When I was growing up, a wool rag rug warmed the wood floor of my bedroom. Braided from wool strips in black, gray, tweed, red, and yellow, the plaits spiraled out from an oval center, around and around, each edge stitched to the next to form a long-lasting, homey floorcovering.
Back then, I yearned for pink wall-to-wall carpet, but I now realize that a wool rug was perfect for a child. Its multicolored braids hid dirt and pet hair, and the all-natural wool wore like iron. It wasn’t until after four hard years of college wear that my rug finally began to unravel.
Rag rugs informed my sense of aesthetics and influenced how I arrange my environment as an adult. The first rug I bought on my own was a woven rag rug, shot through with reds, purples, white, and blues. Before I ever considered the role these rugs play in recycling, I knew how livable and affordable they were, easily cleaned and adaptable to country, modern, vintage, or eclectic interiors.
Images of cozy colonial homes cheered by colorful rag rugs are actually a myth; rag rugs were not common before the nineteenth century. Until industrial fabrics became available, handspun, handwoven material was too dear to rip into strips and throw on the floor. According to Bobbie Irwin, author of Twined Rag Rugs (Krause, 2000), rag techniques didn’t gain popularity until the 1850s. “Rag rug making became popular before manufactured carpeting was available and when fabric became more of a surplus item,” she says.
In vogue during the early twentieth century Arts and Crafts Movement, rag rugs’ popularity exploded during the Depression, when most people chose either to forgo floorcovering or create it from scratch. Rags were the perfect Depression-era resource, fulfilling the motto of the time: “Use it up; wear it out. Make it do or do without.” As the American economy improved, rag rug making waned. “If you could buy a scatter rug at Woolworth’s for $1,” Irwin says, “why make it?”
Today, ecologically minded crafters and people with fond memories of Grandma’s house are blanketing their floors with these sustainable rugs. Others love that rug makers can design pieces to match the bathroom wallpaper. Diana Blake Gray, author of how-to books including Knitted “Rag” Rugs for the Craftsman (Rafter-Four Designs, 1996) and Traditional Shirred and Standing Wool Rugs (Rafter-Four Designs, 1996) observes that people turn to rug making as a way to quiet their souls. “It’s the appeal of ‘high-touch’ versus ‘high tech’ and knowing that a handmade rug really is a one-of-a-kind item, not something that’s mass-produced,” she says. “I work with folks who want to learn how to make rugs themselves, and most say that rug making is therapeutic and soothing—even to the point of being hypnotic. People feel they’re reconnecting with the past by making a rug, yet they’re also expressing a very contemporary creativity.”
Rag rugs come in a dazzling array of types and styles: hooked, prodded, knitted and crocheted, braided, and twined. Some are pictorial, offering up folk-art motifs of cats, angels, hearts, and flowers. Others make wild geometric statements, combining unusual blends of color and texture. Most common, perhaps, is the simple woven rug. Created on a loom, it is one of the fastest types to make and can be as colorful and varied as the weaver’s imagination.
A passionate recycler, Chris Gustin of Homestead Weaving Studio in Brown County, Indiana, started buying clothes at thrift shops in the 1970s for her woven rugs. The work was painstaking; every seam, zipper, and pocket had to be removed before the fabric could be cut into strips. Although she continues to make her denim and corduroy rugs this way, Gustin now buys about a ton of industrial waste a year: mill end yarns, sock loop remnants from athletic socks, and selvedge edges from huge bolts of fabric.
The Alaska Rag Company takes a similar approach. Located in downtown Fairbanks, the studio serves as a vocational training program for the Fairbanks Community Mental Health Center. The nonprofit company receives as much as 600 pounds of donated used clothing a week, and about a third of it is cut up for rugs. Like most handweaving studios, Alaska Rag Company customizes rugs for people who hope to match certain colors or want to include clothing items of sentimental value. “Some customers want us to use clothing from someone who has died or to include their kid’s soccer uniforms in rugs,” says Maria Case, vocational crew supervisor. “One mother brought in all her daughter’s clothes from growing up and then gave her the rug when she went to college.”
A handmade rag rug is a treasure and will wear for decades if it’s well cared for. Rag rugs can be purchased very reasonably from craft shows, galleries, or directly from the artists themselves (some sell for as little as $20). Local weaving and fiber arts guilds are also good resources for finding rag rug artisans.
“You can create beautiful things out of a waste product,” says Gustin, who has also experimented with weaving rugs from plastic grocery bags and paper yarn. “If you take the time, you can make something beautiful that will last ten to twenty years.”