A Fabulous Find: A Rya from Ryd

Here you see a very basic, functional version of the rya, woven in Sweden, a manifestation of the widespread pile-woven textiles for everyday use found throughout Scandinavia. It is of this everyday use and the place that this rya has in our family that I write.

One summer in the mid-1970s, my husband Roland, our children, and I were visiting my mother-in-law, Ellen, on her farm in Tröjamåla, near the town of Ryd in southern Småland, Sweden. One evening, we sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and discussing a multi-household auction that would be held in town, at Folkets Park.

DSCN2178Country auctions, in those days, were most interesting and educational for me. They revealed the inventories of a disappearing way of rural life, and I got to see up close and touch the tools, textiles, and every kind of everyday objects that reflected people’s lives. Those who came to auctions were mostly curious locals, in themselves interesting to me, who might bid cautiously on things they could use or things with which they identified.   But this auction was well advertised in the local press, a summertime auction sure to be attended by tourists and cabin folks, especially Danes and Germans. We decided to go, for the fun of it.

I suppose it is audacious to say that I spotted “my” rya immediately. In fact, it was piled on a table with other textiles of all sorts, but it caught my eye. When the bidding began, I didn’t trust myself to stay on top, keeping up with German, Danish, and the local dialect, but Roland helped. It seemed, at first, as though there was not much interest. Then, a Dane entered the bidding, and it went back and forth between us, until my bid won. Who knows? Did the Dane really understand what was at stake, that there was more than met the eye to this old thing that could be sold in a Copenhagen antique shop? No matter–now it was mine.

DSCN2176Next came finding out about the piece. Roland and I went to the Smålands Museum, in Vaxjö, where the curator explained the textile’s genre—slitrya–meant to be placed pile-side-down on the bed. Common, she said, ours nothing out of the ordinary.

But, this is not the end of the story.

In fact, my mother-in law Ellen’s place in this story IS this story. She tracked the slitrya’s history back to the household of a town merchant in Ryd, whose descendant remembered its being used in the upper floor bedroom, where the children slept close to a chimney for warmth. Which explains the wonderful smoky scent it had when we bought it. Imagine the skills that this simple, homely bedding embodies and the whispers of the children it kept warm.

DSCN2179Today this slitrya hangs on a wall in our living room. Woven in two pieces that have been sewn together, it measures approximately 47”x 72”. Its warp and weft are tow linen–likely handspun–with the exception of the top and bottom edges, which have dentate patterns, woven in blue and beige wool weft. There are a few blue wool picks in the body of one half, as well. The deep pile consists of various natural shades of handspun wool, combined with some linen yarns, knotted to form a goose-eye motif, best discerned from a distance. ¾” (2 cm.) weft separates the knots, which are visible on the presentation side. The person(s) who wove and assembled the coverlet chose to join the two sections in opposite directions, so that the piles face away from each other and the decorative head and foot edges do not match, although the overall motif is fairly aligned. Possibly, use and storage have faded the presentation side of the rya, but the pile side is true to its original, natural colors.

The spinner’s and weaver’s hands have long been stilled, the children are long gone, the earth and animals that provided precious fibers are long forgotten. And yet they are here, in this slitrya, a meaningful part of our lives.

Edi Thorstensson write of her weaving background: “Until June 2009, when I retired, I was a librarian and archivist at Gustavus Adolphus College and a free-lance translator.  I took my first weaving class at the Art Institute of Chicago before I entered college, but it wasn’t until years later, while visiting my husband’s native Sweden, that I learned to weave rag rugs from my mother-in-law, Ellen Svensson, patient teacher and friend, who shared with me her stories and many, many skills.”

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