Re-birth of the seat-belts.

Seat-belts save lives, but what happens to them when the car is sent to be dismantled? They are destroyed, that’s what. Enter Hanna-Kaisa, a creative textile designer who extends the lives of belts by using them to handcraft some of the most robust, cool-looking recycled bags you’ve ever seen.

Moi! Who are you?

Hi, my name is Hanna-Kaisa Haanpää and I’m the founder of Hookoohoo Design (they’re my initials, by the way). I was born in Perniö, a small town near Salo.

What’s your background? What did you study?

I have two diplomas, actually. At first I was working in social services, but then I really needed some change in my life, so I went to school again to study Textile Design. It’s an intermediate degree (two years) meant for people who finish high-school, but it was enough for me because I knew already that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I needed a degree that would allow me to work professionally. Otherwise the whole thing would only be a hobby, instead of a job.

Did you attend only for the diploma, or did you actually learn the trade during those two years?

Oh, I learnt a lot! I wanted to learn everything. I was asking lots of questions all the time! (laughs) “how do you do this?” “can we go over there and learn to do that?” I was super-interested. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I just knew I loved doing things with my own hands and I wanted to build something concrete.

How did the seat-belt bags come to be?

It started in school. As my project, I was designing a backpack that had tire-mark prints all over (you know, like marks from a car’s wheels?) and recycled seat-belts for straps. To get the belts I searched for car dismantlers and called them asking “hey, I’m a student of textile design, can I please have some used seat-belts?” I went and they gave me two big boxes full of them, and I was like “I just needed two…”

But when I saw the potential of the material I wanted to go for something more ambitious, not only use them for their “original” function (belts). It was very exciting and it got me thinking “what can I do with these, where can I use this material?” And then it started. When I graduated I had created only a small toiletry-essentials bag for men (which is not the same I’ve got nowadays) but the idea began there. After my graduation I was working on a textile store for the summer-time, and I was thinking “could I do this for a living?” So in late 2016 I made up my mind and became an entrepreneur.

You do all this alone?

I started alone, and now I have an assistant helping me, because it takes so much time. The backpacks, for example, take two hours to make. Very slow, compared to products made out of normal fabric.

But that’s what brings value to the product. yeah? Handmade by a Finn, using recycled materials.

That’s true. I collect the belts, wash them in a washing machine (it’s really cool because they don’t lose their color and never get wrinkled), I measure and cut them by hand with scissors, then I sew them together with an old sewing machine.

I would say each one of the bags is an artwork.

Naaah… (thinks) Well, maybe! (laughs) I guess they are because each one of them is absolutely unique. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t build two exact ones…

I imagine the material is a bit rough to work with?

Yes, it is. Joining the straps together is not that hard, but when I need to work at the corners, or connect elaborate parts, it gets tough. You need a very strong sewing machine.

Is everything in the bags made out of seat-belts?

No. There’s new material in there like zippers and straps, but the pouches inside are also from recycled coverall fabric. The belts are of a specific width and can’t be cut into smaller bits because of how they’re designed. If you cut along or diagonally, it looses its tension and the threads fall apart. You can only cut perpendicular sections of belt and it’s fine, but even then the ends need to be melted to keep the whole structure intact and sturdy.

Do the backpacks have pockets for computers, etc?

Currently there is a pocket for your phone and other small stuff, but not for a computer. The material is so rough that it’s not possible to include something like that, and I prefer to keep things simple. You can always use a sleeve for your computer, though.

I notice you leave the stopper pin of the seat-belts very visible in the design.

Yes! It calls attention to the fact that it’s a seat-belt. People think it’s one of those alarm pins from a store! (laughs). I used to cut them off at first, but I had to throw away so much material because of the pin, the rest was so short I couldn’t use it… So now it’s a fun conversation starter when people ask “what’s that? An alarm pin?”

Are the bags sold online only, or do you have a physical store somewhere?

Of course people who know my studio can drop by and buy directly, but yeah, mainly online. I also have two re-sellers in Helsinki: Unionin26-shop (Unioninkatu 26, surprise!) and Studio-Em (Mannerheimintie 29). I’m looking for more.

Are you selling overseas?

I need to translate the website into English! (laughs)

Do you have to pay for the recycled seat-belts?

I get them from several places. Some charge me for them because someone has to physically get into the cars and retrieve the seat-belts, so understandably they want to get paid. Others are committed to promote sustainable practices like recycling, so they give them to me for free. On my website I list partners who provide me with the material.

Are you making money from this? Does it make sense commercially?

(pause) I am happy. I can pay the bills. (laughs) But also because I’m so new, I need more equipment, like a new machine.

For what?

Sewing, mostly. I do two types of sewing, straight and zig-zag, and my machine can do both. But on the final stage, when I need to connect the top parts, the work is so rough that I need to use a h4er machine, so I bother my neighbor who lets me use hers! (laughs) She can use mine as well, we support each other.

How much would a new machine cost?

About 3.000 eu, plus VAT. And I will have to get it, because it will help me work faster. I’ll probably get it this summer.

I guess the bags will always be black?

Not necessarily. I was surprised to find seat-belts come in many colors. There’s several shades of grey…

Fifty Shades?

Hey, that’s a great idea, we could make a campaign! (laughs) Then there’s a bit of blue, and beige.

So you could mix the colors.

Yes, but I mostly do them in black. If you order through the website you will get a black one, because it looks black there, so I can’t send a blue one.

Because each is unique.

Yeah. I would have to photograph every single one of the bags I make, and it wouldn’t make sense. They are all different. You never know what you’ll get!

People are used to that, it’s part of their appeal to get something artisanal, hand-made, and unique.

My return is literally zero. No-one has returned a bag yet.

What are the benefits of buying one of your bags?

They’re very ecological, considering the mass of the material is recycled trash. Seat-belts aren’t normally taken away from recycled cars, they are compacted with the bulk, so it’s a very good thing to use them again. The material itself has very good properties: it’s very strong (it’s meant to save lives, after all). It doesn’t get dirty easily, but you can wash it if you need. And it’s water-resistant: I filled a whole bag with water, and it was already full before it started to leak from the seams. My bags have a lifetime guarantee, by the way. And they’re unisex.

Is it possible you might run out of material at some point?

Yes, it is very possible, because car recyclers don’t have any real incentive for doing the work of taking the seat-belts out of an old car. They only do it for me because they know what I’m doing. Hopefully they will continue helping.

Would you ever consider buying new seat-belt material straight from the producer?

No, definitely not. The recycling aspect is very important for me. It’s my own way of helping the planet.

What’s next for you, you think?

More bags. Different types of bags.

Always made out of seat-belts? Or do you consider other alternatives?

For now it’s the seat-belt bags, yeah. But of course I’ve got lots of ideas in my head. (laughs) I had this crazy idea of creating a skirt out of a banderole, or streamer. This building company had a huge sheet of this material in front of a construction site, you know, showing what the work will look like? So I contacted them and they gave it to me when they pulled it down. And I used part of the material to create a skirt! Now I’m planning to design more stuff with that type of recycled material. It’s not the best type for clothes, because it’s very rough (you wouldn’t want a shirt made with it) but for a skirt it works fine. I know people are already making bags out of it, but I haven’t heard of anyone making clothes yet.

Did the company charge you for the banderole?

They gave it to me and I gave them the skirt! (laughs)

The Hookoohoo website is here, and this is their Instagram and Facebook.