople was a rare opportunity to witness a great variety of Latvian crafts in the same space. We also found some Lielvārde’s belts, but unfortunately before we had heard Laima’s story. Otherwise we could have perhaps found our personal symbols.

National costume show

Another wonderful occasion of familiarizing ourselves with the traditional Latvian culture was the national costume show organized at the Kipsala Hall, also as a part of the song festival. A traditional culture specialist and our crown-making master from the previous year, Linda Rubena, kindly gave us tickets to this awesome show, which featured traditional live music and costumes from all over Latvia. The show was organized in scenes that depicted traditional settings where the costumes would be worn. We were taken through Midsummer’s eve, a wedding and other festivities which culminated in an impressive final scene where all the over hundred people in their national costumes came singing to the stage.

Walking out of the Kipsala Hall, we were on a very good mood. We only wished that we would have looked as beautiful as Linda and her daughter Dārta in their national costumes. So far we have only electronic versions of the traditional Latvian crowns and belts, but perhaps one day we will have a whole e-costume. There is still few years until the next Latvian Song Festival, so we have time!

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