An Estonian loom with a long story

This is going to be quite a long story which is still ongoing, but I really wanted to share it as it is quite special.

In February this year I received an email through my website from a lady who was trying to track down a rather unusual weaving loom with links to the Estonian refugee community. Briefly, the post-war refugee community in England fell broadly into  three cities – Bradford, Leicester and London. Within these communities there was a desire to keep national traditions of music, dance and national costume alive. These people had been forced from their homeland against their will and although they were grateful to be living in the safety of the UK, in their hearts they were forever Estonians who had not left their homeland through choice. History played out stories for each family which would fill thousands of pages but for now I’m going to talk about the importance a little loom in keeping alive the weaving of the belts which are worn with our costumes. If you wish to see more about these traditional costumes there are plenty of images on the website of the Estonian national museum.

The Estonians had a tradition of making their own national costumes to wear on special occasions and for taking part in choirs and dancing. However finding the correct textiles was not easy. The intricately embroidered blouses could be made according to patterns found in historical pattern books. I personally have been inspired by these designs to create my series of cat designs. Many hours were spent embroidering on white linen or cotton to produce these. The woven woollen striped skirt fabrics could occasionally be sourced from stores or weavers were specially commissioned. However the long woven belts were harder to find. Again, some could be sourced through family contacts who were able to send from Estonia but on the whole they were hard to come by. These belts would be woven on a narrow loom and followed very precise designs which related to particular regions of the country. Historically they were wrapped many times round a woman’s waist to create a sturdy band to support her back while carrying out the various chores involved in country life.

In Leicester, probably in the 1950s, a certain inventive gentleman called Ernst Silla (a member of the Estonian refugee community)  had decided to make his own loom with which to weave these belts. I knew him when I was a child because his daughter (now in her late 80s) was a friend of my mother’s. He was a natural engineer who could build anything out of anything. I recall him making a fishpond pump for my father out of an old tumble-drier motor!

So, recently a researcher at the Estonian national folk museum had heard about this loom and was trying to track it down to see if it still existed. A very enthusiastic Estonian lady called Maiu (who also arrived in Britain at then end of the war with the community of displaced Estonians, now living in Ross on Wye) was the one to contact me through my website and take on the mission of the loom mystery. A life-long spinner, weaver and sheep-owner whose passion for the subject is driving her to bring the story to a happy end. Through various leaps and jumps and a distinctly woolly network I was able to link the researcher to the daughter of the inventor and hence his granddaughter. First of all the loom-maker’s daughter recalled that the loom had been donated to the Wigston Framework Knitters’ Museum in Leicester, presumably at a time of home down-sizing. Sadly, it was no longer there but was traced to the Abbey Pumping Station Museum (also in Leicester) where it was in storage. Maiu was not prepared to allow it to rot there, unloved and unwanted and arranged to travel to Leicester to collect it.

The loom made by Ernst Silla

In July I received another note from Maiu with the exciting news that she now had in her posession the loom in question and she sent me photos to see if I had any idea how it could be restored and used. She felt that the secrets of its workings had vanished with its maker. Faced with an array of bicycle parts and other recycled pices of wood and metal I honestly had no idea where to begin. My knowledge of weaving is very basic and this loom didn’t look like any modern loom I had seen. The machine looks like it has been frozen in time, a decaying piece of belt still held in the loom.


Fast forward to October and I was excited to receive an email from the granddaughter of the loom-maker. Maiu had been in touch with Ingrid who was absolutely delighted that this loom still exists and has recently been to meet Maiu and see the loom her grandfather had made. Ingrid had lived in Canada for many years but is now back in the UK and had often wondered what became of the loom. She had also studied textile long ago and is now on task to restore and repair the heirloom loom herself.

We are now wondering if anyone in the old Estonian community still has any of these special belts, possibly tucked away with faded national costumes which haven’t been touched in decades. These would have been woven between the 1950s to the late 70s I think.

I’m not sure how this story will end but admire the tenacity which Maiu has shown in researching the story and her determination to find the right resting place for this grand old machine with a magical story.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to bring some of the old belts ‘home’ to their loom to bring the story full circle!


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