Rya wool

There are three wool breeds in Sweden – breeds where wool is an important part of the breed standards. I have covered two of these (finull sheep and Jämtland sheep) in previous posts and today I present the third: Rya sheep. In this seventh part of my breed study of Swedish sheep breeds from the spinner’s perspective I will share my experience with Rya wool. Previous posts have been about Gotland wool, Gute wool, Dalapäls wool, Värmland wool, Jämtland wool and finull wool.

This Saturday, December 12th at 5 pm CET I will host a free live breed study webinar on Swedish rya wool! I will share my experiences with the wool from a spinner’s perspective.

A background

The word rya refers to three different things – a textile, a wool type and a sheep breed. These are all connected. The word rya is believed to be connected to ragg (coarse hair, compare to raggsocka, a sock with added goat’s hair for extra strength) and related to the English word Rug. The word rya thus refers to a textile with a fur-like side, the pile.

The rya breed as we know it today was bred during the 20th century while the textile has been made since at least the 14th century. To be able to tell you about the rya breed I need to start at the textile.

Rya as a texile

Many of you may have come across rya rugs – woven rugs with looped knots making up a pile. These were very popular to make during the 1970’s. They have a far longer history than that, though, and used mainly for other purposes.

From the oldest sources known today it is evident that the rya has been used in the bed for warmth. Because of its lightness compared to animal skins it has been used as a more lightweight alternative to these. The first mention of a rya is in a regulation from 1420 for bed equipment for nuns in the Vadstena convent: They shall wear a kirtle of white wadmal. In addition to that a rya. And a sheep skin for the winter” (my translation). These regulations may very well have been used already in the 14th century.

Many ryas have been registered in inventories from mansions and castles, the oldest one from 1444. This also speaks for the value of these textiles. Ryas have been used in trading in exchange for important groceries like hop and salt. During the 17th century ryas spread to social clusters outside the nobilities.

Originally the rya was used with the pile side down and the smooth side up. Many of the oldest finds have a plain knot side – perhaps with some decorative elements at the top to fold over – and a more elaborated smooth side. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries many ryas were shifted – the fur side was facing up and was more decorated for a more fancy bed spread.

Searching for the Rya wool type

The earlier ryas had a remarkable shine, whereas the ryas from the time of the industrial revolution had more matte wool with a lower quality. The spinning mills were not adapted to the Scandinavian double coated (short-tailed) land races. Fat-tailed sheep with shorter wool were imported to suit the industry. Thereby the landraces became less common.

During the national romantic era in the late 19th century there was an increased interest in traditional techniques and artifacts. Textile experts were fascinated by the shine in the old ryas, a shine they couldn’t find in contemporary sheep in Sweden. They gathered that there would probably be sheep with this wool type left in Sweden. They searched and found. Dalapäls sheep was one of the breeds that became the starting point of saving the rya wool type.

Five staples of wool in different colours and textures. Some more wavy and some more sleek and shiny.
Staples from five different rya sheep. Second from right from a lamb, the rest from ewes. the three leftmost are whole-year fleeces from the same flock. The two rightmost staples are the most typical rya staple types – long and shiny with almost no crimp.

Economic interests were more important than saving old landraces, though, and focus was again directed towards more undercoat and more meat. Wool was not a part of the breed standards. In 1978 the Rya sheep organization was founded to protect the Swedish landrace the Rya sheep and the wool quality got a prominent position in the breed standard.

So to the wool type rya. Rya as a wool type has long and shiny outercoat and soft undercoat, with almost no crimp. The outercoat to undercoat ratio is between 60/40 and 50/50. Many other sheep breeds in Sweden, especially the heritage breeds, can have rya type wool, partly or over the whole body. The term rya type wool is thus a way to describe the staple type and distribution of undercoat and outercoat within that staple.

Rya sheep

The sheep that had been developed to save the old landrace characteristics with the long, strong and shiny wool was thus called Rya sheep, and had rya type wool to resemble the wool used in the old rya textiles.

A light fawn sheep with long and fluffy wool. One lamb lying in the grass, one nursing.
Rya sheep Beppelina with whole-year fleece, just before she was shorn and the fleece sent to me. Photo by Ann Arvidson

Rya sheep are medium-sized – rams weigh 70–100 kilos and ewes 60–80 kilos. Face and legs are wool free and the wool is uniform over the body of the sheep. The wool can be white, black, brown or grey. Rya sheep are skilled in grazing in rugged terrain. In 2019 there were 570 breeding ewes in 60 flocks in Sweden. According to the breeding goals the wool should be uniform over the body, strong and shiny and no less than 15 cm at 120 days of age and with 0–3 crimps per 5 cm.

Rya wool

As discussed in the paragraphs above, Rya wool was saved and developed to rescue the strong and shiny wool type that had been used in the old rya textiles. Rya wool is thus long, strong and shiny. It also has soft undercoat. Since the breed comes from old landraces there are still rooing tendencies – some individuals shed their fleece in the spring.

The outercoat to undercoat ratio is between 60/40 and 50/50. The outercoat is very strong and shiny and the undercoat soft and also quite shiny. Eventhough rya wool is quite homogenous over the body of the sheep, the dual coat makes the wool very versatile. As a hand spinner you can choose to spin undercoat and outercoat together or separated. If you consider the fineness of lamb’s wool and the strength of wool from ewes you have an even wider spectrum of qualities to play with.

The wool characteristics that I want to focus on when I spin rya wool is the exceptional shine, the amazing strength and the versatility over the fiber types and of wool from both ewes and lambs.

Preparing and spinning

At the moment I have a few rya fleeces in my stash – ewe’s and lamb’s wool in white, grey, brown(s) and black. Some of them are quite traditional rya fleeces with the long, strong and shiny staples. But four of them (one fleece and samples from three other sheep in the same flock) are a bit different. They have some crimp and finer fibers. They have a full year’s growth and have started to shed.

Four piles of fleece in natural colours.
Fleece samples from the rya sheep Alva, Lina, Beppelina and Bertil (ram).

Combing and worsted spinning

This summer I spent many walks together with the outercoat from this quartet and a suspended spindle. I had separated the coats with stationery combs and set the undercoat aside. I combed the outercoat and made bird’s nests.

A spindle and combed wool on a step down to a creek.
The outer coat from the whole-year’s shearing of the rya ewe Beppelina, spun worsted on a suspended spindle.

This whole year’s fiber is longer than any wool I have ever worked with before, around 30 cm. During the summer I generally spin on spindles, but even in the winter I think I would have preferred to spin this length on a suspended spindle. With the spindle I can control the speed and the intake in a way I think would have been difficult on a spinning wheel with fibers this long.

A white and a black ball of shiny yarn.
Combed whole year’s outer coat from the rya ewe Lina and the rya ram Bertil. Spun on a suspended spindle.

These shiny and fiercely strong yarns make excellent warp yarn. One day I will spin singles warp yarn, but I am not there yet. In the mean time I will spin 2-plied warp yarns.

Carding and woolen spun

The undercoat I had set aside from the combing resulted in a lovely knitting yarn. I carded the separated undercoat fibers into rolags and spun with English long draw on a spinning wheel and 2-plied. I am thinking stranded colourwork knitting for this quartet.

Four skeins of yarn in white, light beige, beige and dark brown.
Undercoat woolen spun from hand carded rolags of the rya sheep Alva, Beppelina, Lina and Bertil.

Keeping it all together

On my wool journey of 2019 I experimented with a sock yarn where I mixed 60 per cent rya wool with 40 per cent adult mohair. At the 2019 fleece championships I bought a gold medalist rya fleece and a bag of adult mohair for my sock yarn project. I try to keep a strict queue in my fleece stash and I have just started spinning this yarn. I have blended it with adult mohair and spun it woolen as a cabled yarn.

Perhaps I will play with some dyeing for striped socks. I am not a big sock knitter, but this project might change my opinion on sock knitting.

A rya rya yarn

Another project I have in my mind is a yarn for rya knots in rya yarn. I may not be able to make a whole bed cover, but I could weave something smaller, perhaps a foot rug for the bed. I have woven chair pads with rya knots, but only with stashed handspun and not in rya wool.

A yarn for rya knots is spun in its entirety with both undercoat and outercoat and 2-plied. Some of the findings have a lot of twist – around 11 rounds per centimeter. Saved rya textiles have been both Z-plied and S-plied. I have asked several textile experts about how the wool for the rya textiles in the museum collections were prepared and spun, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear information about this.

Since a textile with rya knots tends to get quite heavy my plan is to card it and spin it woolen. Since I have no plans of making a floor rug out of it there is no need for super strong worsted yarn.

Use

As I wrote earlier rya wool has a wide variety of uses since you can use it together or separated and find different qualities in lamb’s wool and adult wool. I have already shared some ideas of what I want to do with the fleeces I have – socks blended with adult mohair, yarn for rya knots, stranded knitting with undercoat yarn and outercoat warp yarn.

A wooden lucet with some finished cord wrapped around it. An ammonite pendant hanging from the cord.
A lucet cord from Bertil’s outercoat made a lovely pendant cord. Combed and worsted spun on a suspended spindle.

I played with my lucet to make a cord for an ammonite pendant I bought myself a while ago. I made it with the dark brown worsted spun outercoat from Bertil the ram. The cord is very strong and sleek.

Other uses for yarn from rya wool is rugs, tapestries and embroidery. Due to the exceptional shine the wool is very well suited for weaving rugs and is said to get even shinier with wear. Yes, I might spin an embroidery yarn too.

Live webinar!

This This Saturday, December 12th at 5 pm CET I will host a live breed study webinar about Swedish rya wool from a spinner’s perspective. In the webinar I will talk briefly about the breed in Sweden, wool characteristics and how I prepare, spin and use rya wool. I will use rya wool during the webinar and show you glimpses of how I prepare and spin the wool.

Even if you think you will never come across Swedish finull this is still an opportunity to learn more about wool and wool processing in general. The breed study webinar will give you tools to understand different wool types and apply your knowledge to breeds and wool types closer to you.

This is a wonderful chance for me to meet you (in the chat window at least, I won’t be able to see you) and for you to see me live and unedited. The previous live breed study webinars I have done have been great successes. I really look forward to seeing you again in this webinar.

The event has already taken place.

Happy spinning!


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