Traditional Icelandic Rya Knots; A Contemporary Adaption

I took a weaving class in July at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.  Marta Kløve Juuhl, a Norwegian weaver who has been studying and recreating medieval Icelandic pile coverlets, taught two classes using warp-weighted looms.  I was in the second class, where she offered her students an opportunity to use the distinctive Icelandic rya knot.   Five students opted to weave a wool hanging with a variety of pattern bands, in a technique often used in the west coast area of Norway.  The other half chose to try Marta’s “Rya: the Icelandic Way.”

The Icelandic rya knot was used in medieval times to weave  strands of unspun fleece into a wool background.  The lock of fleece was placed under several threads and twisted around a final thread before hanging free.


The resulting varafeldur, woven in natural sheep colors and covered in fleece, could be used as a warm cloak. They were so highly prized that they were traded as currency.  Here is Marta Kløve Juuhl with the reproduction varafeldur she wove in Iceland.


All of the five rya weavers brought large stashes of yarn, including me.  However, I brought my box of pieces cut for conventional rya, and the five inch lengths were too short to use for the  Icelandic knot.  That meant I needed to purchase new yarn, which tipped me towards a more limited color palette and a decision to try a geometric design within my weaving.  I am a great fan of equal-length crosses.  Visually the image is strong, clean, and allows for endless variation.  The cross has symbolic power, indicating a crossroads (decisions, the road not taken), heaven and earth, or a positive force.

Here is the warp-weighted loom dressed and ready to weave.  The most beautiful and traditional weights for the threads are stones of an even weight.  I ended up using sash weights for most of my threads, which are functional and of an even weight – just less charming.


The first test was whether I could make a cross image using the shaggy technique of Icelandic rya and yet have it strong and defined.  I wove the image sideways; here it is underway.


Here is the completed shaggy Icelandic cross.


As I wove, I checked the back of the piece occasionally, and then more frequently as I realized that I liked it as much as the front.  The knots creating pile on the front side created a smooth, yet textured design on the back, with strands poking out of each edge.  I decided my second Icelandic cross would take advantage of the unexpected design and I wove it back to front.  I intended the surface of the piece to have no pile other than the strands hanging from each edge.

Again, the unexpected became a chosen design choice.  On the back of the new, smooth piece I liked the pile defining the edges of the cross, and the back became the front.  I added more pile for the bottom of the piece.

When it came off the loom, it looked too messy at the edges of the cross where I had left the pile.  I questioned my fellow students – did I dare cut that pile for a short length so it would stick up neatly, like a clipped horse’s mane?


The answers varied from “Sure!” to “Oh my gosh, be careful, you’d better sleep on it.”  I didn’t sleep, but left it for a few hours, and when I returned I clipped the edge pile short.  Here’s the final result.


These pieces are quite different that any medieval piece woven with the Icelandic knot.  When I sent a photo of the finished piece to Marta, she commented on exactly that.  “Men denne er langt frå vararfelden, som var utgangspunktet. Og det er det som er så spennande.”  (But this is quite different that the varafeld, which was the starting point.  And that is what is so exciting.)

The class was a smashing success in terms of techniques learned and the opportunity to create and problem-solve.  And I’ll bet that none of the ten attendees had any idea on day one of how their resulting pieces would appear on day five.


  1. Great article, and I’m happy to see it. I had heard about it from Judy and Marty (weaving group members out here) but didn’t understand the reversal of the cross image. Veronna

    From: Bound to Weave Reply-To: Bound to Weave Date: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 5:50 PM To: Veronna Capone Subject: [New post] Traditional Icelandic Rya Knots; A Contemporary Adaption Robbie LaFleur posted: “I took a weaving class in July at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Marta Klve Juuhl, a Norwegian weaver who has been studying and recreating medieval Icelandic pile coverlets, taught two classes using warp-weighted looms. I was in the second c”

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