History of Scandinavian Carpets and Vintage Swedish Rya Rugs
Vintage Swedish Rya Rugs and Scandinavian Carpet History – The weavers of Scandinavian rugs and carpets were influenced by carpet weavers in Anatolia and Asia Minor though international trade routes. Between the 9th and 10th centuries, paths were established linking the Varangians or Vikings with the Greek speaking Byzantines in Constantinople.
By the year 800, the Byzantines had established themselves as the dominate superpower in Asia Minor, claiming territories that were previously under Roman control. Trans continental and trans oceanic trade routes, through some of the world’s harshest climates, brought the first knotted pile rugs to the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Over the next four hundred years, Scandinavians adapted knotted pile carpets to suit the harsh arctic climate.
By the 14th century, the Scandinavians had developed their own style of shaggy long pile carpets known a Rya or Ryijy. These thick “new rugs” replaced the thick furs used as rugs, cloaks and bed coverings. The unique shaggy texture of the long pile Scandinavian Ryas, provided much needed warmth during the long Nordic winters. Ancient cloaks with fur-like pile have been found in the viking center of Jornik / York England.
Remnants of a blue and red cloaks, shaggy pile (approximately two inches long) were discovered in one the many ancient graves on Sweden’s Birka / Birch Island. Swedish Rya rugs were also adapted as bed coverings and wall hangings by royalty, castle dwellers, as well as commoners and peasants.
Rya carpets are made using a combination of techniques including weaving tapestry, needlework and carpet knots. Swedish Rya rugs were traditionally produced by adding symmetric Turkish / Ghiordes knots directly to the warp through a specially woven backing. Small holes in the weave allowed the craftspeople to insert evenly spaced knots using a large tapestry needle.
Originally, Swedish Rya rugs were used with the pile down to envelop sleepers in a cocoon of warmth. Early Rya quilts had decorative striped backs and shaggy wool pile in one or two solid colors. Eventually the decoration was reversed and colorful designs were worked into the knotted pile.
Between 1500’s and late 1800’s, the Scandinavians produced increasingly elaborate carpets and Ryas rugs. They often mimicked the designs of the antique rugs which were imported from Turkey and Anatolia to Finland and other parts of Scandinavia.
Swedish Rya rugs were created for marriages where they were used in the traditional wedding ceremony. In Scandinavia, local cultures adapted and changed traditional Islamic art motifs, such as the tree of life design, by changing the symbolism to represent the family tree made up by relatives and past generations.
The Scandinavian Rya vintage rugs remained popular throughout the 20th century when designers adopted the shaggy vintage rug to compliment the mid century modern furniture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Modernist designers, like Danish carpet manufacturer Ege Rya, used ancient abstract motifs borrowed from Moroccan Berber carpets to create shaggy wool carpets with a modern edge.
Long before the Danish design craze of the 20th century, oriental rugs were important design pieces and functional items in Scandinavia. During the mid 1920’s a historic carpet was discovered in the church of Marby in Jamtland Sweden.
The so called Marby carpet, which dates back to the late 14th or early 15th century, is important evidence of the carpet trade between the vikings and the Byzantines. Due to the geometric designs and classic bird in tree motif, historians believe the carpet was produced more than 3,000 miles away in Azerbaijan or Turkey during the early years of the ottoman empire.
Previously, many historians believed the rug trade was restricted to Italy and countries closer to the carpet making region of Anatolia. The introduction of oriental knotted pile carpets through trade routes was instrumental in the development of the unique Scandinavian style.
Since the introduction of knotted pile rugs, Scandinavian people have been developing and perfecting their carpet weaving traditions. Although Scandinavians have been producing rugs since the 14th century, some of the best examples of the art are from the late 1880’s when traditional Ryas, and copies of Anatolian designs, reached the height of their popularity.
The Danes, Swedes and Norwegians were the “northern people” of the Scandinavian countries. Originally, they spoke a common language and shared similar artistic expressions.
They were simple people who did not travel to foreign lands. As opposed to their European neighbors, court life and the tastes of kings and aristocracy did not dictate their styles and ideas. As a result their customs and art were left untouched from outside influence. These rugs were originally intended to be used for warmth as bed covers, cushion covers or wraps rather than on the floor. The rugs were either flat weaves rugs or tapestry weave.
The knot was similar to the Turkish knot but was an original invention. Warp threads were wool, flax or hemp. The early rugs were made with no design; they were crudely woven, shaggy pieces all in one color. Gradually, zigzag lines, checks and geometric forms appeared.
One of the first decorative motifs was the cross as well as some crudely woven human figures. These rugs were unique; no two rugs were the same. They were often an important part of the marriage dowry. The initials of the couple, the marriage date, double hearts and representations of the bride and groom were often included in the design. Beginning in the mid 17th century the tree of life, flowers (with an emphasis on tulips), birds and animals were introduced.
The Scandinavian region became acquainted with rugs at an early period. In the early Middle Ages flat woven kilim rugs and textiles probably found their way home with Viking merchants active in Russia and the Byzantine Empire. In the centuries that followed, such trade ties introduced the knotted pile carpet from Ottoman Turkey.
Indeed, one of the earliest surviving Turkish rugs comes from the parish church at Marby, Sweden. From this early period onward, Scandinavians began to produce rugs for themselves, inspired initially by the imported products, and developing gradually into a distinctive northern idiom.
Flat woven tapestry rugs or coverlets became an established type, especially in Sweden, where they came to be known as “Rollakan.” Pile rugs or Ryiji (Rya), often with a long shaggy nap were produce in Norway and and Sweden, and above all Finland. The earliest examples are from Norway; these were monochromatic.
Late medieval records suggest that the Swedes tended to import Rya rugs from Finland, but they were made in Sweden as well. The prototypes of these long pile rugs may well have been Turkish, the so-clalled “yatak” or bedding rug.
This seems especially likely since the examples of Scandinavian Carpets were also used as bedding insulation. At times they too were woven with pile on both sides for added warmth, like Turkish yataks. They even display the same kind of bold, graphic patterning as the Turkish examples.
From the 1600’s on, Swedish Rya rugs were also made with abstractly rendered animal or heraldic imagery, which seems to go back to Medieval European and Oriental traditions, like the Turkish animal carpet from Marby.
Stylized floral designs were also popular. This entire repertoire has survived in Ryas right into the twentieth century, but after 1700, the Rya ceased to be popular among the elite and became a staple of Scandinavian folk culture.
Norwegian examples in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries also came to reflect contemporary western European design, while those made in Sweden and Finland adhered more to the old abstract geometric tradition. Indeed, in these latter areas old patterns continued to be made well into the twentieth century.
After the Second World War, the old style abstraction gave way to modernism, reflecting the prominence of Scandinavian carpets and the mid century modern designers like the Finns, Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen.