Eija Vähälä

Academy founded by the Ladies’ Association of Kuopio

Kuopio Academy of Design was founded 1884 by the Ladies’ Association of Kuopio. The Ladies’ Association of Kuopio was founded in 1860, i.e. 24 years before the college. Inspired by the example set by the wife of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, young ladies in Kuopio had in 1846 begun collecting funds with a view to founding a reading and weaving school for girls from poor families. Some of the founders of this school were later to be among the first members of the Ladies’ Association.

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As a result of Finland’s economic growth, there was a sharp rise in the population of Kuopio in the 1850s. Migration from the rural regions was accompanied by mass unemployment and the need for social welfare, for young people and children in particular. It was then that the ladies of Kuopio went into action. On 2 March 1860, 49 of the town’s ladies met to discuss ways of providing child welfare on a voluntary basis. The Ladies’ Association of Kuopio was founded. The founders were the womenfolk of civil servant, merchant and artisan families

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The Association’s first objective was to find opportunities for the impecunious women of Kuopio to earn money of their own. The principle was undoubtedly correct: not to distribute alms but to find these women work. Materials were distributed by members of the Association to women seeking work, and guidance and instruction were provided in manufacture and marketing. The City and merchants, headed by Gust. Ranin, respected the voluntary work of the Ladies’ Association by lending it their support.

Funds for buying handicraft materials were raised by holding masked balls and lotteries. The making of garments in the home was most extensive at the end of the 19th century, when 230 women received work and earnings through the Association. An announcement in the newspaper Savo read: “We wish to announce that the Ladies will be setting up a stall in the market place next week and urge members of the public to come and buy from it so that the said company may continue to be in a position to offer a wage to the working poor in these times of grave unemployment.” The problem was not so much lack of customers as the poor quality of the products. The standard of craftsmanship was abysmal. It was therefore decided to set up a handicraft school.

Before founding the school, the Association had already engaged in other activities, such as a children’s home and a library. For 16 years a children’s home operated in the school grounds, and with the school for poor girls came a lending library.


The Association’s poor experience of the quality of the clothing made under the employment scheme and the realisation that by learning handicrafts youngsters could in time earn a living independently led to the idea of founding a handicraft school in Kuopio.

School premises

Funds began to be collected for a school. The financial aid supplied by Anniskeluyhtiö alcohol company was to be decisive to the school. The handicraft school opened in 1884 in the Nylander building opposite the present Academy and spent four years there before transferring to the Hyvärinen building on Kirkkokatu.

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The handicraft school needed permanent premises, a building of its own. Negotiations were already being conducted with the city authorities on a suitable plot of land to be donated free to the school in the centre of town. In 1894 the estate of Bishop Valentin Frosterus opportunely set about selling its plot and buildings on Piispanpuisto. The alcohol company decided to buy the plot and donated it to the Ladies’ Association. According to the deed of gift: “The company has purchased the building and the entire plot with the intention of providing the premises required by a school that would promote the prosperity of the cottage industry, and primarily that of women, and thus provide an opportunity for pupils from this town in particular to acquire knowledge and skills that will help them to earn a living.”

Valentin Frosterus, the first Bishop of Kuopio, had the Piispantalo (Bishop’s Residence) built by himself in 1856 on what was then the central square in Kuopio. The advent of the Bishop and the first Cathedral Chapter in fact occasioned new names: Piispanpuisto (Bishop’s Park) and Piispankatu ( Bishop Street). Also on the plot was a log building housing a stable, a coach house, a storehouse and a cowshed, and two semidetached houses.

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In 1939 the Ladies nevertheless saw in the newspaper that certain circles in the town had engaged in negotiations with a view to exchanging the school house and plot or even donating them to the state to make way for the Cathedral Chapter and the future Bishop’s residence. This led to debate, at times heated, between the authorities and the Ladies. Not even the fine coffee party arranged at a restaurant by the City Board for members of the Association Board, or the tour by motorcar to view alternative plots on marshy or outlying land were to any avail. The Ladies refused to relinquish their plot. In the City’s opinion the Association Board was being unnecessarily stubborn in adhering to its rights. Agreement was, however, reached and the school was able to continue on its original site. As late as 1961 the City Board renewed its proposal that the school vacate its plot.

The early 1960s marked a period of dynamic building for the Ladies’ Association. The old wooden buildings, the hostel for the pupils and the stable were demolished to make way for new buildings. The Bishop’s residence alone remained as a reminder of the former buildings on the plot. The red-bricked main building was completed along with a new hostel. In the 1980s the hostel was likewise converted into teaching premises. The Mytkä wing was added to the main building, providing extra premises along with a shop, exhibition premises and a café. Five years later it was the turn of the beautiful garden with its lilac trees to make way for a new workshop building. The teaching of hard materials thus acquired the permanent premises it needed. The workshop building was modernised and an extension was added alongside the Bishop’s residence. As the school expanded, the shortage of space became ever more pressing. At one point the school occupied rented premises at no fewer than five addresses in neighbouring blocks.

Not until 1993 did the school find a lasting, all-round solution to the problem of rented premises when the old Turo factory fell vacant. This was repaired and leased for ten years. In 2002 the Ladies’ Association purchased the Turo buildings and plot.

Training develops

In the early years the handicraft school was divided into three departments. The Embroidery Department taught subjects ranging from darning and patching to fine embroidery and monogramming. Pupils in the Sewing Department learnt how to make bed linen and other textiles by hand and machine, while those in the Weaving Department made anything from simple tabby to the most intricate weaves.

There were more applicants for places at the school than one teacher could possibly manage. In the first few years there were on average 80 pupils, two-thirds of whom came from the poor section of the city population and enjoyed free tuition. The other pupils came from town and country and paid a fee of up to 50 pennies a week, depending on their means, some open-handedly at their own discretion.

The aim of the school was, according to the statutes, to arouse a desire to learn and to pass on skills in handicrafts (especially women’s and, funds and facilities permitting, also men’s) that were suitable for engaging in at home. Some of those who completed the school even became handicraft teachers, but the majority ended up as skilled workers. The Workers’ Association noted the gift received from the Ladies’ Association and approached the Ladies with a request that it take on the teaching of male workers, too, and this it did.

For the first 25 years the school operated without any artificial lighting. The pupils studied by daylight, though a keen pupil in the Weaving Department might bring along a candle so that she could see to work later in the day. Electric lighting was installed in 1909 and a telephone 20 years later.

The Second World War brought changes to the work of the school and the Association maintaining it. The military district took over the Ladies’ school as a central depot and warm clothes for soldiers were made by teams of workers gathered behind the blackout. During the attack on Kuopio in 1940 the hits on Bishop’s Park damaged the school house but the faithful headmistress managed to salvage the school account books by tucking them under her arm as she dashed to the air-raid shelter in the park.


The strong development of education that continued up to the 1960s brought with it classes leading to the matriculation examination, higher vocational tuition and instruction in special techniques. Branches of the school were set up at Rautalampi, Säynäinen, Varpaisjärvi and Nilsiä. Operating as peripatetic schools, they were later discontinued and annexed to the main school in Kuopio.

According to the development target prescribed for the school in the 1970s, the teaching was to cover all fields of the handicrafts industry as widely as possible. Courses in wood- and metal-working, special techniques, and Finland’s only ceramics department were added to those in textiles and clothing. Training in tourism was also part of the syllabus for a long time.

The name of the school, the Kuopio Handicraft Training Centre, suggested an establishment with versatile, international ambitions. By a Decree and Government decision passed in 1974, the school was raised to vocational college or secondary-education status. The college offered lines in working techniques, arts and crafts. In the 1970s students could qualify as instructors and product designers. The rise to college status was accompanied by a marked increase in general subjects, visual expression and product design in the curriculum. Work experience was also introduced into the curriculum in the mid-1970s.

Figures from the past

Dynamic, determined and fearless women have always featured in the Ladies’ Association of Kuopio and its school. They have anticipated future needs and educational trends. Among the notable chairwomen of the early years were Maria Hillbom, Emmy Piispanen, and Hanna Lignell, herself an active craftswoman. The 1960s-70s were the decades of Rauni Suhonen and Liisa Karttunen, under whom the college experienced its biggest eras of development of the tuition and in building. Serving longest as headmistresses and principals of the school were Iida Ollila, Anja Tenkama and Eija Vähälä.