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Finnish Rags Become Chic Fabric

As one of the world’s richest countries, Finland offers its citizens an exceptionally high standard of living and access to the finest material goods. The country is on the cutting edge of modern technology and design.

Centuries ago, however, Finland, occupied at various times by Swedish and Russian invaders, was not as prosperous. Practical and sometimes economically strapped Finns had to fully utilize everything they had in their possession.

As a result, they invented a weaving technique that allowed them to recycle their old clothes, bed linens and other used fabrics into a durable and attractively nubby textile known as poppana.

Poppana, the roots of which came from the Russian language, originated about 200 years ago among rural families who lived in Karelia, a sparsely populated area in Eastern Finland along the Russian, now Soviet, border.

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The weaving technique was simple: Used fabrics were cut into narrow strips. The ends of one strip were sewn to the ends of other strips to make long yarn-like threads. These were then used for the weft of the newly woven poppana cloth.

Originally, poppana was thick, warm and cushioning, used exclusively as a protective cover for the straw mattresses that were found in most households in Karelia. It’s very durable and lasts for years.

Because poppana was less expensive than linen and woolen rugs, it was eventually used to make bedspreads, floor coverings, door curtains and horse blankets.

Eventually clothing with colorful stripes, especially coats, jackets and vests, were fashioned from lightweight poppana that was made from thinner strips of cotton cloth. Clothes with finer textures and brighter colors were usually worn by members of influential families, while peasants’ attire tended to be coarser and darker.

Poppana clothing became part of the traditional costumes found in Karelia.

As Finland modernized, poppana was thought to be provincial and old-fashioned. But during the 1960s, poppana, riding the crest of Finland’s new prosperity and a concurrent wave of nostalgia for the country’s cultural past, gained a new measure of respect as one of Finland’s indigenous art forms and traditional handcrafts. Home accessories and clothing made from the fabric were much sought after by the well-to-do.

This renewed interest is attributable mostly to designer Annikki Karvinen, who began working with the fabric in the ‘60s. Karvinen, living in Jyvaskyla in Central Finland, had been teaching home economics when she began experimenting with traditional weaving techniques. Poppana had special appeal.

Working at home in her spare time, Karvinen made colorful table clothes and bed covers and eventually began to design clothing cut from larger pieces of the hand-woven fabric. She made poppana not out of used clothing and home accessories, but instead had new, previously unused cotton cut and dyed to her specifications.

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Her exceptional designs, featuring variously colored stripes of different widths or asymmetrical patterns of appliqued geometrical shapes in contrasting colors, always presented a magnificent palette. The work soon made Karvinen a local celebrity.

In 1968, she set up a studio outside her home, and her work began to attract the attention of designers from Helsinki, who advised her to open a shop in the Finnish capital.

Karvinen’s successful two-story boutique, with clothes on the ground floor and home accessories downstairs in the basement, is now located at Pohjoisesplanadi 33, on Helsinki’s premiere shopping street.

Karvinen continually experiments with new styles and materials. She has made poppana out of all sorts of fibers. Wool, she has found, is too heavy and too warm to be used for clothing. Pure silk and silk/viscose blends, however, are ideal for elegant evening wear.

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At present, Karvinen employs seven full-time weavers at her atelier in Jyvaskyla, other weavers work part-time at home to make innovative material in three weights: for clothing, place mats and bed covers or wall hangings. Fisherman’s yarn is used for the warp and new, specially cut and dyed cotton is used for the weft.

Cotton poppana can be machine washed and wears forever. Silk varieties can also be washed, but they require special treatment, so Karvinen recommends dry cleaning.

Each year, Karvinen designs two clothing collections, shown in Stockholm, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo and other fashion centers.

Her patterns incorporate her exclusive palette of 51 colors. Applique is essential to the design of her multicolored, somewhat boxy, suits and it highlights details on jackets and long coats.

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Karvinen’s intricate combinations of subtle hues or vivid and contrasting colors create a tapestry-like quality in her clothing and home accessories. Her work is frequently displayed at the Taideteollisuus Museo (Museum of Applied Arts) at Korkeavuorenkatu 23.

Prices reflect that status: cotton jackets cost from $750 U.S. in cotton; jackets in silk and viscose about $1,000; in pure silk, $1,360. Cotton calf-length coats cost $1,380; in silk and viscose, $1,490.

A broad-brimmed, apple-green sailor hat costs $125, and a purple over-sized beret about $200. Cosmetics cases cost from $18, roomy backpacks about $260. Bed covers and tapestries cost $400 and up, tea cozies $50, slippers $40.

Prices in the Helsinki boutique are about half what they are in the U.S., where a limited selection of Karvinen designs is sold at Marimekko shops.

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Less expensive poppana clothing and home accessories are made by less famous designers.

Liisa Pikkujamsa, who works in Tampere under the Unica-Tuote label, sells her fashions at Helsinki’s Senaatin Tori (Unioninkatu 25 to 27). Included are jackets with asymmetrical patterns of pastel colors for about $600, and long cotton coats of brilliant yellow or red contrasted with lavish black for about $700. A white dressy ensemble with a long skirt, bare-shoulder halter and short jacket costs about $2,000.

Also sold at the Senaatin Tori are Vokki’s poppana place mats (from $15), potholders (from $6) and table runners (about $55).

Stockmann’s Department Store (on Pohjoisesplanadi, near Annikki Karvinen’s boutique) also carries some poppana home accessories on the fourth floor. Attractive tea cozies cost $68, place mats are $30, runner rugs or chair covers are about $130.

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All of these prices include a value-added tax. Tourists receive 11% to 15% refunds (depending on the cost of the item) when they leave Finland with their purchases.

If these prices are too steep, tourists can join Helsinki housewifes in making poppana at Helsinki Arts and Crafts Center (Runeberginkatu 4 B).

The center rents looms for about $7 per day (including personal instruction, in English) and sells dozens of colors of strip cotton for $37 per kilo, enough to produce a little less than two square yards of material.

Prepackaged pattern kits for slippers and cosmetic bags cost $2, and other patterns are loaned to customers free or customized for a small fee. It is possible to make enough fabric for a short jacket in one day of weaving. Call in advance to reserve looms.

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Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.


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