Rya: From a Weaving for Warmth, to Just Plain Wonderful

Rya coverlets are perfect for Norway, aren’t they? If you are covered with shaggy threads of wool, just like a sheep’s fleece, the heat of your body is trapped, and you manage to keep warm in a drafty old wood home, or a loft in a barn, or in a cold, damp fishing boat along the coast.

boat rya

Båtrye, or boat rya, from the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

 

Along the west coast of Norway, boat ryas were woven by women for everyday use in a hard climate. They were utilitarian, yet valuable textiles. Fishermen used the båtryer in boats on their trips to the offshore fishing banks, or while bunking in a cold and damp rorbu, or fisherman’s cottage. They were ideal to roll yourself up in against the cold and raw weather. The båtryer, with thick pile, were woven counterparts of sheepskins, but much better because a sheepskin stiffens when it gets wet.

Women wove båtryer for their husbands and sons and they were used for many years, sometimes generations.  A boat rya used ten to twenty kilos of wool, which was a significant portion of the annual production of a small farm. To ensure they lasted it was important to dry them thoroughly between each use, so the yarns would not rot. They were crucially important objects, as illustrated by the story of a fisherman whose boat capsized. He floated in the water and thought about all of the things in the boat that were lost. When the rescuers arrived, his one thought was, “Save the rya first!”

boatryadetailThe “Traditional Norwegian Weaving: American Reboot” exhibit includes a wonderful donated båtrye from Skodje, Sunnmøre, Møre og Romsdal, NorwayThe coverlet was made by Nikoline Indreberg, the great-grandmother of the donor, in ca. 1890, for her new husband Ole. The coverlet was one of the few belongings that the family brought with them when they had to move after Ole died.

The smooth side of the rya was woven in twill weave with red and white bands. The pile side was woven with rya knots of wool, along with narrow strips of cloth. To save wool, weavers often used wool rags in the knotted pile. You used what you had.

In addition to the important utilitarian boat ryas, by the eighteenth and nineteenth century another tradition of decorative rya bed coverlets developed, although not to the extent they were woven in Finland and Sweden. The patterns on the decorative top side were generally simple: checks, plaids, or warp-wise stripes in a variety of twills.

 

Lisa-Anne Bauch

Lisa-Anne Bauch

Moving to contemporary pieces woven in rya technique, American weavers generally create pieces for wall display, and sometimes for pillows, too.  The ability to mix yarns in each rya knot enables subtlety and depth in color changes.  The textural aspect of the knots adds richness. Locally, the interest in rya led to a year-long study group and exhibit in 2015.  See “The Fruits of Rya Exploration.”

moonlight

“Moonlight,” Edvard Munch

Lisa-Anne Bauch used the technique to mimic the atmosphere of a famous Edvard Munch painting, “Moonlight,” from 1895.  Lisa wrote, “I was fascinated by the way Munch captured the glint of moonlight on water. I replicated the effect by adding linen, which catches the light, to the wool knots. I also used a pale yellow yarn in the moonlit sections to draw the viewer’s eye.”

BauchHighRes1

Watch for posts on more contemporary ryas in the American Reboot exhibit.

 

About Robbie LaFleur
Weaving in Minnesota, when I can!

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