Editor’s Note: A Celebration of the NTL Archives

As your editor, I apologize for the delay in publishing this issue.  The content is worth it!  All twenty volumes of the Norwegian Textile Letter are now online.

Many articles are promised for future issues. Among others, you can look forward to articles on unexpected textile treasures from flea markets and antique stores, more articles on Norwegian textile artists, a review of Norwegian yarn sources, a report on this year’s National Exhibition on Folk Arts in the Norwegian Tradition, and an article on using an easily-made backstrap loom for teaching krokbragd and other techniques to college students.

vol2no2When I realized all the articles were for future issues, and Issue Number 3 was thin, I decided to scan all of the earlier years of the Norwegian Textile Letter. That means if you are a recent subscriber, you have many years of articles to enjoy, all in one fell swoop.  But, as often happens, I underestimated how time-consuming the scanning and publishing task would be. Then, unexpectedly, I took a six-to-eight month position as the Education Coordinator of the Weavers Guild of Minnesota, stepping in to help until our Managing Director, Becky Franklin has her baby and then returns from maternity leave.  I will work myself out of the job when a permanent Education Coordinator is hired, and best of all, have enough money to go on the Textile Tour to northern Norway next May!


“Oak Leaf” by Laura Demuth

Once I realized that it is daunting to open all the older issues in pdf format and read through them, I thought it would be nice to put together some compilations on articles on various topics.  And what could be more perfect this summer than rya? It ties in nicely with the exhibit of Finnish ryijys at the American Swedish Institute, and the accompanying exhibit of ryas done by local artists.  We planned to include a review of the ASI Ryijy show in the August issue, but since I had many notes from the opening of the show, I wrote them up now.  I hope the article entices any NTL readers who have not seen the show, and can possibly make it to Minneapolis, to visit and see Dr. Toumas Sopanen’s fabulous collection.

This issue’s header is made of photos of Nancy Ellison’s Icelandic ram.  I feel the need to visit Nancy’s farm at least once each year.  All the sheep were skinny and sheared the day before my visit, except these two, which Nancy planned to tackle soon after.

Robbie LaFleur

Celebrate the Rye – or Rya – or Ryijy!

february-2010Nineteen years of the Norwegian Textile Letter are a trove of information on a variety of textile techniques – particularly rye.  Or is that rya?  The Norwegian authors consistently use the official Norwegian spelling – rye – but Americans often substitute  the version ending in ‘a.’ There have been articles on historical boat ryes, on contemporary ryes in Norway, articles about Textile Tour participants learning to weave ryes, analyses and drafts of ryes in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, and a report of a rye study group.  All told, rye articles from Volumes 1-19 comprise 50 pages! They’ve been scanned individually and as a compiled document.

The compiled document:

Rye – Rya – Ryijy? A Compilation from the Norwegian Textile Letter, 1999-2013

Individual Articles:

A Small Båtrya from Lofoten.” Janet Meany.  Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2000.

Weaving a Norwegian Style Båtrya. Sally Scott.  Vol. 5, No. 4, August 1999.

Nordnorsk Ryer.”  Inger Anne Utvåg.  Vo. 7, No. 3, May 2001.

Båtrya.” Ellen Kjellmo. Part of “Viking Women’s Textiles: A Report of a Seminar at the Viking Museum at Borg in Lofoten.” Vol. 10, No. 3, May 2004.

Ryas in Norway.” Helen Engalstad (translated by Loraine Leftwich and edited by Betty Johannesen). Vol. 11, No. 2, February 2005.

New Rya Study Group Forming (an initial notice).” Vol. 12, no. 2, February 2006.

Voss Ryer – Traditional Bedcover and Contemporary Art.” Marta Kløve Juuhl. Vol. 12, no. 3, May 2006.

Excerpt from Båtrya i gammel og ny tid.” Ellen Kjellmo (translated by Lorraine Leftwich). Vol. 13, No. 1, November 2006.

The Contemporary Rya Rug in America.” Marion T. Marzolf. Vol. 16, No. 2, February 2010.

Textile Artist Laura Demuth.” Vol. 16, No. 2, February 2010.

Visiting the Vesterheim Collection.” (First in a series)  Jan Mostrom. Jan analyzed a rya in the Vesterheim collection and provided a weaving draft to reproduce it. Vol. 18, No. 2, February 2012. (Vesterheim description)

Some Pieces from the Rya Study Group Exhibition at Vesterheim.” Vol. 18, No. 2, February 2012.

Visiting the Vesterheim Collection.” (Second in a series.) Jan Mostrom. Jan analyzed a rya in the Vesterheim collection and provided a weaving draft to reproduce it. Vol. 18, no. 4, August 2012.

Visiting the Vesterheim Collection.” (Third in a series.) Jan Mostrom. Jan analyzed a rya in the Vesterheim collection and provided a weaving draft to reproduce it. Vol. 19, No. 3, May 2013.

Visiting the Vesterheim Collection.” (Fourth in a series) Jan Mostrom. Jan analyzed a rya in the Vesterheim collection and provided a weaving draft to reproduce it. Vo. 20, No. 1, November 2013.  (Vesterheim record)

Robbie LaFleur

Finnish Ryijy Rugs at the American Swedish Institute


“Etude Two,” by Katri Haahti. (2005) This study is a tiny piece, only 14 x 13 centimeters.

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.

IMG_7196Dr. 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.

IMG_0479At 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.


Detail of a wedding ryijy from 1798


A wedding ryijy from around 1800. It features a tree of life, one of the most popular wedding symbols.

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.


Scale surface bedcover ryijy for two persons. Turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

IMG_1588Older 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.

IMG_1598Two 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.

IMG_7514The 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.


IMG_1606Around 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





Ryas at The American Swedish Institute – The Local Connection

In conjunction with the American Swedish Institute exhibit, The Living Tradition of Ryijy – Finnish Rugs and their Makers, an exhibit of ryas made by selected weavers in Iowa and Minnesota is on view in the ASI Community Gallery, on the lower level near the classroom and the Nelson Gallery. Ryas: The Local Connection is the inaugural exhibit in this space, in which Curator Curt Pederson plans showcase local talent in a variety of media.  Following is a list of the pieces included in the show.  (Two notes: In this overview, the Americanized term rya is used. Click on the thumbnails for larger images of individual pieces.)

Ryas by Laura Demuth hanging in the Community Gallery at the American Swedish Institute

Ryas by Laura Demuth hanging in the Community Gallery at the American Swedish Institute

IMG_1582IMG_0670 “Surrounded by Houndstooth,” by Laura Demuth. 53” x 65”, wool.  This coverlet was woven from handspun yarns from the artist’s own Shetland fleece. The black yarn was spun from a black fleece and the remaining yarns were hand-dyed with natural dyes.  The ground weave is a color-and-weave 8-harness houndstooth twill. The coverlet was woven in two sections, and sewn together by hand in order to create a textile that fits a queen bed.

Rya2 Rya3“Doubleweave in Purple and Green,” by Laura Demuth.  27” x 42”, wool.  This is one of two pieces woven with doubleweave pick-up on one side and pile on the other.  In this combination of techniques it is possible to hide the rya knots between the two layers of doubleweave, thereby creating a textile with a pick-up design on one surface and pile on the other. The doubleweave design was adapted from a traditional Scandinavian pattern.

Rya1IMG_1583“Wrapped in Rya,” by Laura Demuth. ” 38” x 56”, wool.  Norwegian spelsau yarn was used for this piece that combines two techniques: doubleweave pick-up and rya.  To accomplish it, Laura taught herself to tie the rya knots upside down on the lower surface while she wove the pick-up pattern on the upper surface. The design for the pick-up pattern was inspired by a Norwegian sweater pattern.

IMG_1577 IMG_0665“Oak Leaf,” by Laura Demuth.  36” x 65”, wool.  This coverlet was an exploration of combining rya knots with doubleweave overshot. The doubleweave provides a space between the two layers where the rya knots can be hidden. Because the doubleweave overshot pattern is completely loom controlled and no pick-up work is required, the rya knots can be tied on the upper surface. This allows for more color and pattern work on the rya surface.

IM000401.JPGLaura Demuth has been a weaver for over 30 years and enjoys all aspects of textile production, from raising the sheep to taking a finished piece off the loom. Because she lives on a small acreage just seven miles northeast of Decorah, the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Museum has been a continual source of education and inspiration throughout her weaving career. Laura has focused on traditional weaving structures and techniques, and is a Vesterheim Gold Medalist.


IMG_7182IMG_7186“Mostly Handspun,” by Mary Lønning Skoy. 50” x 25”, wool. Mary wove this piece in two panels, as so many older ryas were woven.  In this case, she used the method to weave a horizontal piece wide enough to fill a space above her fireplace mantel.  The base is woven of chemically-dyed red yarn, but the visible red header yarn was dyed with madder.  Her initials and date are woven in with wool dyed with walnut hulls.  Most of the pile is hand-spun wool, sparked with additional fibers, including linen and cotton.

MaryHeadMary Lønning Skoy, Minneapolis, Minnesota, traces her fiber roots to her Norwegian great aunt Sunniva Lønning,  a fiber artist, teacher and activist in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s in Norway, who also worked to preserve and protect ancient sheep breeds in Norway, particularly spelsau. Mary has taught classes in knitting and in weaving on the rigid heddle frame loom and published a book for beginning frame loom weavers called Weaving on the Frame Loom: A First Project.  She embodies her interest in natural fibers by making and using handwoven household rugs, pillows, and table linens.  She also knits and weaves garments and accessories.  She is a long-time member of the Weavers Guild of Minnesota Scandinavian Weavers Study Group.

“Dandelion,” by Anita Jain.  13” x 14”, wool pile knotted onto burlap canvas. Many of Anita’s pieces are inspired by nature, as is the case in the the hand-knotted Dandelion ryijy.



IMG_7506“Tulip,” by Anita Jain.  10″ x 12″, wool pile knotted onto burlap canvas.  This piece was draped on a podium, with a label saying, “Go ahead and touch this ryijy! Soft and thickly piled, ryijys are incredibly warm, making them the perfect accompaniment for a Nordic (or Minnesotan!) winter.”

Anita Jain was born in Finland – and born into fiber.  Both of her parents were designers and worked mostly with fabric; she was exposed to everything fiber from an early age.  Her fiber art pieces are diverse in technique, including woven pieces embellished with beads and found objects.  She creates fiber sculptures with felted wool and over-dyed wool pieces and other materials, with sewn and needle-felted details. For many of her wall pieces she uses a free machine sewing technique.

MostrumJan_Protection_Rya“Protection,”  by Jan Mostrom. 19″ x 56″, wool.  The knotted design is inspired by the protective symbols painted in white on the inside walls of a medieval house in the Folkemuseum in Hardanger, Norway.  The painting was also decorative, the white paint lightening the dark windowless room.  The bright striped backing is based on a rya coverlet in the Vesterheim Norwegian American museum collection. Jan analyzed that coverlet and published a draft to reproduce the coverlet in the xxx issue of the Norwegian Textile Letter. (article link)

Mail AttachmentJan Mostrom. Chanhassan, Minnesota.  Jan has been a weaver for 40 years.  Her main area of interest is in Scandinavian textile techniques.  She has taken classes from a variety of Scandinavian instructors and traveled to Scandinavia.  She is a Vesterheim National Exhibition of Folk Art gold medalist and a long-time member of the Weavers Guild of Minnesota Scandinavian Weavers Study Group.  Jan has taught classes at Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, the Weavers Guild of Minnesota, the American Swedish Institute, and at conferences.    She is teaching two rya classes at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota in connection with the Living Tradition of Rijiy exhibit.

Ryas by Robbie LaFleur in the Community Gallery at the American Swedish Institute

Image“Hard Realities: A Homage to Edvard Munch,” by Robbie LaFleur.  31” x 48”, wool. This piece was woven in a pixelated fashion, similar to the work of Chuck Close.  Each knot yarn bundle was compared to the corresponding place in a gridded cartoon. (See details of the process here.)


IMG_2497”Squeezed: A Homage to Robert Motherwell,” by Robbie LaFleur.  29” x 45”, wool.  The shapes in this rya were inspired by many of Robert Motherwell’s variations of “Elegy to the Spanish Republic.” For more information about weaving the piece, see “Weaving a Rya was endless, but Satisfying.”


icelandic-flat icelandic-shaggy“Icelandic Crosses” (A dyptych), by Robbie LaFleur.  “17” x 35”, wool.  These two pieces were woven on a warp-weighted loom of the same variety on which a Viking may have woven a rya bed coverlet or shoulder covering a thousand years ago.  The yarn is fastened with an Icelandic knot.  Rather than tied around two warp threads, the pile yarn piece is looped around one warp and carried under two-three warp threads beside it.  The knots that stand at attention  are  reminiscent of  the short, stiff manes of Icelandic ponies.

robbie-head-shot-2014Robbie LaFleur, Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been following a thread of Scandinavian textiles since she studied weaving at Valdres Husflidsskole in Fagernes, Norway in 1977.  She has continued her study with Scandinavian instructors at workshops in Norway and the U.S.  Recent projects include interpreting Edvard Munch’s “Scream” painting into a variety of textile techniques, and weaving tapestry portraits of her relatives. She was awarded the gold Medal in Weaving from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in 2006.  Robbie coordinates the the Weavers Guild of Minnesota Scandinavian Weavers Study Group and is on the board of directors of the Weavers Guild of  Minnesota
Rya pillows by Lila Nelson and Marie Nodland, which no doubt resided on a couch or chair for years, are now elevated to a beautiful display.

Rya pillows by Lila Nelson and Marie Nodland, which no doubt resided on a couch or chair for years, are now elevated to a beautiful display.

IMG_7187“Pillow in Green,” by Lila Nelson. 18” x 25”, wool face with cotton backing.  Lila is best known for her often political or humorous images in tapestry.  For this densely-piled pillow in rya, Lila retained the characteristically rich, saturated palette of her tapestries.

lila-croppedLila Nelson, St. Paul, Minnesota.  Most people in this area who weave in Norwegian techniques count Lila Nelson as a role model and mentor.  She was the long-time Curator of Textiles at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, and a core member of the Scandinavian Weaving Study Group at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota.


IMG_1572“Pillow with Handspun Wool,” by Marie Nodland.  20” x 20”, wool face with linen backing. This piece is made of mostly handspun wool.  In contrast to many Scandinavian pile hangings with sparse pile, this pillow-top has densely-packed knots that make the long pile stand almost straight up.

Marie Nodland (deceased).  Traditional Scandinavian weaving has deep roots among the descendants of immigrants in the Midwest.  Long-time weaver Marie Nodland wove in many Scandinavian techniques and was one of the founders of “De Norske Vevere” (The Norwegian Weavers) at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota, the fore-runner of the current Scandinavian Weavers Study Group.