What Is Folk Art?

One of the questions that we get asked most often is simply, 'what is folk art?' It always surprises me a little, as most people know what is meant by folk music, folk dance and folk tales, but seem completely flummoxed by folk art!

Folk culture simply means the popular culture of the past, the things ordinary people liked to sing, eat, drink, make, and do. Folk art is the material part of this culture - from the clothes people wore, to the homes that they lived in, and the tools that they used to work. Just as favourite recipes and songs were passed down from century to century, so were the methods of making particular types of clothing or objects. As each generation added to the knowledge of their forefathers, rich cultural traditions gradually emerged.

Fair Isle Jumpers

Fair Isle Jumpers

These traditions were often specific to a particular place. Of course, there was no mass media to spread ideas from town to town and country to country, and people tended to travel far less. So, you can imagine how the folk of the Arran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, developed their own unique way of decorating their jumpers with thick cable knits, whilst the people of Fair Isle, Scotland, learned to incorporate different coloured wool to embellish their knitting. Today Arran Isles and Fair Isle knitting patterns are popular across the world, but a couple of centuries ago only people who had visited these remote places would know about their distinctive jumpers.

These folk cultures were always specific to one region or country, but that doesn't mean that they are unrelated to each other. Of course some people did travel, taking new ideas, inventions and decorative designs with them. To return to knitwear, the traditional knits of Estonia are very closely related to the better known designs of their Scandinavian neighbours, accessible across the Baltic sea.

 A Norwegian jumper (left) and an Estonian jumper, using similar motifs

 A Norwegian jumper (left) and an Estonian jumper, using similar motifs

Both of these traditions could also be said to relate to Fair Isle knitting - not necessarily because their was direct exchange between these cultures, but maybe just because of the practical limitations of the medium of knitting. If you are trying to make a colourful design to knit, geometric patterns like stars and crosses work well with the grid-like structure of a knitting pattern. If you are looking for decorative elements, natural forms like flowers or animals can offer inspiration wherever you are. 

Kitty Walsh