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Mendhi hands by Pushpa Jain. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.Fish decoy. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Embroidered dress detail. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Cedar bird by Glen VanAntwerp. Photo by Al Kamuda. All rights reserved.
Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo by Mary Whalen

Photo by Mary Whalen

Photo by Mary Whalen

Photo by Yvonne Lockwood

Irene Vuorenmaa
2000 awardee, Ironwood (Gogebic County), Finnish American rag-rug weaver

Ask about rag-rug weaving in Ironwood and chances are you will be directed to Irene Vuorenmaa, a master of this tradition. Born in 1935 in Kortesjarvi, Finland, Irene came to the United States in 1959 on a visit. She met her husband and has lived in Ironwood ever since.

Like many Finnish girls, Irene learned to weave at a young age from her mother. She wove rugs, curtains, bedspreads, and tablecloths. At 15 she was selling her rugs. When she settled in the United States, she resumed weaving on a four-harness loom. In the early years of settlement, Finnish immigrants also wove a variety of textiles on four-harness looms. In a short period of time, however, they were weaving only rag rugs. Their four-harness looms were altered to two, because of the ease and speed this afforded. Today, Irene weaves with both four- and two-harnesses on a loom made by a Finnish immigrant almost 100 years ago. Her favorite pattern is "over the waves" which she learned in Finland.

For 27 years, Irene worked at a local nursing home. After work, she went home to her loom. "It was peaceful," she said, "to come home and do something else." She gets great pleasure from weaving, and she has helped many weavers get started. Irene's fame spread beyond the western Upper Peninsula when her family was featured in the documentary film Finnish American Lives by Michael Loukinen (1) and when she participated in the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Honored for her masterful weaving of rags, Irene also has a widely known reputation as a keeper of many Finnish traditions. She teaches Finnish folk dances, excels in making traditional Finnish foods, actively participates at the local Finnish cultural center, sings in the Finnish chorus, and volunteers with 4-H youth. Ruth Olson of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwest Culture describes her as an articulate spokesperson for her culture. "Irene deserves . . .recognition not only because of her skill as a rag rug weaver but also because of her many other contributions to the preservation and continuing health of Finnish-American culture in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin." (2)

(1) Loukinen, Michael. Finnish American Lives. Up North Films. 1982.
(2) Olson, Ruth. Letter of recommendation to panelists. 8 December 1999.

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