Today is my husband’s 50th birthday. I have planned his birthday present as part two of a stwo-stage process of for over 2 years. This is the story of a rya bench pad.
A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a book that fascinated me, Hammare och spik (Hammer and nail, also available in English) by Erik Eje Almqvist. The book builds on Enzo Mari’s idea of functional furniture with right angles that anyone can build. The book contains descriptions of stools, chairs, benches, tables, shelves and more that are based on standard Swedish timber measurements. You can read more about the bench here.
A garden bench
I really wanted to build something from the book, and for Dan’s 49th birthday last midsummer I managed to build him a lovely park bench (he calls her Judi by the way, Judi Bench, a dame).
We have spent many lovely meals sitting on the bench. During the summer we also painted a couple of coats of roslagsmahogny (a mix of pine tar, linseed oil and turpentine) to protect it.
As I secretly planned the making of the bench I jumped one step ahead and came up with an even more secret idea: I was going to weave a bench pad for his 50th birthday. And I wanted to weave it with rya knots.
Rya yarn for rya knots in a rya bench pad
I had the perfect candidate for the yarn. At the Swedish fleece championships 2020 I bought one of the silver medalist, a strong and shiny white rya fleece. My plan for it was just that, to spin a yarn for rya knots for some project. And now I knew what the project would be. I have woven rya chair pads before, but never with a yarn that I had spun for that particular purpose, only with stashed yarn.
I tried to read up on rya knot yarn but I didn’t find very much. There are lots of rya textiles in the digital museums and books about the history of rya yarn, but not very much of the spinning technique or the preparation. Many of the antique ryas seem to have a low spinning twist and a high plying twist in combination with a light fulling, so I incorporated that into my plan. And since I knew that a rya textile weighs a lot I decided to card the wool and spin it woolen. A combed and worsted spun wool is denser and would therefore require more wool and weigh more. Since rya wool usually has an exceptional shine I knew I would still get the shine even if I spun the yarn woolen.
You can read more about the intriguing history of rya rugs and their influence on rya sheep and Swedish landrace breeding in my blog post about rya wool.
I don’t have a floor loom, nor do I have the skills to use one. Instead I weave on a rigid heddle loom or a backstrap loom. I do this at home, but for this project to remain a secret I needed to weave somewhere else. Luckily I am a member of the local vävstuga. A vävstuga is a weaving room with access to looms and weaving equipment. In my vävstuga, just a few hundred meters from our house, there are six floor looms, lots of equipment and skilled weavers who can lead me in the right direction when I am lost.
Every now and then I brought my loom to the vävstuga and I have been visiting it a few times a week when I officially was “out for a walk” or when Dan was out of the house. These moments were not very many, I have been able to weave only a couple of hours a week between early March and mid-June.
Warp and weft
I spun the yarn especially for the rya knots in this project. The warp and the weft are stashed and/or frogged handspun yarns. Oh, the joy of destashing my handspuns! I feel so much lighter now.
The main colour warp yarn is a 2-ply shetland yarn that was hibernating as a pair of half-knit bloomers that didn’t really sing to me. I frogged the project and soaked the yarn and it was fit to use as warp yarn. The stripes and the weft yarns are miscellaneous white and light grey odd skeins of singles that I have plied.
To knot or not to knot
I spun the rya yarns in February and March. Once the whole 1.5 kg rya fleece was spun I warped in the vävstuga and wove the border. I had brought a bread board to wrap the knot yarn around to be able to pre-cut the knots in equal lengths. I decided to go with 11 cm per knot with the yarn held double. The fold makes a sweet loop at the end and I think it brings extra life and character to the rya structure.
I tied the knot over three warp threads and skipped one warp thread between knots. After one row of knots I made three shuttlings with the weft yarn (Stashed yarn from Norwegian NKS wool). You can read more about how I have knotted my rya knots here.
One of the benefits of working with stashed yarns is the opportunity it presents to play. The warp is my canvas and the knots my watercolours. The sweet bonus is that I can paint the smooth side of the project too.
And that’s one of the beauties of a rya, you can choose which side you want facing. In the beginning (ryas have been used since probably the late 13th century in Sweden) were used as bed covers with the pile down against the person sleeping under it and the smooth side as the “public” side.
I played a lot with stripes in this project. A rya has two sides, one piled and one smooth. None of them is the right or wrong sides.
I decided on white-ish stripes for the warp, just because I wanted to. My stash contained a lot of natural colour handspun yarn and wanted to use them organized despite them all being odd yarns from my handspun stash. I went for white as a main colour weft yarn with light grey stripes. So the smooth side is basically checkered.
I went for stripes in the rya knots too, in light and medium grey. This gave a third dimension on the smooth side, with both the colour and the knotted fashion of the rya yarn. It looks like a fancy binding but it’s just the result of the knots giving the warp thread bundles a bit of a waist. Still, it’s just a tabby weave.
Twist and knot direction
Just for fun I spun the white and gray yarns in different directions. I figured it wouldn’t hurt, and perhaps the light would be reflected differently on the white and grey areas or the piled texture would get more life.
I also knotted the white and grey pile differently – the white with the fold to the right and the greys with the fold to the left. I’m not sure it makes any difference, but I wanted to explore these aspects.
The most fun part was using the individual knots pretty much like water colours on a canvas. With a rya I have the opportunity to pick the colours (and of course textures, materials etc) any way I like to create a pattern or image. I decided to play with the light and dark greys.
In the beginning of the weave, let’s call it the bottom, I used only the dark grey yarn. For every stripe I wove I added some of the lighter grey from the right. At the top there were almost only light grey yarn. If you look at the rya from above you can se the subtle change from darker to the lighter grey. like the sun’s journey across the sky leaving a shadow spectrum over the rya bench pad in the course of the day.
Cutting the warp was really scary, but I did it and the finished weave looked lovely. The edges were reasonably even and there was less bubbles than I had expected (since there was a difference in elasticity in the white and grey warp yarns). No warp threads were broken and the weaving had gone very smoothly after all.
The last thing I did with the rya bench pad was to hem the warp edges and make an embroidery on the smooth side.
Making a rya takes a lo-ho-hot of time. Mine is small, only 42×160 centimeters. The older ryas that were used as a bed cover would be close to ten times that size. I am in awe of anyone who has put so much time, love and skill in a project. But it was also necessary for staying warm and alive.
There is nothing I can do to speed the process up. The knots need time and that is what I have to give them. Even if I have been stressed in finding time to come to the weaving room nothing can rush me once I’m there. I’m just in the rya with the knots, once again feeling every fiber through my hands.
And that’s what crafting does to me. It’s there and it won’t be rushed. When I’m stressed crafting is one of the things that grounds me and gives me time to breathe, listen and just be.
Building the bench
The bench may look like a large project, but it didn’t take that much time. Buying the timber, getting it home and into the storage room, building and drilling holes for the graffiti took about 16 hours.
Weaving the bench pad
The bench pad is a whole different story, though.
The spinning of the rya yarn took, roughly calculated, 25 hours. One skein took about 2.5 hours (teasing, carding, spinning, plying) plus approximately 2 hours sorting and washing etc.
One report of weaving 7.5 minutes. That’s 7.5 rows per hour, so approximately 30 hours for weaving. Plus approximate spinning time for stashed yarns, let’s add another 10 hours for that. I would say, roughly calculated, 70 hours in total for spinning, warping, weaving, knotting and finishing. Now I am quite finished.
The bench pad is 160 cm long and 42 cm wide. There are 214 rows of rya knots that’s 4600 knots in total.
I used 506 meters (500 grams) of knot yarn. The total weight of the rya is 750 grams. And there are still 9 skeins of the white rya yarn left. Perhaps I will weave another rya, this time as a pillowcase for the sofa.
Gotta go, I have birthday cake to eat. I will sit on the bench pad with a ridiculously proud smile on my face.
P.S. If you are (or become) a patron you will have access to my monthly digital postcards. The March and June postcards were secretly shot in the vävstuga as I made the rya.
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