Helsinki-based textile artist Melissa Sammalvaara’s works are modern takes on ryijy, a traditional Finnish woven tapestry. Her latest work Tuohi (Finnish for ‘Birch bark’) was commissioned by Institut finlandais as part of the exhibition Écoutons la forêt pousser, currently on display at the institute.
After exchanging about her journey and her philosophy in a first interview, the artist now sheds light on the details behind fabricating a ryijy, from the initial idea to the end result.
How would you describe a Ryijy ?
Ryijy is a traditional type of tapestry made of wool, woven with a loom and hung on a wall. Traditional ryijys feature specific motifs, and they consist of knotted piles with cut-off ends that are equally long. The yarns typically used for ryijys are often woollen and thicker than the ones that I use in my work.
I found my own style very quickly and have therefore only done a few traditional style ryijys. Sometimes I’m a bit worried about how people find my works as they are such a modern take on the old craft and fabricated by hand instead of a loom.
How would you describe your workflow? How do the ideas for your works emerge and what are the phases of your working process?
Developing the idea
The ideas for my works emerge in different places and settings. Inspiration hits me best during moments when I’m not in a rush. Whilst walking my dog for example, I might see beautiful branches, moss or lichen that I find inspiring. Equally, it can be an interesting colour combination or texture, or some more global theme or article that sparks inspiration. I take a snapshot of what catches my eye with my camera, and those photos serve as documentation of the initial inspirations for future projects.
In my practice, I rarely try to create replicas of what I’ve seen in nature, but it’s important that the photos I take convey the atmosphere and the feeling that I’ve experienced in that precise moment, so that I can then channel that through my work to other people. I use a sketchbook, where I note my ideas and develop them further. Some ideas require more time to take shape than others.
My experience in interior design has helped me in designing ryijys, especially when it comes to understanding scale. The studies in pattern design affect my way of planning and building exhibitions. One of my strengths is in managing ensembles, and working with a project that consists of various parts feels natural to me.
When sketching a ryijy, I decide what size I want the final outcome to be and then I try to find a net that matches the size. After having tailored the net to the exact measures and trimmed the ends, I normally do not adjust the size anymore. Still, sometimes I might add something, for example some crocheted parts. Currently, I’m working on a project that has some ceramic details on it.
The next step in the process is to go through my enormous stock of materials with the objective of finding the perfect shade by combining them together. If I don’t find the suitable yarns, it is time to go thrifting.
After that, I start thinking of ways to place the colours. Sometimes I need to take cleaning breaks, because the yarns get messed up easily. I am not the tidiest person, and sometimes my studio is an absolute chaos. I used to work in a 8m2 space at home, but luckily I recently got a 48m2 studio workspace in eastern Helsinki, otherwise it would have been impossible to weave the 6m2 work for the institute. In my old tiny workspace, it often happened that the yarns just suddenly fell off the shelves and hit me when I was working.
Nowadays, at the end of a workday, it is lovely to be able to shut the door of your studio and leave the project until the following day.
I sometimes use new materials, but when doing so I try to choose locally fabricated, natural fibres of good quality. Using recycled materials is a conscious choice I have made, accepting that you can’t always find exactly what you are looking for. Sometimes, I find materials that might suit some other project instead of the ongoing one. The process of thrifting is overall exciting and it feels very rewarding when at times I find materials that match the initial idea perfectly. The best part of using recycled yarns is the idea of making something new out of something that others have found to be useless, excess material. After I’ve bought the yarns, I put them in the freezer for at least a day, a step that is crucial but a lot of work.
A few times I have also dyed yarns myself, something I probably will continue doing in the future. The dyeing is very time-consuming, so this project’s schedule was too tight for that process.
I weave ryijys in many different ways and choose the technique based on the project. I tend to use a net as the base layer, because it allows you to work in a non-linear way, unlike the loom. The net is only visible on the backside of the artwork, so it doesn’t really affect the end result.
I bought the yarns I used for Tuohi at a recycling centre. With a yarn swift, I combined the different yarns into a thick, multicoloured thread. If I would have used the yarns separately, the texture of the ryijy would have been much thinner and not as fluffy.
For Tuohi, I used different types of yarns that I thrifted from flea markets and second hand shops in Helsinki. It was a challenge to find enough yarn in the right colours, and finding all the material I needed took a lot of effort.
After finding the materials, I then combined several different types of yarn together with a yarn swift to obtain more thickness as well as variation in the shades. Although you can’t necessarily point out all the shades of yarn that have been used in the final piece, the correct use of colour in different parts of the design was important to get the envisioned end result. I also prefer that the yarns in my works vary in length, unlike the traditional ryijys in which the horizontal rows of yarn are clearly defined.
When I have finished the weaving, I steam all the knots from the backside with a steamer to tighten them and to set them in place. Some fibres don’t bend easily and steaming helps to tame them. Finally, I steam the entire ryijy from the front side and comb it thoroughly to give it a refined look.
Tuohi is displayed at the institute’s Café Maa, open from 11 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Saturday. The exhibition Listen to the Forest that Grows is open until 30 July at Institut finlandais.