Spinning and spinning wheels are connected to ecology.

Through the production of wood and wool, traditional crafts in Estonia are entangled with time-honored ways of living on and with the land. Forests and coastal meadows have been maintained for thousands of years through grazing practices with native sheep that also provided wool for making bedspreads, skirts, socks, mittens, trousers, and coats. The forests offered raw materials for a vibrant woodworking culture, and Estonian spinning wheel makers had a deep understanding of wood and forestry that enabled them to select ideal trees and dry the wood properly to make parts that are strong and do not warp. Similarly, spinners understood the fibers they worked with, how they were grown and harvested, and how they would behave in the spun yarn and in cloth on the body.

Traditional ecological knowledge was the key to these crafts, and tools, materials, handmade items, agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry were all part of one cohesive system for rural Estonians. Although this has changed in recent decades due to rural depopulation and the influx of cheap global commodities, with increasing awareness of environmental issues and rural heritage, many rural Estonians are taking up historical ecological practices once again, this time by choice rather than necessity.

Estonian spinning wheel possibly made by Vilbert Graf in Leoski village near Haanja. In private collection. Photo by M. Lind.
Tudulinna spinning wheel maker's lathe. Photo by Gustav Ränk, 1939. https://opendata.muis.ee/object/447296

Spinning wheel makers and the land

Spinning wheel making was a widespread craft in Estonia through the 1930s. Land that provided poor harvests made it difficult to survive on agriculture alone, as most people did in rural Estonia before the 20th century. In these locations, people who were able to survive often did so through practicing some sort of craft for sale, whether as supplementary income or as a full-time occupation. Woodworking was one popular craft that easily found markets to support it, and the most successful home industries developed around forms of woodworking that were difficult for regular people to do at home. Woodturners were among the most well-compensated of artisans, and this encouraged the development of centers of spinning wheel production. Along with many other cottage industries, these centers declined starting in the 20th century and disappeared during the early Soviet period after World War II.

In locations where only one or a few spinning wheel masters plied their trade, it was occasionally possible for them to continue their work in the Soviet period. These men were generally smiths or carpenters for collective farms or state farms or worked in forestry who still had access to the necessary materials and equipment. Overall, the decline of spinning wheel production is not only associated with the decline of homemade yarn and the craft and trade of woodturning but also part of the overall picture of rural depopulation and larger economic changes.

Centers of cottage industry

The major centers of spinning wheel production were Tudulinna, Haanja, and Hiiumaa.

Of them, Tudulinna was the most well known and had the most woodturners. As a spinning wheel center, this area includes the neighboring village of Avinurme, which was more known for cooperage but had some spinning wheel makers. After the development of mill-powered lathes, and with access to lumber and a reputation for making quality spinning wheels, its location in northeastern Estonia helped it to develop a spinning wheel home industry on a larger scale than in many other places starting in 1860-1870. Tudulinna's spinning wheel makers travelled to southern, central, and northern Estonian settlements and fairs, and many also crossed into Russia to sell their wares. The signature detail of a Tudulinna spinning wheel was the tapered “waist” of the table, giving it a violin-shaped appearance. In museum collections today, such spinning wheels are sometimes referred to as “Tudulinna-type”, even though there are other known makers of violin-table spinning wheels.

Haanja in south Estonia was known for pipes, organs, and spinning wheel production. At least one Haanja spinning wheel master, V. Graf, continued to work into the 1970s, and his characteristic spinning wheels with curvy treadles and pointed maidens are still common in the region. The Haanja region includes nearby Rõuge.

Hiiumaa Island was more isolated from the other spinning wheel centers, so Hiiumaa makers were not as productive and did not achieve such wide distribution. Unlike other professional spinning wheel masters, they produced one spinning wheel at a time instead of making batches of interchangeable parts. However, their spinning wheels are unique in style and design with precise treadle joinery and beautifully carved tables.

Spinning and cultural landscapes

Many of Estonia's cultural landscapes have developed over hundreds or thousands of years of grazing with cows and sheep. The native sheep of Estonia still graze in their traditional meadows and forest pastures, where they safeguard biodiversity by reducing overgrowth of invasive plants that drive out other species. These sheep provide strong, double-coated fleeces in many colors, which are the basis of much of Estonian folk clothing. 

Historically, the forest has been an important place for Estonians. It provided protection, food, and timber, and even today, it is common for Estonians to gather mushrooms, berries, and other forest products. Although it is not common today, maintaining forest pastures through grazing is an important traditional ecological practice. The relationship between folk crafts and ecology is realized in forestry and grazing practices through which rural Estonians gathered and produced wood and wool, materials necessary for everyday life and cultural expression.

Today, farmers receive government funding for raising native sheep and conservation grazing. Some farmers, like Imbi Jäetma of Lahemaalammas and Külli Laos of Kolde Farm on Kihnu Island,  featured below, produce wool from native sheep that is used for traditional and contemporary handicrafts. They value raising native sheep and practicing ecological husbandry as sensible strategies for living well in their local environment and as their agricultural and craft heritage. Due to official recognition of Kihnu native sheep as a threatened heritage breed, genetic studies, and promotion by breed advocates, craftspeople in Estonia are increasingly aware of and value the role that traditional sheep and husbandry play in the history of Estonian handwork.

Estonian native sheep graze in a forest pasture at Sae farm in Lahemaa National Park. Photo by M. Lind.
Woolen items from Estonian native sheep that graze in traditional forest pastures. Lahemaalammas, Sae farm, 2019. Photo by M. Lind.
Estonian native sheep graze on a coastal meadow on Kihnu Island. Photo by M. Lind.
Külli Laos weaves a traditional Kihnu skirt using her homegrown wool. The Laos family raises Estonian native sheep and maintains Kihnu's coastal meadows with conservation grazing. Photo by M. Lind.