Handcrafts are an expansive practice, utilizing a variety of mediums such as fiber, wood, glass, and plastic for traditions as varied as beading, crocheting, weaving, and felting. Their wide scope is cross-cultural and practices are often accessible to individuals with a range of ages, skillsets, and interests. Many pick up handcrafts during their childhood, either at home, school, or through organizations like 4H. For some the practice just sticks—the ease that comes from working on something with your hands and the satisfaction of a completed project at the end.
For Alana Maijala of Virginia, Minnesota, handcrafts were always something she enjoyed doing to keep busy and relax— “I don’t like just sitting… I can’t just sit [somewhere] and do nothing.”
One of Alana’s earliest memories of handcraft was learning to crochet. Her second grade class was learning to finger crochet and after struggling to help her figure it out, her grandmother taught her a different technique using a crochet hook that she was more familiar with. Today, Alana has an expansive range of skills including beading, felting, weaving and crocheting. She joined local organizations of crafters and has developed skills that help her connect to her Finnish heritage: lastu and himmeli making.
ETHNIC IDENTITY ON THE IRON RANGE
Alana has served as president of the Range Fiberart Guild, a group whose mission is “to foster an interest in and provide education regarding traditional, ethnic and contemporary fiber arts, as well as to encourage and support the development of creative potential in its members.” This encompassing and supportive mission is reflective of the region’s history. Minnesota’s Iron Range was the destination for immigrants from across Europe who continued and adapted their traditions after displacing or settling alongside the area’s Indigenous peoples, mostly Ojibwe. This diversity of backgrounds meant a wide range of traditions—including handcrafts—were practiced and are now being sustained and maintained by dedicated local groups. Many of these groups are celebrating the different ethnic heritages of the area:
I think growing up on the Iron Range, everybody kind of identifies with their own ethnic thing. I mean, I think it’s uniquely Iron Range that we are so into our heritage backgrounds up here.
Individuals may identify with their own ethnic culture and practices, but many are interested in learning about and supporting other traditions and cultures, sometimes through groups like the Range Fiberart Guild, showings at the county fair, or events organized by 4H.
Many migrants from Finland made their way to Minnesota, Michigan, and northern Wisconsin in the late 1800s, joining the region’s other immigrants and adding their traditions to the Upper Midwest’s cultural heritage. A number of Finns went to work in the iron mines of Minnesota and built communities in the region. Alana says it was hard not to be in touch with her Finnish heritage, growing up in what have been called Minnesota’s Finnish Twin Cities of Palo-Markham. From rag rugs and saunas to Palo’s annual Laskiainen celebration (a Finnish winter festival), Alana grew up with a strong connection to her Finnish roots. She joined the local chapter of the Ladies of Kaleva in 1997, a women’s group founded to create and preserve community among Finnish Americans.
Alana has been a member of the Ladies of Kaleva for over 20 years now, but notes,
I’m the first one of my generation to be one of the Ladies of Kaleva. Of my family, I should say. I’m one of their youngest members. It’s a lot of more older people, but with the way times have changed, that’s kind of I think par for the course.
It was after joining the group that one of the sisters, Elna Heittila, introduced Alana to another Finnish craft, teaching her how to make the straw himmeli decorations.
Himmeli is a tradition recognized throughout Europe, and Alana notes that some patterns and designs are distinctive of different regions in Finland. They were traditionally made in the fall and used as holiday decorations before being burned in the midsummer bonfire to release the spirit of the rye plants.
Making the himmeli requires time, concentration, and patience. The first step in making himmeli is finding and cleaning the straw, which can be a time consuming process. In northern Minnesota, Alana uses native grasses and remembers Elna telling her that,
You don’t necessarily need rye, you can go out and find longer grass, you know we have some of the hollow grasses up here.
I think just keeping our ethnic culture alive is a big thing... I think it's kind of neat that we're keeping something that is a century old alive.Alana Maijala
PASSING ON THE TRADITION
Connecting to her heritage while sustaining an age-old tradition are two of the reasons Alana enjoys making himmeli. But it is also the nature of the craft itself, requiring focus, time, and sisu, which keeps her engaged. Alana does her part to teach this art to others as a way to connect to her heritage and share that connection with others. She has taught himmeli-making to adult 4H leaders and also to groups of kids.
Alana has always enjoyed handcrafts as a way to keep busy. She has devoted much of her time to learning new skills in a range of mediums and sharing her expertise with others. There are a variety of reasons people begin practicing handcrafts of different kinds. For some it is a way to productively work with your hands and join a community of crafters. Others may have a personal or cultural connection to a tradition, and by practicing it they are helping to sustain and carry it forward. What started for Alana as an enjoyable past-time also became a way for her to connect to her Finnish heritage. It was by joining a community of women with a shared love of their Finnish heritage and an interest in traditional crafts that Alana was first introduced to the art. By making himmeli, Alana is sustaining a tradition with deep roots within her Ladies of Kaleva chapter, as well as wider roots stretching back to Finland. Alana is one of few himmeli makers in her area today and she hopes that others will learn and carry on the tradition.
By Mirva Johnson
Interviews, Videography, and Photography by Sallie Anna Steiner
Meet the Traveling Traditions Artists
"I came to this country in ’76. And there were people [who] knitted then but not that many. And the big difference is that the people who knitted back then sort of picked it up, but there wasn’t much available in terms of help, inspiration, instructions, so everything was clunky and ungraceful. The knitting you find out here today will just blow your mind."
"Well, as I’m getting old especially, anything that I share with other people, a sort of little bit of me lives on. If I’m not able to do it anymore, they’ll continue doing it and expanding on it, and add their originality to it. But I can get people started on things and so on."