Ryijy rugs are Finland's most famous textile, and were made for centuries in rural areas.
Ryijy is derived from the old Scandinavian word ry (plural ryor) meaning rough and shaggy pile. Swedish is rya. Ryijy rugs were brought to Scandinavia from Morocco and Spain by the Vikings, and up until the 15th century were made in Norway and Sweden as well as in Finland. But it is only in Finland that they have been kept as an art form, part of a tradition passed from mother to daughter.
Ryijis were already woven in Finland in the medieval era, first in southwestern royal castles and manor houses. Local Finnish peasant women wove them in the estate's work rooms, using techniques taught by the Swedish nobility. These ladies began making them for their own homes, and so the ryiji spread to the Finnish peasantry.
Folk ryiji reached their apex between 1790 and 1890, with the highest quality from Hame and Satakunta in central Finland. They were initially purely utilitarian, serving as warm bedcovers, but their growing complexity and aesthetic appeal prompted their shift to decorative wall adornments.
Early ryijy rugs were bedspreads made for the young brides trousseau as part of her dowry.
Sometimes the young couple stood on their ryijys during the wedding and later slept under them on their wedding night. Most Finnish churches still had a wedding ryijy. Handwoven ryijy rugs remained the size of a bed cover even after being used commonly on the floor. They were also used to line sleighs and sometimes to warm horses.
Ryijy rugs were a form of tangible wealth used as money and for barter. Landowners accepted ryijy rugs in lieu of taxes and even to grant title to the land. Those who owned many and beautiful ryijy rugs were of a special social status.
Ryijy weave alternates a knotted pile with a tapestry weave.
The ryijy usually has eight to ten woven wafts between the rows of knotted pile (in contrast to the two rows of the Oriental carpet). Both horizontal (low-warp) and vertical (high-warp) looms were used. Early ryijis were somber in color and became lighter only in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In these early days, a young couple could not afford a home and thus slept in a lean-to or an ante-room of a parental house. Ryijy rugs were slept under and made to not show dirt. During the 17th and 18th centuries, beautiful colors and patterns arose.
The most beautiful were the Scandinavian ryijy rugs from southern and western Finland.
Early colors were white, black and gray; these were the natural colors of wool. Red and yellow ere added because dyes could be made from local plants and berries in these colors. Complex colors such as blue and green were rarely used, as plants did not produce these dyes and there were not yet chemical dyes.
When geometric patterns first appears, the most common color combinations were: black and white; gray and black; or white, red and black with yellow.
A small rectangle represented a leaf. These leaves dotted the surface of the plain color field and varied in size with the same ryijy. Squares and the traditional wheel pattern and a quatrefoil within a diamond outline were also used.
The tree, a religious symbol, represents good and evil. The tree patterns with stiff straight branches predate the more graceful but harder-to-weave bent branches. Tulip motif arose from Holland and is found in borders.
Bridal motifs include hearts, and an image of the bridal couple.