Rag Rug Traditions (Excerpts from the Rag Rug Handbook.)

The history of rag weaving is largely undocumented. While it is likely that the weaving of recycled cloth dates far back into antiquity, some of the earliest known examples are from the 18th century. A rag rug woven in 18th century Japan indicates the early presence of rag weaving in the Orient. One of the first documented pieces of European rag weaving is a Swedish counterpane with the date 1834 woven into it. However, rag weavings were referred to before this time in old Swedish wills and estate inventories. Examples of Historic rag weaving from the British Isles and other European countries have been recorded in several studies. Some outstanding North American examples are the catalogne coverlets found in Canadian museums. Rag weaving appears to be a worldwide craft. Contemporary rag weavings are produced in Finland, Haiti, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Scandinavia's strong tradition of rug weaving is thriving in the 21st century, and the Japanese still weave colorful obis (sashes), jackets and vests made with thin strips of fabric.

North American Origins. Early immigrants to the United States and Canada brought textile tools including spinning wheels and reeds in their family trunks. It appears that, in most cases it was not practical to bring the large floor looms required for rug weaving along with the family's possessions. Instead they were constructed after arrival in this country. Many early handbuilt rug looms are similar in design to looms in use in Europe at the time and were probably reconstructed from memory. Looms shown in 18th century French, Dutch, British and German illustrations suggest loom types that were reproduced for weavers who emigrated from those countries.
A household loom was often shared in a community, transported from farm to farm by cart. In many cases the actual weaving took place in an out-building on the property. At least one loom in rural Minnesota was housed in a sauna. There is also evidence that looms were used in basements, attics and kitchens.

At first home weavers wove table linens, coverlets, yardage for clothing and other items on their looms. Later, many four-harness looms were converted to two-harness solely for the purpose of weaving rag rugs. Women helped each other with the warping and held "rag-sewing bees" outside in the summer. Pieces of fabric from old clothes, bedspreads, curtains, blankets, sheets, etc, were cut or torn, sewn together into strips and wound into balls. Most fabrics served out their usefulness in other capacities before they were woven into rugs. The best portions may have been reserved for quilt pattern blocks. Usually only one kind of material was used for each rug, i.e. cotton rags for kitchen, bedroom and bathroom rugs and wool for living rooms and hallways. Silk rags were used for door curtains, scatter rugs, seat mats and couch throws. The width of the strips varied with the type of material.

Early Patterns. "Hit-and-Miss" rugs came about because even the smallest scraps of fabric were saved and wound carefully into balls which were then woven on looms at home or taken to a local weaver to be woven. When a weaver received these balls, she had no choice but to weave them as they were sewn. Fig, 3-3 and Project 1. Later, rags of similar color were wound together giving the weaver greater latitude in the designing of her rugs. Strips were sometime made in the warp and the weft producing a plaid effect. A Log Cabin pattern with dark and light threads alternating in the warp and weft was a favorite. Fig 3-18 and Projects 5 through 12. Twills could be woven on four-harness looms. This created an entirely different kind of surface texture and color arrangement. Projects 13 ,14. In some rugs "laid in" and tufted designs were added . Fig.3-9, 10,11. Tapestry techniques made possible wedge-shaped areas. Sometimes two wefts were twisted together in a "turkey-track" pattern, Fig. 3-7 or rags were dyed to achieve color gradations. Each weaver had a distinctive style or trademark. For one it might be two stripes on either side of the rug: for another, the insertion of bright rags to form a flower pattern in the end border stripes, or a twisted weft stripe at both ends of the weaving. This last embellishment is reminiscent of some of the early Shaker techniques. The beautiful catalogne coverlets and rugs of Canada use a variation on the twist technique.

Early Rag Rug Use. Loom company catalogues from the early years of the 20th century indicate that rag carpeting was used extensively in home furnishing in the United States. Rag carpet strips were woven approximately 36 inches wide requiring looms which were 40-45 inches in width. These carpet strips were joined together to cover an entire floor surface. Although warp-faced carpeting was mentioned in some of the early catalogs, the carpets referred to here had warp setts of 10 or 12 e.p.i. Contemporary newsletters pointed out that weaving rag rugs for carpeting or throw rugs was a profitable home occupation.(10) Many men and women were able to support them-selves or supplement the family income with their weaving skills.

As floor coverings became more diverse, the rag rug was relegated to the less public rooms of the house while carpets, domestic and imported, were used to furnish the front parlor and the living room. Even with the introduction of wall-to-wall carpeting, there was still a demand for rag rugs. Rag rug weaving began as a necessity and has endured because of the rich warm atmosphere it creates in a home.