A long tradition of hand-knit socks

Many of us will be opening packages to find hand-knit socks this Christmas. While they rarely feature in the top lists for most desired gifts, hand-knit socks are among the most traditional Christmas presents in Finland.

“The idea of hand-knit socks as unwanted presents has to do with the fact that historically, people could actually receive a pair of plain socks, knit with rough, scratchy wool, every single year, and never wear them,” explains ethnologist Anna Rauhala.

“The expectations of the gift giver and the recipient were different. After all, the gift giver had expended his or her time and effort on making the socks.”

But the times have changed. Sock yarn is no longer scratchy, and social media has released knitting from the boundaries of national traditions. Hand-knit socks and knitting in general are trendy.

Everybody knits

Knitting has become so popular that people are talking about the knitting boom of the 2000s. Anna Rauhala explains what’s happening.

“Now that nobody has to knit, people have rediscovered the joy of knitting. Creating things by hand brings a sense of happiness and accomplishment. It also serves as a balance for our everyday lives, which rarely include handicrafts. The repetitive rhythm of knitting is downright meditative.”

The internet and social media are boosting the knitting craze even further. For example, Facebook’s most popular knitting groups have tens of thousands of members.

“There has been a veritable explosion of knitting ideas. Online patterns can be bought, but free patterns are also endlessly available, from Finnish and international designers. Those struggling with a new technique can watch tutorial videos. Discussion groups are a quick source of help with knitting problems and advice. And of course it’s easy to broadcast the final product on social media.”

A long tradition of charity

When a large number of asylum seekers arrived in Finland in autumn 2015, it didn’t take long for Finns to organise sock-knitting drives for them. Socks are also knit for veterans, the elderly and babies.  

Anna Rauhala sees such charitable knitting as part of a continuum.

“In the old days, women would gather together in sewing and knitting circles. Often the finished products were donated to charity. Or they were sold and the profits donated. This tradition now manifests in how quickly and easily the knitting drives for asylum seekers were organised. And social media helped once again.”

Looser traditions

According to Anna Rauhala, knitting is an integral part of Finnish culture.

“It used to be that all women knew how to knit. They were required to learn it in school. At school everyone also learned to knit in the same way. Knitting was an important skill, as in our climate, socks and mittens are of vital importance.”

Finns still display a uniform knitting technique, but otherwise their relationship to tradition has become freer. New versions are drafted of traditional patterns, and colours are used indiscriminately.

“There is a generation gap in the relationship with tradition. Young people focus on the joy of making things, experimentation and creativity, while the older set is more inclined to maintain authenticity in terms of patterns and materials."

Experimentation helps new people get interested in knitting. A few years ago, many a teen's Christmas wish was a pair of Reaverse socks, an ankle-length pattern resembling Converse sneakers.

But modern knitters are creating more than just warm and practical accessories. With the recent hygge trend, knitting has expanded to home textiles. Enthusiasts are now knitting pillow covers, Christmas ornaments and mobile phone cases.

Knitting at home and at leisure

Anna Rauhala herself learned to knit at age five, and before studying ethnology, she completed an artisan degree in clothing, with a specialisation in knitting. Her ongoing dissertation research focuses on knitting and the related meanings in Finland from the late 19th century to the present day.  

“As part of my dissertation work, I will personally knit versions of the ten mittens in the collections of the National Museum to discover the skills required to create the museum pieces. The knitting is very time-consuming, since many traditional knits were made with thin yarn and tiny needles.”

What does the traditional knitting expert knit in her free time?

”Socks and mittens. Knitting them is nice and relaxing.”

And will she give them as Christmas presents?

“I have given hand-knit socks as Christmas presents on several occasions. However, due to the arduous knitting required for my research, I have not been able give any hand-made socks as gifts for some time, but I’m sure I will get back to it eventually.”

Christmas socks and slippers

The legend behind the Western European Christmas stocking tradition is that Saint Nicholas tossed bags or balls of gold into a poor family's house secretly at night, because he wanted to help the family's three beautiful daughters get married. The bags or balls of gold fell into the stockings that the girls had hung on the mantle to dry. And that’s why in many countries, people still attach Christmas stockings to their mantles on Christmas Eve.

In Estonia, children put a slipper on the window sill each evening in December. An elf then puts a small present inside it during the night. But only if the child has been good – naughty children will wake up to an empty slipper.

 (Sources: Wikipedia and the Tuglas Association)