In August 2014, teacher Jan Mostrom offered a long-awaited class in rya weaving at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota. The Weavers Guild presented the class in partnership with the American Swedish Institute, in conjunction with their exhibition The Living Tradition of Ryijy – Finnish Rugs and Their Makers. (For a description of the exhibit, see http://norwegiantextileletter.com/article/finnish-ryijy-rugs-at-the-american-swedish-institute/)
Jan is an accomplished teacher and weaver in the Nordic tradition, and her class was eagerly anticipated, proving so popular that a second session was added immediately. All in all, eleven students participated. None had prior experience in weaving rya, and several of the students were first-time weavers.
To make the class welcoming and fun for students at all levels, Jan chose a simple project to get us started. Her inspiration was a traditional style from the Närke region of Sweden that alternates rows of plain weave with rows of rya knots. This type is also known as a sparse rya, because the background fabric shows through the pile. This weft-faced fabric often bears distinctive checks or vertical stripes, providing a more symmetrical counterpoint to the softer knotted sections. Jan brought in several of her own pieces in this style for inspiration.
Student projects were small woven pieces 16” wide, suitable for a wall hanging or cushion cover. (Length varied based on design.) The warp was sturdy Finnish seine twine and the weft was Rauma brand yarn spun from spelsau, a native Norwegian sheep. Rauma is tightly spun and has a beautiful sheen, making it both durable and attractive. Weavers supplemented the Rauma with a variety of other yarns from their personal collections. Overall, students found the rya knots easy to tie, making for a relaxing weaving experience, while the thick pile felt scrumptious to the touch.
Within the basic framework of size and materials, weavers were free to play with color and design. It was truly inspiring to see the wide variety of finished products. Each rya was completely unique, reflecting its maker’s personality and preferences, proof that this seemingly simple style of weaving holds endless possibilities.
Several students created clear geometric shapes with clean lines in contrasting colors, taking advantage of the rya’s graphic possibilities. Kelly Nordstrom’s project was inspired by the bold black-and-red design of a fish on a Finnish napkin. Susan Andrews and Edi Thorstensson also chose to work with red, paired with gray and white respectively, creating bright, dramatic contrast.
Others created a more abstract effect by blending colors seemingly at random. Marilyn Moore was inspired by the abundant lilies in her garden, while Marie Larson dug into her stash of knitting yarns to create a riot of colors and textures in her favorite autumnal palette. Cynthia Werner is an experienced yarn spinner who loves to work with Shetland wool. Her design—featuring shades of white, gray, and black—echoes the natural tones of a dappled Shetland fleece.
Jan brought a stack of books to inspire us, allowing students to draw on the rich history of rya to spark their own projects. Wanda Truman was struck by the flower design on a traditional wedding rya woven in red, but chose to weave in her favorite Celtic blue to reflect her own heritage. Geri Retzlaff and Carol Harrington were inspired by the abstract designs of twentieth century ryas and also took on the challenge of creating rounded shapes. Geri wove in soft pastels, while Carol contrasted purple and orange for a contemporary look.
Other students explored rya’s three-dimensional possibilities. Allison Nassif chose to work almost entirely in white, using a heavy yarn similar to that found in mops for her rya knots. The knotted design of thick chevrons alternated with plain weave, creating heavy piles that viewers longed to sink their fingers into.
Besides working in wool, most weavers in the class added silk or linen to the knots to create varied texture and visual interest. My own project was inspired by Edvard Munch’s 1895 painting Moonlight. I was fascinated by the way Munch captured the glint of moonlight on water and tried to replicate the effect by adding linen, which catches the light, to the wool knots. I also used a pale yellow yarn, thicker than the Rauma, in the moonlit sections, hoping to draw the viewer’s eye.
Jan’s class took place over four days, and visitors stopped to view our progress, many of whom had been to see the exhibit at the American Swedish Institute. Two of our guests were women from Finland, who were pleased to see their beloved national weaving style being taught in the United States.
For their part, Jan’s students are eager to continue their explorations. “Rya weaving was surprisingly easy to learn,” says Geri Retzlaff. “The weaving and knot tying are relaxing and I found myself pondering other designs while weaving my class project.” Students agreed that the simple repetitive movements of tying the knots can produce a zen-like calm—but also leaves the attention free for lively conversations in class, if preferred.
Inspired by the success of the beginning class, Jan is planning to teach a more advanced rya class in 2015. “I found it very exciting to teach this class,” she explains. “The creativity in the students’ rya pieces was inspirational. It made me excited to start a new rya piece myself. It is gratifying to an instructor when the students are excited and enthusiastic about what they are learning and have such successful results.”
In addition to classes, the Weavers Guild is forming a year-long interest group, open to anyone interested in beginning or continuing their study in this style. Members are invited to create work for an exhibit in the fall of 2015.
Thanks to Jan Mostrom and her students, the American Swedish Institute, and the Weavers Guild of Minnesota for helping to ensure that this living tradition lives on!