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Shaggy Beauties – Rya Rugs

Although the art of rug making has always been associated with the Orient, Scandinavia also has a lot to boast of in the matter. Nowadays, people most frequently associate Swedish rya rugs with the flat-weave Rollakans that have gained the world-wide popularity in the first half of the 20th century thanks to the ingenious creations of iconic weavers, such as Marta Maas-Fjetterstrom or Judith Johansson. 

However, the earliest instances of the northern rug craft have appeared as early as in the 15th century in the form of coarse, long-piled, heavy covers used by mariners instead of fur – the Ryas.

Carpets have been known to the Scandinavians since approximately the 9th century when Viking merchants brought home first woven textiles from the Byzantine Empire. Subsequently, Scandinavia began acquiring knotted pile rugs from the Ottomans in Anatolia. Eventually, influenced by the oriental pieces, the Northern folk started to produce their own, unique type of rugs. Interestingly enough, at first Ryas did not serve as floor decorations but rather as bed and back covers. The rough northern climate demanded extreme measures of protection against the raging wind and the piercing cold. Scandinavia has always been living off the sea so the group most exposed to the inconveniences of the severe conditions were the mariners. Initially, they used animal fur for both daily protection and as counterpanes, just as the majority of people from the North, but the skins frequently tended to become stiff and could not be washed. Ryas came as a brilliant alternative that encompassed the advantages of the previous coats, at the same eliminating their inadequacies.

Originally, peasants used wool plucked directly from the sheep without spinning in order to stimulate fur as close as possible. There was no dying process and the simple patterns were rendered in natural wool colors – black, off-white and grey. The fleece was knotted in during the weaving and formed a sheen, soft and high pile, very much resembling of natural leathers. The pile, always placed facing the body to provide warmth and protection, was usually decorated, whereas the other side of the rya, less important from the practical point of view, bore the signature of the weaver. Later, the Swedes began putting the wool into hot water to make it shrink. Consequently, the stiffened and tightened wool made it possible to produce more durable rugs but they were not as luminous and shaggy as before.

Over the time, Rya’s appearance and purpose have changed. In Sweden, until the 17th century, Ryas had been considered a symbol of status and nobility, only later to become the bedding of the lower classes. The 18th century Finns, on the other hand, turned the Ryas into decorative pieces of art, with the ornamental animal, flower and symbolic designs. They were used during weddings as prayer rugs or as a part of a bride’s dowry; sometimes women were standing on Ryas while getting married. These rugs were then displayed in the households as tapestries and mementos of the wedding day and would often be passed down for generations as family heirlooms.

Rya rugs have enjoyed an unfading popularity in the United States from the 1970s, though they were never extensively advertised or promoted. This only confirms that the quality defends itself and will always come to the surface. We at Doris Leslie Blau try to provide only the first-rate carpets as we believe in the power of quality.

If you would like to find out more about rya rugs, do not hesitate to contact us by email [email protected] or call 212-517-9178. You are more than welcome to visit our gallery located on 306 East 61st Street, 7th Floor, New York and if by any chance you are visiting the capital, come to The Washington Design Centre at 1099 14th Street, N.W. Suite 325. We assure that our consultants will be at your disposal, serving with their expertise and kind advice.

See also our vintage Swedish rya carpet by MMF here »