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Interview with Tarmo Thorström, Finnish Bobbin Lace Maker

On our lace journey around the world, we will stop in Finland now. Did you not picture Finland like a lace country? Me either, but Tarmo's story broadened my horizons.

Let's hear Tarmo's story about how he fell in love with lace and how lace became part of his life and about lace in Finland.

I was born in central Finland, where there is no bobbin lacemaking tradition. In 2003 I moved to the south-western coast of Finland to the town of Rauma to start my class teacher studies at the university. Rauma is the traditional center of bobbin lace making in Finland, but that, of course, I did not know when I moved there. In the summer of 2005, I had a job where I worked only during the evenings and early nights. Therefore I had the rare opportunity to spend my free time during the daytime. I decided to use this opportunity to get to know my relatively new hometown Rauma. It is the third oldest town in Finland, and it has two Unesco World Heritage Sites. And of course, a lot more to see. So I decided to go and see all sorts of events, sights, cultural interests and so on during my free time.

Every year at the end of July, Rauma celebrates the Lace week festival, an event of nine days dedicated to bobbin lace. According to my plan, I went to see what is this bobbin lace making is about. To be honest, I was not interested in bobbin lace making at all, but I wanted to stick to my plan because to know everything about Rauma, I needed to check lace week as well. I had only general curiosity towards bobbin lace making as a cultural phenomenon, not personal interest as a craft.

Anyway, I walked to the town culture center to get a brochure of this Lace week festival. I was looking for bobbin lace exhibitions, and I found three. One was on display at the historical museum in the town, and two other lace making organizations have organized two others. Only one of the three exhibitions didn't charge an entrance fee, so I naturally chose that one. When I arrived at the exhibition, I found out it was a retrospective exhibition of an 80 years old master lacemaker Impi Alanko. Two months before that event, there was a book published of her life and deeds in the lacemaking scene. I looked at the works, and I still, to this day, remember how much I was impressed by how human hands can come up with such precise work. They were perfect, more than a machine could ever achieve, I thought.

After seeing all the works, I noticed that the master herself was present, having a work demonstration at that time. Of course, I went to see her, how is she making her lace, and at the same time, a journalist arrived to interview her. So I did not only got to see her work demonstration but also an excellent lecture as a journalist asked her many questions, and master lacemaker Impi Alanko answered them. During the journalist interview, I got so pulled in the conversation that I had to ask some questions also. I think my questions have been better than those which the journalist asked.

The journalist most likely was not happy about me starting to interview her as well, but luckily she didn't mind. I got my answers, and I was satisfied with it. For a while, she had both of us asking questions, and after some time, the journalist decided that he had everything he needed, thanked her, and went away. I stayed as at that point we were not so much talking about the lace but life in Rauma. She heard from my speaking that I was not local, and she asked where I was from and what brought me here. I was about to start my minor studies in textile crafts in next semester. In the Finnish school system, the first six years, a teacher teaches all the subjects to the pupils. And of all the subjects textile craft was the one I was the poorest on. So, that I would be able to teach this subject, also I had to apply for study in the field of textile craft, and I got accepted.

Impi Alanko listened to my story, and she told me that at the university, they don't teach bobbin lace making, but if I am interested, she could teach me. She also added that after I learn the basics from her, I could continue on my own. I was amazed by this offer. I was not that interested in making lace, but still, I understood that she was the grand old lady of bobbin lace making, a true master. If any master offers her teachings, one should gratefully accept it as that is a unique opportunity that will not most likely repeat in life. So I accepted the offer with gratitude, and we agreed to start our studies at her home next month.

From August 2005, we started having lessons once a week at her house. I was a slow learner, but she was a patient teacher. My learning was slow not only because of me being inept but also every time we spent a lot of time drinking coffee and eating buns she had made. During that year, we became close friends. She was like a grandmother to me as my biological grandparents lived quite far away in Central Finland.

I had the chance to study under her supervision only for one year as in the summer of 2006, her cancer renewed. We had to stop our lessons as she got into hospital care. Nevertheless, we continued seeing each other in the hospital as we had grown even closer. In the summer of 2007, she finally died of cancer. Ever since she had to go to the hospital, I had a break from lacemaking as I didn't have a teacher anymore. And that break continued even after her death for the same reasons. It was also amplified by the fact that I was not that interested in the bobbin lace products as the process. In the first year of lace studies, I had already made a tablecloth for my mother and grandmother and two others. The technique and process were more interesting for me than the product. This was how I discovered bobbin lace, but I wouldn't say I chose it. Rather I would say it was an accident, a pure chance.

In other countries, it may be very unusual for a man to make lace, but in Finland, especially in Rauma, it is not. Already in the 18th century, there were small boys and old men making bobbin lace. In poor families all around the world, all the children have participated in work gathering money for the family. Rauma was a lacemaking center of Finland, and almost in every family, there was at least one who could make lace. So the small children were taught how to make simple lace to be sold. As the children grew, boys were put to physical work, and girls continued into more complex laces. But the male gender could end up lace making again later on. The history tells many examples of men who got injured and were not able to do labor work, so they continued the skills they had learned as children: bobbin lace making. And then during winters when the sea was frozen, the seamen were forced to find work to earn a living. So many sailors made lace during the wintertime.

My teacher's husband had also made bobbin lace when he lived. Unfortunately, he died before I got to know this craft. Still, during these 14 years of lace making life, I have met several other men in Finland who make lace, and again very many people living in Rauma have told me how their fathers, uncles, and other male members of the family have also made lace. While it is true that the majority of lacemakers in Finland are women, but still, it is not that uncommon for a man.

To answer Daniela's question of my male approach towards bobbin lace, I find it difficult to answer. To know the differences between men and women approaches, I would first need to know what is the womanly approach. And to be honest, I don't think it is possible to describe a general approach neither for women or men. So far, I have noticed that there is equally variety between women as between men and women. And as I have been teaching for many years, I can't tell the differences between men and women or with boys and girls in learning the skill of bobbin lace making. This, of course, might be a result of the relatively equal society of Finland. The gender gap is quite small here, and both genders do quite much the same things, both in work and in their hobbies. Women hunt, go to the military, drive trucks, etc. Men nurse babies, make bobbin lace, and so on.

I consider the approach to be mostly linked with personal abilities and prejudices, not in gender. In the ability, the self-image is essential. How I see myself is as a learner, and what are my strengths and weaknesses. When I started making lace, I didn't consider these myself, but later on, with my work as a class teacher, I have started to notice the meaning of this in the students. My first steps in the study of bobbin lace based purely on repetition. The teaching technique of my teacher was very much based on behaviorism. I try to make the students learn the structure of lace so they can solve problems when encountering one. I see no reason why not start it right away in the learning process because if the students adapt to think what is happening there when they make lace, they can solve a mistake when they encounter one. Very much of the traditional teaching is based on the way that when a student encounters a problem, the teacher just tells them what to do. I don't find that good. Instead, the teaching should focus on evaluating what caused the problems and what are the possible solutions and how each one of them affects the lace in a structural, functional, and aesthetical way.

But back to your question: How do I feel about the bobbin lace technique? To me, it is like a puzzle, sudoku, or crosswords to some people. It is a problem-solving self-challenge. But not only that, but it is also a way for self-expression. On a personal level, I find bobbin lace making very much as a medium for artistic self-expression. Some people paint, others make music, but I make lace. The form and function vary, but all the same, it is a channel for self-expression. In lace making, I can put my ideas, thoughts, skills, and hard-working effort, and the result might be anything. Sometimes I succeed, on the other times I don't, but of those also I learn to get better.

Whom I admire in the bobbin lace making field? Oh, I have so many to admire. In a way, the first one on the list is my teacher Impi Alanko. She not only taught me the basics, but more importantly, she gave me a philosophical way to see things, especially in lace making. She was a master in both making the traditional and designing new. There were times when her new designs and ideas were opposed as they did not fit the tradition, but to me, she just told that every tradition has been new at some point. So it is irrational to oppose something just because it is new. Everything we have and consider as traditional has been new at some point. If we denied all-new, we would have to wipe out all our culture and achievements (technological, cultural, philosophical, economical, etc.). This simple idea has been in my mind when I do my own work.

There are also many others, but to mention one really important is my close friend Katrina Salo. It is said that nothing can be born in a vacuum (or void). One always needs social connections around. Those connections are like a mirror in making something. Naturally, I do practice self-reflection, but it is as well important to have other people around who can help you in that process. In the bobbin lace making scene, Katrina is like a soul mate giving me good conversations, ideas, and thoughts. She is very critical in her observations, and often she sees something I don't. She is very skilled, precise, and artistic herself, so she is a really good associate and collaborator to me. Also, she is a dear friend.

Another to mention is Pierre Fouché. His skill and artistry are above anything I've ever seen in the bobbin lace world. People who know his works don't need any explanations for why I admire and respect Pierre. Those who don't know him I strongly advise going to his web page

I have been teaching children for many years, but this year I teach adults only. It is one-year studies as a part of the further vocational qualification of a design textiles manufacturer. All the students are experienced lacemakers, and this one-year study is to deepen their knowledge and skills in bobbin lace making. Mostly it is based on the topics from my book but going more in-depth than in the book.

I started to write a book about bobbin lace five years ago, but to be honest, the actual work was done from Spring 2019. Of course, it took many years to collect all the information as only one chapter of four is about patterns. Mostly the book is about the applied techniques of bobbin lace making and how to design patterns. During these years, people have been asking instructions, patterns, etc. regarding my works, and in a way, one could say that this book covers my achievements during the first 14 years in bobbin lace making. All the information I have gained by doing and observing others, information that I have not seen much in other books, I have put into my book to help others in their own road of bobbin lace making.

The book has four chapters. The first is about the unconventional materials, types of equipment, and techniques. The second chapter consists of nine patterns, and in some of those patterns, you need to have the knowledge and equipment mentioned in the first chapter. The third chapter is about designing your own patterns. Partly it is based on the skills achieved by making some of the works mentioned in the second chapter. The fourth chapter is about creativity in designing, tradition, and copyright issues. The copyright is based on the current Finnish law system, so that is a problem we have not yet solved with my publisher how to deal with it for the English translation. My guess is that we take a general look at the law systems around the world so it can give an overall picture regarding the law focused on the bobbin lace making world.

There's no need to fear bobbin lace making. It is only hard if you decide it is hard. The basic idea is quite simple as there are only two fundamental movements: a cross and a twist. Everything is based on making a chain of those movements, just like binary code in the computer world. For computers, all the commands are a series of 0's and 1's. For example, when you press 'T' in your keyboard, there is an eight-digit signal sent to the processor, and the signal is 01010100. Of course, no-one remembers those by heart, and it is not even needed of anyone, but the important lesson here is that all the complex computer programs work with those two: zero and one — the same way all laces are made with cross and twist.

When you learn how to read patterns, you also learn how to "write lace." Making lace from someone else's design is okay, but I find more joy in designing my own patterns and then making them. I want to encourage all the lacemakers to try designing their own patterns. Also, I remind that the same way as learning to read and write as a school kid. This also requires time, and most likely, it will not happen in one moment. Some learn faster than others, and it is natural. Nevertheless, anyone can start designing their own patterns if they have a will for it.

The man in the lace is a former Finnish president Urho Kekkonen. For the book, I made a pattern of him and made a sample lace. In the book, I instruct how to make lace of a photo. So to give some idea of the book I chose these photos.

If you like Tarmo's story and would like to see more of his work, you can follow him on his Facebook page, Instagram, or his personal page.

Instagram account is @tarmot

Facebook page is:

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