In search of Inspiration, a visit to Marimekko in Helsinki

Marimekko

It has taken me a couple years and three visits to Finland to write this article, but, as the saying goes the third time is the charm and I was finally able to accomplish my goal of visiting the Marimekko printing factory at their headquarters in Helsinki.

Anyone that has ever taken a fashion design, interior design, textile design or graphic design course is familiar with this iconic brand which is famous for bright, bold colors and simple patterns.  (Isn't it almost ironic that one of the darkest and coldest countries in the world would give birth to such a happy and bright style of living?)  But perhaps it is the extreme seasons that makes the average Finn far more appreciative of the wonders of spring and summer flowers when they finally arrive after 6 months of harsh, icy winter.

History of Marimekko Fabrics

The company started as a printing shop, founded in 1951 by a  Finnish couple, Armi and Viljo Ratia.  What set the company apart was the use of bold and bright designs utilizing the talents of local artists among the most famous being the avant-garde Maija Isola and whose name is still found on the selvages of cloth featuring her patterns.  Maija is the pattern creator of one of the most well-recognized combinations of color which are highlighted in her “Unikko” pattern below.

Known around the world from adorning tea cups to bed spreads.  Marimekko designs have lightened our mood without us even being aware of it.

Marimekko

Maija Isola design, Marimekko archives 1969

Marimekko grew into what it is today by maintaining the quality of their textiles in a world where most manufacturers are going for the cheaper and cheaper.  They focus on functionality and the needs of their consumers with an aim to make something that can be passed from generation to generation. Who does this anymore??

Their most experienced employees inspect the printed fabric, meter by meter, to classify it into grades.  Only the highest grade of fabric is rolled into bolts and shipped across the world to 40 destinations to be sold by the meter to sewists like us.  Here's one I used recently in our RFID shielded handbag:

So, how did a small company that started as a textile printing shop develop into what it is today?  Well, the tipping point for the company was the very popular Jackie Kennedy buying seven of their dresses in the summer of 1960 and being photographed wearing one of them for the cover of Sports Illustrated.  And the rest is history, as they say..

Marimekko Flagship Store, Helsinki, Finland

Now, let me take you on a virtual tour of Marimekko.

Marimekko

Marimekko Flagship Store-Helsinki

Address: Mikonkatu 1, 00100 Helsinki, Finland

Set on a pedestrian mall among swanky shops and impressive architecture, the flagship shop beckons you as a flower attracts a bee.  For a #fabrichunter like me, this is pure heaven.

Happy staff and customers mingle with friendly chatter.  The sales person I chat with explains that winters are long, dark and cold, and people must spend must of the times indoors.  Back at the end of WWII, Finland was a sad place having lost so many of the young and able man, so the founder of Marimekko saw an opportunity to “brighten” people lives through bold and happy designs through color.

 

Marimekko

The Marimekko Factory Outlet Store

All Marimekko fabrics are printed in Finland to protect both the design and the quality.  Although the factory was not in service at the moment of my visit due to the annual vacation leave of workers, my family and I had the pleasure of touring the installations guided by Maarit.

The outlet store has a collection of the most popular items, some that are out of print and some that are made with the left over fabrics of the season.

Going up the stairs is where the next season collection is displayed.

 Pre-Spring 2018 collection, at the time of this writing being unveiled at Paris Fashion Week in October.

The Marimekko Printing Factory

Maarit Heikkilä

I am to meet Maarit Heikkilä, the PR Manager for Europe.  She is friendly and full of enthusiasm, so I like her immediately.  We launched into a conversation that lasted almost 2 hours.  I meant to take 20 minutes of her time.  Talking to Maarit was like sitting down with a friend whom, I have not seen for ages.

We walked to the printing factory installation passing by the many studios where the print designers work 2 years ahead of the release of a collection.  Pictures of these future designs are not allowed for obvious reasons, but it is wonderful to be able to see them at work.  Marimekko

Almost a million meters of fabric a year are printed on-site and the size and scale of the factory is impressive.  All the fabrics are printed in Finland to protect both the design and the quality thus the investment is imperative and necessary.  There are two types of printing techniques being used here that I can see: laser printing and screen printing.

Marimekko

Screen Printing Preparation Area

Notice the roll inside the machine.  It is being engraved in the pattern created by the designer.  Each roll will carry a different color.

Marimekko

Rotary screen laser engraver

The other technique is screen printing where one screen is needed per color.

Marimekko

Screen printing being prepared

Once the screens are prepared they are placed in the printing area in the order they are going to be loaded into the printing machine. MarimekkoMarimekkoThe next sections of the factory is where most of the magic happens.  The first is the gray goods area where the raw cotton is prepared before the printing process can happen.  Normally cotton arrives from the source in square bales of folded fabric or big round bolts that can contain anywhere from 120 up to 250 yards of fabric.

Marimekko

Bales of Square Folded Fabric-Origin Peru

The cotton is sourced depending on the market prices without compromising fair trade to humans, the environment, and of course, quality.  The fabric is loaded into a machine for a pretreatment that helps make the fabric better accept the dye.  This process involves the use of chemicals to preshrink the yarn in the cotton, to bleach it for color and to mercerize the fabric to soften it.  Once the fabric is bleached, it is dried and loaded into the laser printer or into the flat bed printer.

To the right-hand side of the gray area is the color “kitchen”, where swatches are tested until the exact color that matches the design is found. MarimekkoMarimekko The color is then made in 50-gallon barrels.Marimekko

The next section of the factory is the massive flatbed printing machine.  Each bed will accommodate a flat screen with a color.Marimekko
MarimekkoThe machine below is a steamer.  Steam is applied after the printing process to fix the color to the fabric.

Marimekko

Once the color is fixed to the fabric, it is then washed in a very large washing machine.  This washing machine is the most recent acquisition of Marimekko, with a price tag of around a million euros.  It is so large it's almost impossible for me to photograph. MarimekkoThe washing machine has different chambers where the fabric is washed to eliminate the excess of dye and chemicals.  The process starts with a lot of washing chemicals and gradually reduces until finally using none at all.MarimekkoMarimekkoThe water from this machine then goes into a recycling chamber before it is released into the city sewer system.MarimekkoOnce the fabric is stripped of all chemicals it is dried it is then inspected meter by meter and classified in grades.  Only the highest grade gets shipped to be sold by the meter. MarimekkoThe lesser grades are sold at the outlets or used to make the smalls goods.  It is not that the item in the outlet store is of lesser quality, it is like working with leather in that you work around the imperfections.  Marimekko

How to take a tour of the Marimekko printing factory

As the time of this writing, the only way to take the tour is to phone or write a month in advance or try to join one of the group tours.  There are no tours on Sundays.  If you are traveling on a group tour to Helsinki you are in luck, groups have a much higher probability of being able to see the Marimekko printing factory than a small group of people.  If you are still interested and traveling alone or with a friend, I would suggest to talk to your hotel concierge and see if they can get some of the other guests interested on a tour.

The printing factory and the outlet store are located in the same building and even if you are not going to be able to see the printing installations the outlet store is worth a visit.  You will find the current collection and the most popular items throughout the year.

How to get there:

  1. By Car/Uber/Taxi: 15 minutes ride from the center of Helsinki and about (8-12 Euros)
  2. By train:  30 minutes Take Train M1 towards the University (6 stops) then bus #79 (3.90 Euros)

About Helsinki through my eyes…

It is summer in Helsinki and the sun is still up at 11 PM.  Through the window of the taxi, I can see flashes of the architecture of the city, Nordic Classicism, Art Noveau, Byzantine-Russian.  The city is clean and modern.  I love to see that people are sharing the roads with trams, buses, cars, and bicycles.  It is not as warm as Google said, but this is not my first time here and I should have packed my red trench coat.

The speakers of the car play a song by Jason Miraz.   Is it a coincidence of fate?  It does not matter because it gives me the answers…..  “sometimes it may seem dark, but the absence of the light is a necessary part….”  so true I think.  This is a city of great architecture, interior design, bright happy bold functional minimalism is seen everywhere.

On the midnight plane back to Singapore, I am happy to settle back into my seat,  I can see my happy feet in the dim light of the cabin with the Marimekko slippers supplied by the airline.MarimekkoWhat do you think of Marimekko designs?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Until Next Time!

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37 Responses to In search of Inspiration, a visit to Marimekko in Helsinki

  1. Chrysanthemum says:

    I’ve been fascinated by Marimekko, (anything Finnish), since it first came out. The Textile Museum in Toronto had an exhibition for their 50th anniversary, while I was visiting there, and it brought back a flood of vivid memories: those BRIGHT jumpsuits! Recently in Ottawa, I saw the new lines in dishes, purses and linen… Thanks for the tour….

  2. Dana Jeffress says:

    Loved the article about your field trip to Marimekko. Thank you for sharing your experience and providing insight to the behind-the-scenes of what drives our ability to create – fabric.

    I enjoy your website and the effort you seamingly put into your projects. 🙂

    All the best from Texas!

  3. Aless says:

    I have loved Marimekko since I first saw it in Australia in the swinging Sixties!! When I married in the early 70s and we built our home, my kitchen cupboard doors were painted ‘pillarbox’ red and the curtains were a copy of the Marimekko style in a vertical swirl of red and green—-very eye-catching!! I LOVED that kitchen for years as it made me happy to be in it.
    In 2015 we had a long overseas holiday that included Finland, and I was overawed when I found myself standing in front of the Marimekko store. I was so stunned, I couldn’t bring myself to go in, so I just gazed through the windows!!(Finland was my favourite country to visit.)

  4. Marty says:

    Thanks for the article: Seeing these, I now MUST sew something with bright, bold designs. 🙂

  5. Tora says:

    Thank you so much! Helsingfors (which is the swedish name for Helsinki and equally right since Finland is bi-lingual) is my city of birth, and even though I don’t live there today I love the city just as much as I love Marimekko. This summer was the coldest one in many years, so sad for you! And for us living here… So I guess we’ll just have to sew ourselves something to cheer us up. Thanks for all the nice ideas and patterns you are sharing, I’m a big fan of yours!

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Thank you Tora, I love the city too, perhaps it is the mixture of great architecture and the sea that gives it a melancholic outlook, I know I will never live there so I cherish every cold minute of my stay, although next time I will bring more than just a long cardigan and a scarf.

  6. Alexandra says:

    Thanks for the behind the scenes tour! I love Marimekko (and nordic design), there is something about the bold but simple print that calls to me.

    I had a long layover in Helsinki last month (on my way to Singapore) and fell in love with the city. And I totally snagged those same slippers from Finnair and am wearing them right now!

  7. Kim says:

    Definitely not a fan, those bright bold prints rattle my nerves!

  8. Karen Poole says:

    How do you buy this fabric? I love the bright colors!

  9. Karen says:

    Thanks for sharing. I love bright colors. Living in Michigan we have many days with lack of sunshine.

  10. Barbara L Keller says:

    Thank you for the wonderful tour. I will never be able to go to Finland and wish that the fabric could be purchased in the US.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      HI, Barbara you can they have an online store that sells to 40 countries. Do try it http://www.marimekko.com

    • Katherine says:

      There is also an actual Marimekko store in New York City. 200 5th Ave, New York, NY 10010. Across from Madison Square Park, near the Flatiron Building. It is open seven days a week and has wonderful things including, sometimes, remnants for a good price.

  11. gloria says:

    I hate to say it – I know a lot of people like it – however I never have. Nice colours, but I find the combinations and designs a little garish. I grew up with lots of it around, didn’t like it then, or now.
    That’s just me, though. Different strokes and all that. The world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things.

  12. Carla says:

    Love this tour of the factory and history of the designs! Also love each your patterns and designs! Many thanks for all that you share!

  13. Bridgette says:

    Hi Mayra! I’m glad you had a great trip. You know how much I can appreciate your experience! I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in Sweden lately and loving all of those fabrics. Thank you once again for sharing. I’ll PM you.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Thank you, B! I have never been to Sweeden, but next time you come to Singapore you must show me pictures and tell me all about it.

  14. Cherilyne says:

    Such an amazing place! Thank you for the photos and the descriptive tour. I always wanted to learn to sew but never had the time nor the opportunity. Now in my mid-60’s, I am taking online courses and teaching myself. A wonderful thing about the internet is the sharing and the opening of doors into countries we know we will probably never have the chance to see. I enjoy seeing the whole process of fabric printing – I find it fascinating how some designers hand paint their designs to create amazing garments that are dazzling works of art. Thanks again for the informative tour. I enjoyed it immensely!

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      You are most welcome Cherilyne, I believe there is no age limit for learning and in fact, we are supposed to be more creative in the second half of our lives. You are my kind of girl 🙂

  15. Jo says:

    Gorgeous designs and colours and a lesson how bold patterns can work for anyone using simple well cut dress shapes.

  16. Barbara Tonkins says:

    This is a vintage Marimekko fabric I bought years and years ago. Still looks fashionable today –to me at least!

    Here's my pic:

  17. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, this place is lovely, I’d like to visit some day, looks amazing!!! thanks for the tour 🙂

  18. Deb Carmichael says:

    Awesome! Can’t wait to get ahold of the new material!

  19. Lenore Rhodes says:

    Thank you for the tour. The fabric is beautiful, I love the bright, vibrant colours.

  20. Lou Anne says:

    I love the bright and cheerful colors. Fabric is one of my passions. I wish I had gone with you . Would they have let me touch and smell the finished product. Or would they have thought I am weird ? 😀 I come by my love of fabric genetically. I am a 4th generation seamstress.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      I think they would have let you touch indeed. We share the same passion, 4th generation Seamstress, the things you must know…. love to pick your brain.

  21. Margreet says:

    I love the Marimekko designs. I know the shop in Helsinki, but Marimekko is sold in almost every city in Finland, even in Santa Claus Village near Rovaniemi, where I bought several meters last January. I sometimes use it for sewing my clothes, sometimes for my quiltmaking.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Yes, they are all over Finland, I have never been in any other part of the country and didn’t even know about the Santa Claus Villa, thank you for the tip.

  22. I adore Marimekko designs. Perhaps it is because I am part Finnish, perhaps it is because i hail from WI that also has 6 months of winter, but whatever, I appreciate the bright happy colors that are a pleasant and welcome diversion from the dark, gloomy winters.

  23. DEBORAH FREEMAN says:

    We live in very upper Pennsylvania-on the New York border so I can understand well the lack of summer. I love the beautiful colors and find the winters long cold days as more time to get some sewing in, Thanks for the tour as I will probably never get to go to Finland.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      HI, Deborah, I do think long cold winter days are conducive to more creativity. Have fun made a happy corner for yourselves?

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