Syrian women weave large rugs in a new Finnish project

By Mimmi Pentikäinen     15. November 2016

© Timo Junttila

New Finnish project Ragamuf produces colourful rugs large enough to cover furniture. They are made by Syrian women in Turkey.

More and more designers are looking for ways to mitigate the refugee crisis. Earlier this autumn Helsinki Design Weekly featured Finnish Saana & Olli brand that hired a refugee to sow its latest product. Ragamuf is a new Finnish project aiming at a better world, founded by designer Tuula Pöyhönen and entrepreneur Martta Leskelä.

Ragamuf’s main product is a rug that can be stretched over all types of lounge chairs. Anyone can make this rug anywhere because it does not require a loom or a machine to make. Weaving the rug is rewarding because each maker can also be a designer by choosing the colours and patterns.

Pöyhönen and Leskelä have taught rug-making to Syrian women in Turkey near the Syrian border, in a centre for Syrian widows and orphans and in a Turkish centre for women.

Now a sample collection of Ragamufs is ready, and Tuula Pöyhönen tells us what it’s all about.

Where did it all begin?

I was at Finland’s Central Arts Council’s residence in Edinburgh with my two sons intending to study the world of fabulous Scottish knits and wool fabrics and to develop my own angle to them. In the farthest corner of a local textile store, I found a couple of bolts of dusty openwork patterned knits. The pattern had unusually large holes, which is hard to find these days. As I re-entered the store, I was thinking about my boys with their iPads sitting on the ugly sofas of the residence. In that moment I had a great idea of redressing the sofas. I ended up buying a bolt of lace pattern instead of traditional Scottish fabrics. I am familiar with rag rug strips as material as well as with sports fabrics. This is all about combining those. The strips are knit to a stretchy net that can be flexed over any three-dimensional object.

What are the objectives of Ragamuf?

With Ragamuf, you can give a new life to an ugly or well-worn chair or lounger. Usually the most well-worn chair is the best-loved. Technology provides mercy. The long fringes dissolve the pattern so that the smallest details or errors do not catch the eye. The result is safe and sympathetic much like a soft toy or a pet.

How did you end up with this product in particular?

It combines the interests of both myself and Martta. Due to the Syrians’ situation in Turkey it felt natural to start work there. Martta was living in Turkey with her family and thus had local contacts, and she was familiar with humanitary work due to her old job at Finn Church Aid. My idea for the sofa rugs needed an enabler and makers. Pieces just fell into their places.

Click on photos to enlarge:

How does the fabrication process go in practice?

Making a chair rug is a simple technique that anyone can adopt in nearly any conditions. One of the most important ideas with Ragamuf is that every woman gets to design their own pattern. That is how the work becomes meaningful to the maker. It is exciting to see which strips the women choose and how their skills develop. The net and the strips come from a nearby place in Turkey to avoid long-distance transport. Turkey is a country dominated by textile industry, and the strips we use are left overs from the industry.

You visited the Syrian border with Martta when the making of Ragamufs started. What do you remember from that trip?

One memory is related to the moment when we were driving from Sanliurfa to Diyarbakir. Martta and our Kurdish friend were singing. Gratitude for all that was my strongest feeling. During the week we had experienced unbelievable moments together, and the work we had done felt important. There was a lot of contrast and at the same time plenty of warmth and humour.

Where can we fiddle with or buy the chair rugs?

They are sold online in order to keep the price affordable. Today design products are presented in various events, exhibitions and pop-up stores.

What is Ragamuf going to make next?

We are currently working on materials for a crowd funding campaign called Indiegogo. The purpose of the campaign is to enable wider activity and international awareness and thereby to employ as many women as possible. Until now we have only prepared the conditions and resources. In the future, in addition to the women’s centre, Ragamuf will cooperate with International Middle East Peace Recearch Center (IMPR) that helps locate the women who are in the most dire financial situation. The company will hire them through a Turkish subsidiary.

© Martta Leskelä

What has been the highlight of your career as a designer?

This project has all it takes to be the highlight. It would not exist as it is without my earlier work. Professional skills accumulate like mathematics. Experience helps appreciate points of view that I would never have listed in the beginning of my career. The customers only see the result. Instead of the product that is being created, it is more important to me how and with whom and based on which values we work.

What would you do differently now?

In this project I had no time to do anything differently. In Martta I’ve met my equal. I’ve always hated waiting. With her this is not a problem.

What would you like to say to young people or any fledgling designer?

Follow your intuition. It is the most important tool a designer can have. 

© Timo Junttila
Mimmi Pentikäinen

Mimmi Pentikäinen is a freelance journalist, who writes, photographs and styles for living. Her motto is to live a little upside down. And to bravely face what life has to offer.