Rya rugs are shaggy. They look a little like bathmats. But when they are well-designed, we can see the appeal of these rugs to homeowners of the 1960s. In one furry fling, they brought cosiness, color, and a casual modern chic to the hard undecorated surfaces of contemporary homes. The fact that they were both inexpensive and stylish made them irresistible in the era before wall-to wall carpeting.
These rugs are also relatively small- usually under six feet, or two meters, in both directions. They didn’t need a large standing loom, but were managable on a tabletop.
One of the designers who did most to popularize ryas in the 1950s and 60s was Ingrid Skerfe-Nilsson, working in Uppsala, Sweden. Trained, as many of Sweden’s best designers were, in textiles at what was then called the Higher School of Industrial Art in Stockholm (the “Högre konstindustriella skolan”) and is now called Konstfack, Ingrid Skerfe took typical first jobs as a pattern maker, i.e. copying out designs made by a more senior designer to make them ready for weavers to weave. In 1945, at age 27, she moved to the home of Sweden’s most prestigious old university, Uppsala, north of Stockholm, and also moved up a notch professionally, to become a designer at the Uppsala County Crafts Association.
In Uppsala, Ingrid happily discovered the collection of traditional textiles from the Upplands region, including many 18th and 19th century rya rugs. Throughout her career, she remained fond of one of her earliest designs, based on a traditional model. About 1949 or ’50, she designed this rug, called The Apple Tree, a lovely coral-pink rya whose design struck a perfect balance between rustic and abstract. On the back it carries the initials of both ULH, Uppsala läns hemslöjd, and her married initials ISN, Ingrid Skerfe-Nilsson. (She married in 1949).
As a designer, Skerfe-Nilsson was prolific, generating several hundred designs for the Uppsala County Crafts Association. Many of these were for rya, others for pile rugs, and others for flat-weave rölakan. Some of these rugs were designed for local churches, others were made to be sold by the Crafts Association. Her sketches are lovely— both delicate and vigorous, and make evident her delight in color. Her rya rugs also range from more traditional repeating forms (even if with more modern colors) to much more organic modernist ones.
A more “traditional” pile rug is shown as both a sketch and the rug produced from that sketch.
Filed among sketches from the same year, 1948-9, is another design for a rya rug which is much more “atomic age” in its design, and shows Skerfe-Nilsson’s versatility. This one is shown in seven different color versions and slightly different forms, and seems to record a process of design refinement.
Skerfe-Nilsson’s talent for giving traditional forms a more modern expression, began to be noticed by a wider audience when a copy of her her 1950 design, Solros, was purchased by the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.
And here is a colored-in black and white photo of this finished “Sunflower” rug:
Ingrid was ambitious and entrepreneurial, and could see beyond her design work for the County Crafts Association. In 1952, she left that Association. She rented a shop with two floors in a handsome 19th century building on a central downtown Uppsala street, and began to build her own business. A counter for sales was in the front room, then several rooms for yarn storage, and a studio on the second floor. A former employee remembered the way that Skerfe-Nilsson filled her nicely-proportioned old rooms which had large windows, with yarn in all colors, and some 400 shades—one with yellows and greens; another with all colors of blue from turquoise to purple-blue; then one with red and purple and rya yarns; finally a staircase painted an “intense blue” led to the studio above, which later occasionally served as showroom as well. Skerfe-Nilsson sold both her own rugs, made in rya and pile, in ready-made form, and also offered ryas in do-it-yourself kits, complete with directions and patterns, backing, needles and yarn. Local weavers were employed to make rugs, sew clothing, and keep the store supplied with hand-made goods.
By 1954, Skerfe-Nilsson was offering popular courses in rya rug making. A photographer -possibly from a local newspaper – recorded a showing of her designs in the following photographs, and makes it clear that her audience, at least initially, was prosperous middle-class women:
But men also found this hobby appealing. Several women from Uppsala recall sitting in their living rooms in the evening, making rya rugs with their husbands when they were young and newly married. One of them mentions— this would have been 1956— that the rug they were working on came out badly because they were both so upset, listening to radio broadcasts about the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution.
Ahead of her time, Skerfe (now the name she used), was a shrewd and energetic business woman and instinctively found ways to “brand” her business, whether by having all of her saleswomen wear purple one season, or a particular hat another. She was not an “easy” person, but she encouraged her employees, and gave them license to learn and try ideas out for themselves. Other employees made designs for Rya, especially a young woman named Margit Scherman- Börjesson, but all of her rya rugs were popularly called “Skerfes”. Her window displays were legendary, arranged with pride and care to display well-made craft items.
By the mid 1960s, Skerfe had diversified, with three shops in business at the same time. One was a gallery for rya rugs on two floors. Another sold shawls, scarves and hats made of handwoven textiles and also dresses and coats out of hand-printed velvet. The displays of clothing were enlivened by contemporary Swedish silver jewelry— also for sale. The third shop was full of elegant housewares and gifts. Skerfe now travelled to source objects from around the world. All the items bore a little gold store label in her name and were always presented in what a former employee called a “delicious way.”
The shops began to draw tourists from the United States and from Switzerland who came to town by the busload. When the Nobel prize laureates came each year to Uppsala to give public lectures to the university community prior to their awards ceremony in Stockholm, their wives could also be found visiting Skerfe’s rug gallery and perusing the goods in her fashionable design shops. A number of magazine articles also brought new customers.
Always interested in new commercial opportunities, Skerfe had contracted to produce a series of rya pillow kits. Never mind that we may think today that these look like colored dustmops— at the time, they were apparently popular enough to sell by mail to clients abroad. Skerfe was also designing machine-made rya rugs for the Wahlbecks carpet factory in Linkoping. (One of her classmates from school, Marianne Richter, was designing her own series of rugs for Wahlbecks as well).
Ingrid Skerfe Nilsson, Rya pillow making kit ca 1965 found on eBay, and view of pillow itself.
A former employee describes Skerfe as seeing patterns in everything. Playful designs and interesting color combinations apparently came easily.
In the 1960s, Skerfe’s designs began to draw more on nature, and became more abstract.
The following sketches show this maturation of her style.
Some 1960s designs looked back to earlier influences. Drawing on her earlier study of 18th century “slitrya” rugs in the Uppsala crafts collection, Ingrid made her own version, in both red and blue. She seems to have been pleased to see how her new iteration, her new “dream” of this older Swedish form traveled abroad in kit form.
In the ‘60s, Skerfe also revisited her early “Tree” (Trådet) design, redrawing it more simply for use as a new rya and offering it now in both a black/grey version, and a dark green one. As usual, she would provide both the design and the yarn colors shown on this card, either ready-made, or in a kit.
In 1971, Ingrid Skerfe decided abruptly that she could no longer compete with larger stores in selling well-designed products, not even her beloved rya rugs. She moved to close her shop and sell her weaving equipment and supplies to Klockargården hemslöjd. Skerfe turned over designs from her own company to the Uppsala County craft association, from which they passed into the Uppland Museum collection.
Her note on this backside of the sketch for the black Tradet design is poignant, “One of my first ryas. The motif is from an old Swedish rya.” The note was typically short and to the point. Ingrid Skerfe left her rug career as decisively as she had run it, moving to Stockholm and onto the next phase of her life.
2/13 P.S. I have added this in response to a couple of questions and comments about how these rugs are actually made: it’s a youtube demonstration!
Auktionhuset Kolon, Stockholm
Digtital Museet, Upplands Museum collection
Ebay, for rya pillow
Helsingborgs Auktionskammare, Helsingborg, Sweden
JP Willborg, Stockholm. Willborg resold Äppelträdet rug and added images of initials and closeup view; date unknown.
Konstnärslexikonet Amanda, entry on Skerfe-Nilsson
LR Pigan, Facebook entry
Ingrid Skerfe-Nilsson (1918-2004)
Melinda Byrd on youtube, link above.
Länsmuseet Gävleborg, online version of catalog of exhibition of 1950s-60s embroidery, shown at Östergötland’s museum, Spring 2015. Book published in conjunction with exibit by Ann-Sofie Svansbo and Anna Lindqvist, with photographs by Thomas Harrysson, Borderier Från 50-och 60-Talen, published by Hemslojdens publishers.
Rovira, Annika, “Ingrid Skerfe-Nilsson – konstnär och entreprenör,” pp. 25- 29 in 2011 Uppsala Senioruniversitet Rapport nr 13, Kvinna och Konstnär, Rapport från studiecirkel om kvinnors konst ht 2011.
Note: for the sake of clarity and consistency, I have labeled all material by this designer with the name “Ingrid Skerfe-Nilsson,” since that is how she is generally referred to, despite the fact that at a certain point in the 60s she seems to have dropped the Nilsson name and signed sketches and referred to herself as Ingrid Skerfe.