Populated by a few hundred people, Kihnu is a small island off the coast of Estonia. In a country marked by successive dominations (Danish, Swedish, German, Russian), the transmission of a local cultural heritage has a strong symbolic dimension. Its relative remoteness and small size preserved it during the Soviet occupation. Although the regime prohibited regional cultural practices such as speaking the Kihnu language, the island was less subject to the regime’s authoritarian control than on the mainland. Following the end of the Soviet period, the inhabitants of Kihnu developed a singular island identity whose women are known to be the guardians. In fact, it is the women who are first noticed in this 500-strong fishing community, to the point that some people regularly invent the status of «matriarchal community». Since 2003, the cultural space of Kihnu has been inscribed on UNESCO’s representative list of intangible cultural heritage.
How to talk, how to dress, how to think and play music... the cultural heritage of the island, much more than a practice, is a real way of life. The most visible element is certainly the woven wool skirt called kört, striped with the colours of the highlights of life.
In the other regions of Estonia, traditional clothes are donned only during special occasions and events. On the island of Kihnu, skirts are worn on a daily bases in the same way a pair of jeans can be: in the field, at church, in shops, at the pub and at school. But unlike jeans, each skirt is different; it changes over the years and depending on the occasion. The skirts worn by young girls for example tend to be of a brighter red. And as the years go by, various life events would impact the garment’s look. During periods of mourning, skirts would go from red to black, before transiting to blue and then back to red. The skirts encapsulate a lifetime of memories by harbouring the traces of all these events that have punctuated the wearers’ lives. Therefore older women may wear darker dress than the young ladies.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the restoration of its independence, Estonia is positioning itself as a resolutely modern country - one of the most connected to the internet, politically attached to the European Union. In response to a rapid westernization of lifestyles, the inhabitants of Kihnu strove to set up institutions to organize the transmission of their identity. This is evident in weaving lessons or music teaching in the only school on the island. Most of the teachings are in Kihnu language. Like any living language, it evolves and a Kihnu-Estonian lexicon regularly reports new words that appear.
While insularity has helped to protect the specificity of the community, it does not encourage young people to stay. Since the 1990s, the island gradually depopulated and traditional culture began to decline as its inhabitant migrate to the continent to study or work. Today Kihnu lives largely of tourism products rather than a fishing industry on the wane. To make one’s life on the island is a militant act, as island life is difficult, especially during the quite wintertimes.
(Story lead between 2013 and 2019)