Rag Rug: How to Use Rag Rugs in Your Home

Homey and durable, rag rugs offer the added benefit of reusing waste material.

| September/October 2003

  • Rag rugs can quickly and easily be made on a loom or with a sewing machine.
    Photo Courtesy Alaska Rug Company
  • Rag rugs can be constructed out of a variety of scrap material, even, as pictured here, paper.
    Photo Courtesy Homestead Weaving Studio
  • Look like colorful woven fabric? Guess again. These rugs are woven plastic grocery bags.
    Photo Courtesy Homestead Weaving Studio

  • Photo By Joe Coca
  • This simple pleated and shirred rug is made from sewn-together fabric scraps.
    Photo By Joe Coca

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.

Unbraiding history

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?”

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