From May 31 to November 2, 2014, textiles fill the mansion of the American Swedish Institute. The exhibit, The Living Tradition of Ryijy – Finnish Rugs and their Makers, highlights Finnish rugs of the past 300 years, from early utilitarian pile rugs to wedding rugs filled with auspicious symbols, to mid-century abstract designs, and even a modern piece with hair bands and a bra strap woven in.
Collecting magnificent rijiy is the post-retirement passion of Dr. Toumas Sopanen, a former plant physiologist and biochemist. He began with five pieces, purchased for his home. After Dr. Sopanen purchased about 25 ryijy rugs, a local museum mounted an exhibit of his collection. “I almost cried when I saw how beautiful they were,” he said. It spurred his collecting, and he now owns 390, almost all purchased from auctions. He became increasingly interested in the historical development of ryijy, which is considered the national craft of Finland, and in 2008, along with Leena Willberg, published The Ryijy-Rug Lives On: Finnish Ryijy-Rugs 1778-2008.
Dr. Sopanen visited Minneapolis for the opening of the exhibit. He spent his first day up close with his collection, combing the pieces. The ryijiys are rolled on tubes for transport between exhibits, he explained, smashing down the pile. His special textile tool? An everyday hairbrush.
While combing, he told me a story of the difficulty of having textiles cleaned. When he had the piece he is combing in this photo (“Penguin,” by Lea Eskola, 1962) professionally cleaned, it came back ruined. All the dirt had been pulled up from the base and sat in the top ten percent of each strand. It looked worse after the cleaning than before. A friend of his rescued it by painstakingly separating the strands of each knot and pulling off the dirt. Hundreds and thousands of strands, Tuomas emphasized.
At an opening night tour, Dr. Sopanen enthusiastically described his collection, or at least the 42 rugs that hang throughout the ASI – in galleries, in a doorway, and even over bookcase glass. We began in the Nelson Gallery on the lower level of the ASI, where his earliest pieces, dating back to the late 1700s, are beautifully displayed. including one on an antique bed and another on a sleigh. Ryijys dating before 1750 don’t exist for a number of reasons: they may have been worn and thrown out, or buried with their owners, or destroyed in a time of pestilence.
The Nordic ryijy tradition dates from the time of the Vikings, but their exact origin is unknown – perhaps the Viking saw Coptic textiles with a similar structure in Ireland or Egypt. The basic structure is exactly the same as Oriental carpets, but with only about ten percent of the knots, and longer pile.
Ryijys were used on boats up to modern times, as the woven textiles with warm pile wouldn’t stiffen in salt water like animal hides. It’s difficult to find an old Finnish boat ryijy; Dr. Sopanen just purchased his first boat ryijy, dated 1814.
From the 1400s on, ryijys used as bed coverings were recorded for both the wealthy and the servant class. The quality and decoration varied depending on social class. When rijiys became popular as wedding textiles, the imagery became more complex. Protective symbols, brides, and birds of happiness appeared. They commonly included initials and the year.
In old ryijys used as bedcovers, a narrow band was often woven at the head end. People didn’t wash so much in those days, Tuomas noted, so you might not want to rest your head in the same spot as unwashed feet. In the 1800s, when ryijys served more ceremonial and decorative functions, the tradition of the narrow band persisted.
A beautiful piece with this narrow band is hanging from a free-standing frame at the ASI. Both sides have pile, and both the decorative side and the largely white side are visible. You can see that the top bar tilts at an angle in order to keep the sides of the ryijy hanging straight. That didn’t surprise one tour participant, Craig Rasmussen, Exhibits Director for the Joan Mondale Gallery at the Textile Center of Minnesota. “I can tell you after hanging many handmade rectangles – they are never square,” he commented.
Older ryijys can be divided in two groups: upper-class ryijys woven by professional weavers, with shading and sharper detail in the images; and folk ryijys—simple and naive, with broad borders, one color in each object, and clumsy letters and numbers (because the weavers were largely illiterate).
Sleeping under ryijiys stopped in about the 1820s. Through the rest of the century, they were more commonly used as daytime bed covers.
Dr. Sopanen talked about the beautiful, lustrous wool colored with plant-based dyes used in earlier pieces. In the later 1800s, newly-available analine dyes in bright colors were used, but the bright colors weren’t colorfast over the years.
In the late 1800s many ryijy weavers used motifs from cross stitch or embroidery patterns from Germany and Sweden. There was a loss of creativity in the images. Also around this time they moved from bed covers and began to be hung on walls.
Two events help popularize ryijys widely early in the twentieth century. A large exhibit in at a gallery in Helsinki in 1918, and a detailed study of ryijy in 1924 by U.T. Sirelius, educated Finns about the cultural and historical importance of the craft. By the 1930 almost all Finns wanted to own a ryijy. In addition to woven ryijys, kits became available. They included woven backing, a design, and wool to tie the knots. Dr. Sopanen made one of the pieces in the exhibit from a kit, “Zebra One” by Eva Brummer. He listened to music while tying knots, 250 hours in all. “One row is about three piano sonatas,” he said.
The ASI mansion is a perfect venue for many of the pieces. Often, when the installation offers a distant view of a piece, the beauty and subtlety of the yarn combinations shine. When seen close-up, you notice there are several red shades in “By the Midsummer Bonfires” by Eila-Annikki Vesimaa (designed in 1956). When you back up, the flames of the bonfire shimmer.
Around 1980 artists began to experiment with varying lengths, creating relief. The piece may vary from the standard rectangular shape and in the use of materials, adding linen and other fibers. Tenka issakainen, in “Rose-coloured Ryijy,” (2006) even added artificial flowers, elastic lace, and a bra strap.
Dr. Sopanen feels there is renewed interest in ryijy in Finland today. Young couples are having wedding ryijys commissioned. Contemporary artists are interpreting the technique in new ways. If you visit this exhibit, you’ll understand the resurgence of ryijy.
Robbie LaFleur, July 2014