Noble fibres from the bog
Four years ago Kaisa Ovaska-Ahonen sat and reflected, a lump of peat in her hand. She had a vision: making an industrial product from the fibres that she knew could be extracted from peat. That vision has now been fulfilled, but - in Kaisa's own word's - the intervening four years have been "a terrible struggle".
Kaisa had an interest in felt-making and was looking for a fibre that could be used together with wool. There was nothing new about the fibres that came from the white, fluffy fruiting heads of the perennial plant cotton-grass (or hare's-tail;) Eriphorum vaginatum, but no one had ever used them industrially. Kaisa changed all that. In a wild frenzy of activity she drove from bog to bog in Finland trying to persuade horticultural peat harvesters, inventing and developing machines to extract fibres and beseeching felt factories to at least manufacture a small trial batch.
"I'd never take on that job again," Kaisa sighs. "The first year was terrible. There was no money; as soon as I got money for products, I had to spend it to make new ones. I was regarded as mad in textile circles."
It was clear from the beginning that this was not to be a question of small-scale tinkering: production had to be on an industrial scale and there would be an immediate assault on export markets. And the crazy lady did it. Now her own company Kultaturve ("Golden Peat") manufactures the fibres, but in addition to that she has a network of 36 cooperation partners to spin, weave and process them. There is a market in Finland and abroad for everything they can turn out. The new fibre has attracted great attention in many quarters, including big-name French and Italian fashion houses.
Once useless by-product, now valuable asset
Cotton-grass fibres have a lot going for them. They are anti-static, light, clean, highly absorbent and above all warm," says Kaisa.
The fibres are full of tiny air-filled pores, which make them appreciably warmer than wool. They are extracted from horticultural peat that has been maturing in the bog for anything between 700 and 1,000 years, and that has given them all the chemical treatment they need. Kaisa thinks it is great that the raw material is an industrial by-product that was being made all the time, but no one had any use for it.
"We weren't trying to make any particularly 'green' product, although we undeniably caught the eco-boom. Our marketing is aimed at everyone and our clientele includes a great many types of people. However, this will never become a mass product, because peat fibres are not quite cheap," she says.
If not entirely green, the ready products do reflect at least a certain kind of close-to-nature lifestyle. The same applies to the interior decoration in the Kultaturve shop in Helsinki's Korkeavuorenkatu street and the company's labels and brochures, which are painted on recycled looking paper.
Cotton-grass fibres are mixed fifty-fifty with wool or cotton and spun into yarn. The yarn may be dyed, but the fibres never. Kultaturve both sells material (fabric, felt and yarn) and makes garments. Kaisa has two designers, who make special variations of the basic range for different markets.
Tough on the family
Kaisa Ovaska-Ahonen is Kultaturve's managing director, but also the mother of a largish family. The youngest of her four sons, now two, was born when the work of setting up the company was at its most frantic and Kaisa was dashing all over the country. "I got a car that suited breast-feeding," she laughs. "Certainly, the situation then demanded a lot of arranging - and a good child-minder." Her husband runs a company of his own, but helps with the housework whenever he can.
This tall, slim lady must have an iron will and the ability to have her way. Now she has another vision: "Kultaturve is going to be a very big company. We are internationalising fast and our products have unlimited potential."
You have to believe her.
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