It’s strangely gratifying when a design or craft tradition thought to have arisen autochthonous in one place and from one people turns out to have a far more mongrel origin. In my experience, when looking at artisanal and other design, it seems that cultural borrowing and hybridity are overwhelmingly the rule rather than the exception and purity has nothing to do with it. Despite this, craft and folk culture are so often associated with the idea of pure, rigid tradition and regional authenticity. I don’t really like the idea of cultural purity, for obvious reasons (German folk tales!), but regardless of my qualms about mobilizing cultural forms for nationalist or sectarian reasons, it seems that historically it’s more accurate to look at textile traditions as wildly impure, hybrid and constantly inventive. If you travel overland from India to Europe you notice how gradually traditions and techniques change, and then there are more complicated connections often having to do with trade.
It was very interesting to learn that rya rugs, the well-known traditional Scandinavian style of knotted pile rugs, actually have their roots in 9th-10th century Viking trade with the Byzantine Empire. After Viking merchants brought Turkish carpets home to Norway, the middle eastern method of knotting pile was slowly adapted by across the Nordic countries, first for practical purposes and then later on for ceremonial uses. The earliest use was in protective wraps used by Norwegian sailors, seal hunters and fisherman, usually in monochromatic colours such as black, white, cream and pale yellow. Eventually, less heavy versions were used as blankets and bedding in the home, with the blankets used pile-side-down (see bed below) for warmth. The use of colour and of bolder motifs appeared much later, most markedly in Finland where decorative ceremonial rugs were used in the wedding ceremony and then hung in the home to commemorate the marriage. This style of rya, which reached a peak of skill and artistic boldness in the late 1800s, was resuscitated during the 1960s and 70s Finnish design revival and is what most people think of when they hear the term rya rug.
As an interesting aside, the tulip, that distinctively Dutch flower, also originated in Turkey.
Above: Rya rug dated 1877, from the shop of Igor Ilkka Honkanen in Finland. This one clearly mimics traditional Turkish carpet motifs. Below: 1960s vintage rya rug which very obviously mimics the style of Berber rugs from North Africa.