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CETG Online Talk on Monday 8th February 2021

Pirkko Soundy – Stripes, Braids and Duck Tails: Finnish National Costume

Pirkko (pictured here in the costume of Sippola parish) gave a fascinating talk on the history, individual garments and techniques used in women’s Finnish national costume from Finland and Karelia.  She excluded the costumes of the Sami in the north and Russian Orthodox in the east, who have their own separate traditions.

Tracing their origins back to the dress of country folk of the 18th and 19th centuries, the costumes share aspects of those from neighbouring Norway, Sweden and Estonia, but began to be formally recorded at the same time as Finland started to establish its separate national identity in the middle of the 19th century.  The costumes are each linked to a specific parish within the country, and have always been worn for celebratory occasions.  They became valuable family heirlooms – a woollen skirt could be worth almost as much as a cow – passed down as whole garments, with the worn scraps being reworked into smaller garments including for children.  Pirkko described how pioneering scientists collected and recorded country costumes, kept them in museums and published pictures, and how weaving teacher Helmi Vuorelma later began to weave the traditional fabrics and made costume kits available for Finnish women to make their own.

Pirkko described the individual garments which go to make up a typical costume and showed pictures of some of the more beautiful examples.  The stripes of her talk’s title are found on the skirts, made of heavy woven wool.  Each costume has its specific design of stripes.  The most elaborate are woven with ikat dyed weft threads, where the white part of the thread has been protected from the dye, before the fabric is woven.  The dyes were originally subtle natural dyes such as green (nettles or pine needles), red (madder), brown (moss) and blue (woad), but in later times more vivid and permanent shades were used.  The fabric was gathered or pleated onto a simple waistband and fastened with ties or loops and buttons, making it easy to adjust the size for a new wearer.

The woollen braids are similarly varied, and are used extensively on all garments – the costumes were based on designs that pre-dated the zip and any but hand-made buttons, though decorative buttons do feature in some of the later styles. The braids were woven at home with a simple heddle and shuttle.


The pockets are separate, with rounded corners and bias binding round the edge, some heavily embroidered and tied to the waist with braids or sometimes attached with metal hooks to the skirt.  On top of the skirt goes the linen apron.  This is not an afterthought, but an essential social signal – no respectable woman could be seen outside the house without one.


The headdresses are very varied, including bonnets, bun covers and simple ribbons for the young girls.  But the most common are the embroidered silk caps, decorated with a large bow at the back, with lace over the hair.  The caps perch on top of the head, and are made on a papier maché form, the embroidery patterns based on 17th century silk fabrics.


And the duck tails?  These are little pleats called körtit at the bottom of the back of the bodice which serve to give it shape at the waist, and add a flirty element to the costume.  Art historian Mari Varonen has made her life’s work to collect examples of the costumes, now totalling over 250 and many are viewable on her website - with a good example of körtit part way down the page.  Pirkko used many of Mari’s images in her talk, for which we thank her and the website is a feast for the eyes.


Although the costumes are specific to particular parishes within Finland, and mixing elements from different costumes is not really acceptable, the Finns are not prescriptive about who can wear which costume.  You do not need to be born or live in a parish to wear that style, just pick the one you like the best.   National costume can be worn to any sort of celebration including birthdays, funerals and public festivals.  Finnish national costume even has its own anniversary on 5th August to celebrate the 1855 visit of Tsar Alexander III and his wife, when people have picnics wearing their costumes.

Pirkko outlined how expensive even a kit to make your own costume can be, and that often women would go to classes to learn how to weave their own fabric and make up the costumes, as the most economical way to obtain one.  Nowadays, there is a thriving Facebook group dedicated to Finnish national costume, with a booming marketplace in second-hand costumes and woollen fabrics.  This has inspired many to wear parts of the costume in everyday life as well.

Text © Liz Wilmott CETG

Photos © Pirkko Soundy

Pirkko (2).JPG
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