Lying off Estonia’s Baltic coast, the small islands of Kihnu and Manija are home to a community of 600 people whose cultural expressions and agricultural traditions have been kept alive over the centuries largely through the island’s female population.
The men of the Kihnu community have taken to sea to hunt seals and fish, while the women have remained on the islands to farm and to maintain the household. Kihnu women thus have become the principal custodians of the cultural traditions embodied in numerous songs, games, dances, wedding ceremonies and handicrafts.
Singing is an integral part of collective handicraft activities and of religious celebrations. Particularly noteworthy among the musical repertory of the islanders is an oral tradition of pre-Christian origin, known as runic or Kalevala-metre songs.
The most visible emblem of Kihnu culture remains the woolen handicrafts worn by the women of the community. Working in their homes using traditional looms and local wool, the women weave and knit mittens, stockings, skirts and blouses, which often feature bright colours, vivid stripes and intricate embroidery. Many of the symbolic forms and colours adorning these striking garments are rooted in ancient legends.
Kihnu Culture Nowadays
After the fall of the U.S.S.R., the island’s fishing and agriculture declined, and tourism became the main economic force—though not a positive one at first. Tourists gained a reputation as rude drunks come to take advantage of the freedom on an island without a permanent police force.
In the early 2000s, islanders’ attitude began to shift. A plan to attract cultural tourists saw quick results, providing a willing audience for folk performances as well as an income for islanders who sell handicrafts or food, or rent lodging or bicycles. By 2002, about 40 percent of Kihnu residents depended to some extent on tourism.
Their geographic isolation, their strong sense of community spirit and their steadfast attachment to the customs of their ancestors have enabled the Kihnu people to preserve their crafts and customs.