Sirkka Könönen, textile artist: "the most mysterious window display on Liisankatu"

There is little to be found about Finnish knitwear designer Sirkka Könönen. She is an enigma, an anachronism among the publicity-savvy modern fashion designers and artists. Nevertheless, reticent Ms. Könönen is a cult figure in Finnish textile design world and beyond. Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Carlos Santana and many other celebrities purchased her colorful sweaters.

I came across the pictures of Sirkka Könönen’s sweaters on Pinterest. Könönen’s designs were mislabeled as Fair Isle knitting, but they had a distinct mark of Scandinavian knitting infused by the designer’s personal vision.

While looking at the designs by Sirkka Könönen, I understood a lot about her as an artist and a person: she had a heightened sense of color, a love of native animals and plants, a concern about conservation, a commitment to quality. Her sense of humor was quirky, that of an intraverted person. Also, there was deep commitment to the Northern European knitting tradition.

I trawled the net in hope to find something about her. The catch was meager. There was no a sleek website. No social media presence. Google pulled out a short, dry article in Finnish Wiki. Sirkka Könönen was not a publicity hound: that much became clear.
And then… I found her obituary in Helsingin Sanomat newspaper which appeared in 2018. The photo in the article dated back to 1999 and the text was obstructed by the nagging request to subscribe.

One of two articles in Helsingin Sanomat dedicated to Sirkka Könönen in 2018, after her death.
(There were many older articles about the artist in the same newspaper,
but it took an effort to unearth a listing of headlines in English.)

I also found the article on the website of Finnish Folk Art Museum describing the recent commemorative exhibition, which was informative, but had no pictures.

Who was elusive Sirkka Könönen?

The picture of her that I put together from the scraps of information is incomplete, but my impression of her formed by looking at her designs was not completely off mark.
The most important thing about Sirkka Könönen is this: she clearly said with her work what she was important to her.

The beginning

Sirkka Könönen, age 20,
with a puppy she received as a wedding gift.
1967

Sirkka Könönen was born in 1947. The only child. Unremarkable Finnish childhood. Good student. Good with hands. Loved to draw. Trained to be a cartographer. Married at 20. By 23 she was a mother of two girls.

She started her studies at Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki at 25. Her specialty was Product and Environmental Planning. It is only after two-year apprenticeship at Handcrafts Association and Marimekko she started seriously getting into textile design.

While still in school, Sirkka started her first studio in 1979 and ran it until 1983. She made woolen rugs and sweaters.

Sirkka’s sweaters in the early 80s were very traditional Nordic affairs: traditional shape, colorful bands across chest, round sleeves and bottom.

Side note on Finnish design…

The craft studios were booming in the early 80s in Finland. It provided much needed self-employment for the young designers. Finland aimed to be a designing nation. It placed premium on education, high craftsmanship and original design. A nation of mere 5.5 million, 0.07% of the world population, produced a remarkable number of designers in the 20th century.

… back to the story….

On steps of beautiful Villa Puuvilla, where Sirkka had her home and studio between 1983 and 1986. The Villa stood in the middle of the park by the sea. It was shared by 6-7 members of the artistic association.

Sirkka’s lucky break came in the early 80s. Savonlinna Opera Festival allowed her to sell her sweaters and rugs.
In 1986 she bought an apartment on Liisankatu in Helsinki and took a retail space right under her apartment.
The business was launched.

The artist’s vision

This is my conjecture, but it might be correct: Kaffee Fassett’s designs for hand-knitting influenced Sirkka Könönen as a textile artist in the 1980s-90s.

Side note on Kaffee Fassett…

California-born artist Kaffee Fassett was a self-taught knitter, unconstrained by any knitting tradition that female knitters inherit from grandmas.
When he published his first color work patterns in British Vogue Knitting, he was blissfully unaware that Fair Isle knitting tradition existed. He just made up designs on the go. Imaginative and energetic, he used his painter’s approach to hand-knitting. A sweater or a coat became a canvas for a large, bright image. The first printing (40,000 copies) of his book Glorious Knits sold fast. The book was a revelation to both – hand-knitters and knitwear designers that there is different type of sweater design: large and bold shapes, bright colors.

… back to the story…

Fassett was a decade older and already designed knitwear for Missioni, when Sirkka, fresh out of college, sat up her first studio.
At one time, they both designed for Rowan, but Könönen’s cooperation with Rowan was much shorter. She wanted to do her own thing with her much richer range of colors.
If Sirkka Könönen might have borrowed the idea to use large patterns in garments from Kaffee Fassett, no one can claim that she also borrowed the themes and the sense of color. Those were uniquely hers.

The colors on her sweaters are the very colors you see in the summer countryside. They are never overly bright or too fashionable. The color transitions and contracts are nuanced. Some of her sweaters had 40 colors. In the beginning of her career as a textile artist, she died yarn herself in her bathroom, since no yarn manufacturer offered so many shades.

Her imagery was Finnish countryside. Fir trees, clumps of grass, unfurling fern shoots, modest pansies, berries, sun, sliver of moon, shards of aurora borealis. There is also Finnish fauna: moose, grouse, trout, lynx, bears and foxes. Sirkka especially loved foxes.

The images of foxes appeared over and over on her machine- and hand-knit sweaters.

The last side note: the fox

Almost all European children read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. On one of the planets the little prince befriended the fox. The time came for the little prince to go back to his planet and the little fox said:

“Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

… back to the story….

Like many shy people, she had special connection to the animals. She told that they need protection from the humans.
“They are beings with a soul, that think in their own way.”

There is one more important feature of Sirkka Könönen’s designs, which caused many critics call her creations “utilitarian”.
Regardless of trends in artwear, Sirkka designed her clothes after tried-and-true traditional shapes. She believed that the clothing must be functional, beautiful, of high quality and above today’s fashion. Reducing waste caused by over-consumption was a part of Sirkka’s mission as an artist.

The business of making art sweaters

Sirkka Könönen designed her knitwear, but there was the business of making them. Here is how the designer organized the production in the 1990s.

Sirkka in her studio, 1990s

Unlike the majority of hot designers of the 80-90s, Könönen maintained the network of up to 50 home-based knitters all over Finland. The most of the sweaters were machine-knit. Some knitters cooperated with Könönen for over 20 years. The studio employed also several weaving apprentices to make rugs.

Sirkka’s permanent yarn supplier Pirkanmaan Kotityö was also Finnish. The supplier was capable to die yarns into multitude of shades that the designer wanted. Pirkanmaan Kotityö still sells the sweater and rug kits with Sirkka’s designs on its website.

Sirkka was a hands-on business owner who oversaw every aspect of production. The only part that she outsourced was paperwork, of course.

At one of the European exhibitions, 90s

Könönen never hired any publicity or marketing gurus. She was indifferent to so-called “web presence”. In early 90s she received many prizes at home and abroad for her work. The celebrities and nobodies found her shop in Helsinki. The commissions came in. It was enough: Sirkka Könönen was not obsessed with market share, lucrative contracts from big retailers or the latest technology. She was about making wearable art.

A note from Sirkka’s American customer written as a blog comment in 2012:

I was in Helsinki about 5 yrs ago and found Sirkka’s shop. I purchased a sweater from her and would have loved to be able to purchase more when I returned home. It was very difficult communicating with her via email, as she had to wait for her daughter to translate and respond. There were also issues with making payment, as she did not take credit cards…I had to make arrangements to wire via a banking routing process.

Sirkka’s shop on Liisankatu : “In the middle of all design hype, this place is just out of this world. “

One of the visitor’s called her shop “the fairy’s house”. It was not a usual slick boutique. To start with, it did not have a sign.

The shop was a reflection of her personality and quirky sense of humor. Here is the word for it – eccentric.

Sirkka loved collecting. That is, collecting stuff.
She felt sad that so many beautiful and well-made objects are useless. She made trips to the dumps and peaked into garbage bins. The salvaged oddities filled the shop, her apartment and her country cottage.
There was always an internal conflict between the impulse to rescue and recycle unwanted things and the desire for space and sparsity.
When the things crowded her too much, she gave them away or sold them in her shop. She also made interior designs from the found objects.

I’ve never been to Sirkka’s shop, but this short review by Jedrzej R says a lot:


“Sirkka Kononen shop is full of beautiful handcrafts and fantastic colors. The artist lives above the shop, so you should call her number (displayed on the door, the number in google is not working) in case you want her to open for you. Great magical place”

Beyond 1990s

I was not able to find much about about Sirkka Könönen’s later carrier except that she started designing… cakes in the 2000s.
“Everything that people can throw away I take: colorful plastic bottles, old toys and used plastic bags,” – Sirkka said. They all ended up in… cakes.
Each cake sculpture has a name and a message.

Sirkka’s cakes were displayed next to her sweaters at the indoor fair.

P.S.

The last two postings on Helsinki’s page dedicated to the shop was from Sirkka’s daughter. She announced that the shop is selling the remainder of stock and the fixtures and that Craft Museum of Finland plans the retrospective of her works in 2019/2020.

One of Instagram posts dedicated to the memory of Sirkka said:

End of an era – the final hours of the final sale at the workshop of textile artist Sirkka Könönen who always had the most mysterious window display on Liisankatu 

Sirkka Könönen, 1993.

References

The trail of information crumbs lead me from Marketta Luutonen’s wonderful article Handmade Memories to the slim volume by the same author published in 1999 by AKATIIMI. The book is mostly in Finnish, its title in English is Nature’s Yarns: A Portrait of Textile Artist Sirkka Könönen and Her Knitwear. I found the only copy on the website for the Finnish used books. I cannibalized the most of the pictures on this blog from this book.
Nothing else could be found in a print form. The web contained bits and pieces here and there.

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