Varafeldur: An Icelandic Rya Reconstruction

By Marta Kløve Juuhl

This is a norrøn vararfeldur, the closest you can come to a rya in the Viking period. In Norwegian it’s called a gråfell (grey fleece).

It was woven in Iceland in November, 2010 by Hildur Hakonardottir from Iceland, Elizabeth Johnston from Shetland, and me. It is the first gråfell which has been made for more than 1000 years.

It is told in Snorre, the Norwegian kongesaga (king saga), that our king Harald Gråfell was in Hardanger with his men one summer (this must be just before year 1000), and there came an Icelandic ship loaded with vararfeldur which people did not want to buy. They gave one to the king, and he started wearing it. Suddenly the Icelanders got rid of all their gråfellar, and the king got his name. At that time this was a big export from Iceland, before the vadmål took over. In fact vadmål became a trade item later on.

Concerning our weaving, it all started in the summer of 2010. We had a class with weaving on a warp weighted loom at Osterøy museum where I work. Both Hildur and Elizabeth attended that class, among many other students, and I was the teacher. They set up a loom with vadmål.

During that week we found that the three of us had so much in common that we wanted to continue the work with this loom. So before they left we decided to meet in Iceland in November.

When we arrived at Hildur’s house at Selfoss, she had decided that we should try to set up a vararfeldur, which she had read about in the Icelandic legal text, Grågås. There it was strictly regulated how it should be made, 4 ells long and 2 ells wide and 13 knots with wool in each row. Hildur had also read somewhere about the technique, and from that we chose tabby.

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Hildur Håkonardottir in Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Marta Kløve Juuhl)

The warp is white 2-­‐ply yarn, double, and the weft is also double two-ply yarn, grey. We picked the yarn from what we thought would be the best quality for this. My experience from weaving åkle helped finding the weight of the stones for each thread. Hildur obtained some grey fleece; in fact we needed fleece from three sheep to finish this one. We used long fibres, only dekkhår. It took a long time to take away the underwool with carders.

In 2012 Hildur and Elizabeth came to Bergen and we set up a loom at the museum with Norwegian yarn (Hoelfeldt Lund strikkegarn) and wool from spelsau in Osterøy. So this vararfeldur is black and brown, very beautiful. We demonstrated weaving at the Osteroy Museum and at the Bjørgvin Viking market at Hordamuseet. This time we tied the knots in front of the loom. We decided that was best for demonstration purposes. It worked quite well, but we had to put an extra string across the piece to keep the wool away. It’s faster to weave with the knots on the back side.

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The rya woven at Osterøy museum (Photo courtesy of Marta Kløve Juuhl)

In 2014 we hope to publish a book on the technique, written in a way that everybody can read it and use it when they want to set up a warp weighted loom.

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A course was held at Osterøy Museum, where the varafeldur was used as inspiration. (Photo courtesy of Marta Kløve Juuhl)

Marta Kløve Juuhl taught weaving in the Norwegian Husflidsskole system for many years.  She now works part-time at Østerøy museum, primarily with textiles, and also in her private studio. Her current commissions include bands for bunads and wall hangings for churches.

marta.klove.juuhl (at)

Editor’s note: During the Vesterheim Textile Tour in June, 2011, Marta Kløve Juuhl joined the group for a day. She brought her varafeldur and discussed its creation.  It was a magnetic object to all the fiber-crazy people on the bus; you could hardly keep from stretching your hands to feel the unspun locks of the coverlet.

Marta displays the varafeldur on the Vesterheim tour bus (Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

Marta displays the varafeldur on the Vesterheim tour bus (Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

Here is the back.

Varafeldur detail (Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

Varafeldur detail (Photo: Robbie LaFleur)