Alana Maijala

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.

Table with weavings displayed
Alana enjoys weaving and remembers her grandmother used to keep a floor loom in the barn.
An array of crafts made by Alana including a himmeli base and items of crochet. She won a second place ribbon for this hat at the county fair.
Beading is another of Alana's skills, and she often uses beads when teaching others to make himmeli. Here, Alana shows one of her beaded bracelets.


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

Alana learned to make this Sami-style of bracelet through a class at the Sami Cultural Center in Duluth.





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. 

Kaleva Hall building exterior.
Kaleva Hall, in Virginia, Minnesota, was built around 1906 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Interior of Kaleva Hall. Rows of chairs lined up in front of stage.
The building now called Kaleva Hall is over 100 years old and has undergone restoration to preserve its interior and exterior.
The Ladies of Kaleva in Virginia, Minnesota are well known for their lastu crafting—using woodshavings to create intricate designs. The group meets regularly to create ornaments and decorations, often selling them at bazaars and festivals.
Lastu means ‘wood shaving’ in Finnish and the curled shape of the wood shaving is distinctive of lastu ornaments. Here, Alana shows a lastu angel ornament she made.


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.

box of straw
Straw for making himmeli, before being cleaned and cut.
A himmeli is a series of straw pieces tied together into a diamond shape.
A large himmeli hangs from the ceiling of the women’s meeting room. Alana thinks this one was likely made by Elna Heittila.

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.



In this video, Alana demonstrates how to make a diamond-shaped base as the first step in making a himmeli decoration.


Alana explains that when constructing the frame, it is easy to tie the string too tightly and break pieces of straw, or otherwise split them just by not handling them delicately enough. Alana says,

When you’re doing it with the actual straw it’s kind of frustrating, but you have to have the tenacity to stick with it.


That tenacity is something she connects with her Finnish heritage and is part of who she is.

Sisu is a Finnish word that has been defined in different ways, but often comes back to perseverance in the face of adversity. It is a quality that Alana takes pride in,

I was struggling with something and one of my other Finnish friends says, ‘You have sisu, I know you’re going to get this project done by the time you want it done.’


Completing a himmeli similarly requires patience, skill, tenacity, and perseverance. In this video Alana shows how to finish a himmeli base.


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


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.

When teaching himmeli to others, Alana often starts with beads because they are more forgiving than the traditional straw, which can easily break.

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