Many Latvians lost their lives or suffered years of exile under the occupying regimes of the 20th century. Meet one woman who has transformed her personal tragedy into a celebration of her nation’s handicrafts heritage.
Hands and heart
Anyone who has witnessed one of the Latvian Song Festivals will realise that the costumes are as much a part of the magic as the music. This blaze of colour and artisanship reflets centuries of traditions preserved by the people through thick and thin.
Few people personify this phenomenon better than Ausma Spalviņa. Deported to Siberia as a child, she has become one of the country’s most revered folk costume makers, a labour of love that brings joy to the lucky wearers.
Photos by Philip Birzulis and courtesy of Ausma Spalviņa
“Wearing a folk costume is a way of reaching beyond the everyday and entering a festive spirit,” she says. “It is something very special.”
On 25 March 1949, over 90,000 people from the Baltic States were exiled to the gulag in a bid by the regime to destroy hardworking farmers and create a monopoly for collective agriculture. One of these deportees was three-and-a-half-year-old Ausma, punished for the crime of having parents and grandparents who owned small landholdings.
Almost the entire family, including her pregnant mother and a disabled aunt who was shoved onto the train in her bed, were crammed into a cattle truck with 70 others. Cold, hungry and with little water, they travelled for over a month to a labour camp near the Soviet-Chinese border.
Here, Ausma’s parents laboured from 6 am to 11 pm on a kolhoz, but little of the food the prisoners grew was left for them. The family’s bread ration was 300 grams a day, and Ausma’s grandmother died of starvation saving her share for her granddaughter. They supplemented their meagre diet with rhododendron flowers and wild onions.
After returning to Latvia in 1957, the persecution continued in other forms. Having joined the Communist Pioneers while in Russia, a teacher stripped Ausma of her red scarf in front of her classmates, calling her a “fascist deportee.” Then she was denied the right to further education due to her background.
“It was all about forcing people to their knees and humiliating them as much as possible,” she says. “The system was designed to make you naked, starving and obedient. Lower than a slave.”
She eventually managed to attend courses in Belarus, and then get a job as an industrial weaver at Valmiera Fibreglass Factory. And while she was pregnant with her daughter, she began knitting and weaving to circumvent Soviet-era shortages.
“We Latvians are practical people,” she says. “The first thing is to make something useful, and only then to add beauty.”
Later she moved with her husband to Jelgava and got a job at a textile plant. In her spare time, Ausma did weaving at a handicraft studio, making costumes for choirs and dance ensembles and discovering a world apart from the Russification and authoritarianism of the USSR. And following the National Awakening of the late 1980s, she travelled abroad with exhibitions of folk costumes, and began getting a steady stream of orders from people wanting their own costumes.
Today, she works from her loom at home, seeking to meet the needs of individuals rather than making mass products. Her works in progress are like an ethnographic museum, reflecting different regional styles and the efforts of co-creators like coppersmiths who do the metal trimmings.
Every detail of a costume, even the bits others can’t see, is important. She proudly shows of a pair of elaborately ornamented, lace trimmed stockings she calls “daiļkājiņas,” or “pretty legs,”. Under her skirt, the wearer will feel an extra dimension of care and devotion.
“Everything is a process,” she says.
Ausma’s second great passion is making puzuri. These diamond-shaped ornaments made from straw were traditionally used to decorate homes during the colder months, bringing light into people’s homes at autumn harvest time, Christmas and Easter.
Today, Latvians have rediscovered puzuri as a symbol of their identity, and Ausma has crafted very large and elaborate models. A puzurs ten metres in diameter recently hung in the lobby of the Riga headquarters of Swedbank. And she has also made a permanent installation for the shrine of the Dievturi Latvian pagan faith at Lokstene, 120 kilometres east of Riga.
When pandemic regulations permit, Ausma travels around the country leading workshops on making puzuri. And last summer, she was part of a boundary-breaking event, where multiple puzuri gave visual information while teams of folk drummers conveyed their message audibly.
Beyond their decorative purpose, puzuri are also deeply spiritual. A physicist acquaintance once exclaimed to Ausma how much their structure reminded him of atoms, and she agrees there is far more to them than meets the eye.
“It’s craft and geometry and meditation all at the same time,” she says. “Nature and mathematics and ornamentation all in one.“