In Finland, Turning Straw Into Magic

VEIKKAALA, Finland — Eija Koski has devoted her life to what is known here as a himmeli, a traditional Christmas ornament made of straw stitched together to create an elaborate web of geometric shapes.

But for Ms. Koski, who is regarded internationally as one of the object’s most talented producers, a himmeli is more than just another holiday decoration.

“For me, it’s a three-dimensional structure which speaks a mathematical language of beauty,” she said of the ornament, whose Finnish name comes from himmel, the word for sky or heaven in German and Scandinavian languages. “They speak to me.”

On a rainy October afternoon, she stood in a stylishly converted cow shed that serves as her workshop and display room and where, before the pandemic, she regularly conducted himmeli-making courses for enthusiasts from as far away as Japan. Surrounding her were pale wooden crates packed with himmelis bound for an exhibition in Switzerland in November.

The himmeli belongs to a centuries-old tradition of straw art, which has a long list of different names in other countries. Its popularity in recent years had Ms. Koski exhibiting her work and teaching the art around Europe and in Japan.

She and others say the ornament’s most captivating feature is its ability to create a near-hypnotic viewing experience: rotating slowly in a slight breeze or the updraft of a flickering candle.

“It’s a living thing; it moves, it listens to you, it talks to you, it creates energy,” Hiroko Sakomura, a cultural event producer in Japan, wrote in an email (she helped bring an exhibition of Ms. Koski’s work to Japan in 2016). “You can find so many beautiful aspects and moments depending on the light and angle.”

The ornament’s origin story varies: Some enthusiasts say it was designed to resemble church chandeliers, others that the network of geometric shapes reflects the harmony and regenerative power of the universe. A himmeli is often composed of shapes that are among the Platonic solids, theorized by the philosopher to be the basic elements of nature.

According to an email from Jan Huss, an award-winning straw artist and lecturer based in California, the ornament is widely — and mistakenly — believed to be Finnish in origin. It actually appears throughout Eastern and Central Europe, Ukraine and Russia, Ms. Huss wrote, and is believed to have distant roots in North Africa.

The ornament typically is used as a Christmas decoration in the Nordic countries; elsewhere it is hung at weddings and used to celebrate Easter and New Year’s Eve, according to Ms. Huss’s website, thestrawshop.com, which promotes straw art and sells books and supplies.

The website says materials used to make the ornament vary geographically, as do the designs, with crafters in some countries — for example, Lithuania — producing rounder, less geometric pieces. Many use rye and wheat, while others rely on barley or reeds.

Ms. Koski, 54, prefers to make her himmeli from rye, harvested each summer from the organic grain farm cultivated by her husband Kari and then dried in the sun.

Nowadays, she said, crafters use a variety of materials, including glass, metal and even plastic drinking straws. “I have tried them all, but only once. After that, I came back to rye because it’s so light,” she said. “It moves. You just walk beside it and it starts to move.”

To make an average-size ornament — about 18 inches long by 16 inches wide — she might use 800 pieces, stitching them by hand with mercerized cotton thread to create three-dimensional elements that she then assembles into a larger whole.

Whether she is working on a traditional design or a modern pattern, the goal is always the same: to create precise shapes of perfect proportion. “When you watch the himmeli slowly spin, you should be able to see the movement of all the geometric patterns,” Ms. Koski said.

How long does it take to craft a himmeli? “About a year,” she answered. “That’s how long it takes the rye to grow.” It actually is a question she mildly resents, she said, because the meditative art of himmeli-making is something to get lost in: “For me, the act of making a himmeli is just as important as the result.”

Ms. Koski sells her himmelis online, with prices from 30 euros to 1,800 euros ($35 to $2,080) depending on size.

She said she first fell in love with himmelis as a child while visiting her aunt, who had one on display. But then she more or less forgot about them until she met her husband in 1993 and his farm’s fields of organic wheat and rye inspired her to take a course in the nearby coastal city of Vaasa.

“At that course,” said Ms. Koski who, nearly three decades on, makes the ornaments daily and displays them year-round in every room of her house, “I realized, this is it. This is my thing.”