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What Is a Rya?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Cartwright
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2016
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A rya is a Scandinavian knotted rug with a long pile. The name comes from the root "ry", meaning "shaggy" or "coarse." In Finnish they are called ryijy. Rya rugs are knotted with a Ghiordes knot, as Persian carpets are, but the length of the pile, the size of the knots, and wider spacing between rows of knots gives them an entirely different look. Though modern ryas have evolved far from their beginnings, the techniques and name date back as far as the early 900s.

The first rya rugs were used primarily as coverings for sleeping. They began simply as long pieces of wool knotted onto thin woven carpets. Placed on a bed with the wool side down they made a warm cover during cold weather. Ryas were still used by some as bed covers as late as the 16th century.

Early rya examples were very simple, made with solid colors. Just one side contained wool. Gradually, it became more common to knot a shorter decorative covering on the reverse side. As quilts took the place of ryas on beds, the rugs became more of an art form. They were now made with a shorter wool yarn pile suitable for executing relatively complicated designs.

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Some of the most elaborate and best known decorative examples were made in Finland. Starting in the 1700s ryas in Finland were made with increasingly elaborate decorative designs. Used frequently as commemorative wedding rugs, they were often created individually for each couple. Typically, these were used during the marriage ceremony for the couple to kneel upon while exchanging vows. The rug, which was often dated and recorded the couple's names, was then displayed in couple's new home.

These rugs, and other decorative ryas, often featured common folk art motifs including the tree of life, stylized animals and floral designs. During the late 1700s and 1800s decorative rya rugs became popular throughout Scandinavia. The custom of making these rugs also spread to North America as immigrants arrived there from the countries where rya were common.

Throughout the 20th century rya designs were greatly influenced by European decorative art trends in general, especially schools such as Art Nouveau and modernism. By the mid-20th century many ryas were made in bright colors with bold geometric or abstract designs. This style of rya became internationally popular during the 1960s and 1970s. These rugs are often highly sought-after by collectors.

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