Latvia has many wonderful craftspeople, who continue to make beautiful things despite the toughest time for business in many years. Here are the stories of three hardworking masters of their trade, who have some perfect Christmas gifts for your friends and family.
Hands of gold
Anyone who has visited Latvia will have fond memories of the practical and pretty things conjured up here. Dazzling costumes at song festivals, enticing leather and wickerwork at summer fairs, and soulful vessels from Latgale’s potteries are just some of the delights.
Due to worldwide border closures, it’s been hard for the artisans and their travelling customers to meet face to face this year. The good news is that they are just a few clicks away. So, here are the stories of a few people making high-quality items from the heart.
Smitten with mittens
Once upon a time, Ieva Brokāne-Kuzmane swore she would never follow in the footsteps of her grandma and mother and knit for a living. But then she lost her job during the financial crisis a decade ago, and the old advice “never say never” proved very apt.
To make ends meet, she started making mittens at her family home in Medemciems, a village south of the capital. Blending traditional Latvian patterns with bold contemporary colours and using only natural materials, they became a smash hit.
“It’s such a great feeling when I go to Riga and see someone wearing my mittens,” says Ieva.
Demand got so hot that Ieva’s husband Juris quit his construction job and started knitting too. Their work has travelled to some unexpected places, like covering a phone box for a street knitting project in Germany. And Ieva’s designs have appeared in several Japanese books about Latvian textiles; it turns out Baltic crafts are very popular in the Asian nation.
This year is financially tough for the family. During the first lockdown in spring, they were denied furlough payments on the grounds they only pay taxes at the end of the year. Then the tourists stayed away, and now pandemic restrictions mean they will miss out on most Christmas markets.
Juris has taken a job as a security guard, and they recently opened an Etsy store, Ieva Knitwear, to reach foreign customers. You can also find baby clothes there, inspired by the couple’s ten-month-old son.
The one silver lining is that the usually frantic holiday season will be a lot more chilled this year.
“Covid has stopped almost everything, but for the first time in ten years, we will have a real family Christmas,” says Juris.
Carving a niche
Mārtiņš and Jūlija Ķizulis are also no strangers to crises, and emerging triumphant from them. After their furniture business collapsed in the wake of the GFC, they set up a wooden souvenir business which has carried traditional Latvian designs all over the world.
Since time immemorial, Latvians have inscribed everything wooden, from doorframes to kitchen utensils, with symbols bringing health, prosperity and happiness. In 2012, Mārtiņš and Jūlija began researching these signs and creating wooden items with them, which they sold at markets across Latvia. Soon, souvenir shops became interested, and the products of Mārtiņa Koku Fabrika (Martin’s Wood Factory) won many fans.
The venture proved a great success, allowing them to convert a large farmhouse near Talsi, 100 km west of Riga, into a workshop. Reversing stereotypical gender roles, Mārtiņš handles the design and marketing, while Jūlija wields the cutters and saws and gives the finished items a hand polish.
In the last few years, they have expanded their range into kitchenware, such as wooden spoons and chopping boards.
“When you chop food, you get small fragments of the board with your meal, so you might as well eat something natural instead of plastic,” Mārtiņš jokes.
With the collapse of tourism, demand from the hospitality sector has shrunk. But at present, they are filling an order from a corporate client for 1,000 chopping boards. And people from diverse cultures appreciate their work. Mārtiņš and Jūlija are from different ethnic backgrounds, and despite arguments between politicians, they believe that Russians and Latvians are on the same wavelength. They have excellent customers to the east and amongst Russian emigres in Europe.
Linen and lace
After a career as an industrial weaver at Valmiera Fibreglass Factory, Ausma Caune has moved into softer fabrics. At her home in Rūjiena, 130 km north of Riga, she creates linen shawls, towels, tablecloths and table runners which journey to the UK, the USA and elsewhere around the globe.
“I just sit at my loom while the potatoes are cooking,” she laughs.
Linen weaving is a much-loved hobby and brings pensioner Ausma some extra money. Although there were no tourists at the Riga markets this year, she was pleasantly surprised to find that local customers picked up some of the slack. And it will take more than a pandemic to stop the many other weavers in Rūjiena and the Vidzeme region from practising their craft.
One of Ausma’s daughters, Gunita, weaves folk costumes. Although the cancellation of gatherings like this year’s Youth Song Festival has cut into demand, she recently completed an order for a beautiful skirt. And with her other daughter Antra using her fluent English to run the Etsy store Latvia Linen, it’s truly a family business.
That support network and a down-to-earth attitude help Ausma take the turbulence of 2020 in her stride.
“In small towns and the country, people don’t stress so much,” she says. “We just go into the forest and breathe some fresh air.”