It has taken me a couple of 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 make 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 teacups to bedspreads. Marimekko's designs have lightened our mood without us even being aware of it.
Marimekko grew into what it is today by maintaining the quality of its 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.
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 salesperson I chat with explains that winters are long, dark, and cold, and people must spend most of the time indoors. Back at the end of WWII, Finland was a sad place having lost so many of the young and able men, so the founder of Marimekko saw an opportunity to “brighten” people's lives through bold and happy designs through color.
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 leftover fabrics of the season.
Going up the stairs is where the next season's 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
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.
Almost a million meters of fabric a year are printed on-site and the size and scale of the factory are 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.
Notice the roll inside the machine. It is being engraved in the pattern created by the designer. Each roll will carry a different color.
The other technique is screen printing where one screen is needed per color.
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. The next section 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.
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 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 flatbed 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. The color is then made in 50-gallon barrels.
The next section of the factory is the massive flatbed printing machine. Each bed will accommodate a flat screen with a color.
The machine below is a steamer. Steam is applied after the printing process to fix the color to the fabric.
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. The 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. The water from this machine then goes into a recycling chamber before it is released into the city sewer system. Once 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. The 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.
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 talking 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:
- By Car/Uber/Taxi: 15 minutes ride from the center of Helsinki and about (8-12 Euros)
- 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. What do you think of Marimekko designs? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Until Next Time!