Vähä-Heikkilä started studying information technology at the University of Turku in 2009 and studied for just under seven years. For him, the overalls symbolize a particular stage in life. The last time he wore the overalls “in action” was in Tampere in the World Championships of Academic kyykkä in 2019. Since August 2022, Vähä-Heikkilä's overalls have been on display at the museum in Vanhalinna, Lieto, as part of the 100th anniversary exhibition of the Student Union of the University of Turku.
Lessons from the guild sewing club
Matti Vähä-Heikkilä did not have to think twice about buying the black student overalls of his guild Digit ry. For him, the overalls signified belonging to a group, much like team shirts in sports.
“I also saw it as protective clothing in which I could be myself and with which I could also express myself. When people met me, they would first look at my overalls.”
There were some delivery issues with the overalls, so instead of autumn, Vähä-Heikkilä's class did not receive theirs until February 2010 of their fresher year. Students studying other majors were wearing their overalls already, but the first-year students of Digit walked around in jeans.
When Vähä-Heikkilä finally received his long-awaited overalls, he already had a hundred patches waiting to be sewn on. He got excited about patches at the start of his first year as a student. Vähä-Heikkilä’s tutor shared some tips on how to sew the patches on. They were the sewing supervisor of Digit’s MS-DOS Sewing Club. The idea of the club was to make patch sewing a communal experience for students. Vähä-Heikkilä went on to run the club for about three years.
Already in his second year of studies, Vähä-Heikkilä's overalls had so many patches on them that people thought he was a much older scholar.
“Once I was walking along Kauppiaskatu in the centre of Turku, wearing my overalls. A law student walked towards us and started shouting at me and my friend: ‘Just graduate already!’ That made me proud and gave me more motivation to collect patches.”
Vähä-Heikkilä began to understand the power that came with owning enough patches to trade. He started designing and ordering his own patches. His favourite patch is still the symbol of his guild: a patch with a torch and cog, which you are supposed to sew on the left side of your chest.
“That was the first patch I sewed onto my overalls. And I haven't sewn anything on top of it either.”
That is an important observation, because there are no empty spaces left on Vähä-Heikkilä's overalls. It is even difficult to make out the black colour of the overalls underneath all the patches. When he ran out of space, Vähä-Heikkilä came up with some creative solutions. First, he sewed patches on the inside of the collar – they could be seen when the top part of the overalls was open. Then, he sewed patches inside the back section. They were visible when Vähä-Heikkilä let the top part of his overalls hang all the way down. In the end, he had no choice but to get some extra accessories for his overalls.
The first accessory was a sash worn across the chest and made from the same fabric as the overalls. It could hold 200 patches. The next step was a cape, for which Vähä-Heikkilä ordered a fur collar. It made the cape more festive.
Presumably the largest collection of overall patches in Finland is owned by Matti Änkö in Otaniemi. On May Day 2019, Iltalehti reported that he has about 7 000 patches.
“We’ve met and compared our collections,” says Vähä-Heikkilä.