THE HISTORY OF WEAVING (AND RAG RUGS)

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Our team experiments with all types of fabric manipulation here at Alabama Chanin. We have used ruffles to create texture in our textiles and jewelry; have featured crochet work in our collections and projects, and love how something so simple as a knot can add complexity and depth to a piece. In Alabama Stitch Book, we showed how fabric might be used to repair and repurpose farm chairs – an idea that we explored further in our MAKESHIFT 2013 Chair Workshop. Lately, the team has been experimenting with a large floor loom in The Factory. I have long wanted to incorporate rugs into our lifestyle collections, which would also be a wonderful way for us to utilize scraps and decrease waste. I remember my grandmother saving fabric to make rag rugs and there was always a rag rug in front of her sink.

In its most basic definition, weaving is a way to produce fabric using two sets of thread, yarn, or fabric, that are interlaced to form cloth. The longitudinal threads are called the “warp” and the lateral threads are the “weft.” Though hand and finger weaving is suitable for small projects, larger fabrics are usually woven on a loom.

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Weavers have been valued craftspeople almost since the beginning of humankind. Very rudimentary woven cloth has been found in prehistoric graves and settlements. Tens of thousands of years ago, man began to develop string by twisting together plant fibers. Weaving together this primitive string by hand was the next logical step. The first, crude weaving looms were likely developed in the Neolithic Era. Weaving looms were developed from this basic form in China, where silk from silkworm cocoons was utilized and the weaving of this silk was a well-defined craft.

Different forms of weaving spread throughout Asia and Africa and both everyday and specialty looms were developed to meet cultural needs. The first loom that used pedals to move the thread through the heddle (which separates the warp threads for passage of the weft) appeared in or around Syria during the Islamic Golden Age (the mid-7th to mid-13th centuries). By Medieval times, cotton and silk were introduced to the upper classes, which increased production and innovation of intricate weaving techniques and fabric patterns. By the 10th or 11th century, weavers created trade guilds to regulate quality, trade, and selling prices – among other things.

Weaving became a mechanized industry during the Industrial Revolution, when steam and water powered looms were developed. The fly shuttle was invented, removing the need to have a weaver place the weft thread into the warp threads by hand. By the early 1800s the Jacquard Machine emerged, which used a punch card system to operate the loom, creating a fabric according to holes punched into the cards.

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Rag rugs have been made almost since weaving was invented. Through many eras, only upper classes could afford to purchase finer textiles and most everyone else made do with scraps and leftover fabric that could be scavenged or gathered over time.

Today, those of us who like to reuse and repurpose find beauty in bringing new life to old fabrics. When made properly, rag and scrap rugs can last a very long time and can be some of the softest in your home. I’ve made them from old t-shirts, socks and pantyhose, worn bed sheets, sweatpants, even worn denim. You can use many fabrics to make rag rugs. But, I recommend using fabrics that have a similar weight or thickness. Mixing types of fabric can result in unexpected changes in shape and size, as some fabrics may shrink more than others when washed.

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There are several different ways to assemble a rag rug. You can use our tutorial for making a crochet bath mat, adapting the technique for your saved scraps. This method works well with most fabrics but is particularly well suited to cotton, which can be more easily manipulated with crochet hooks. It is also common to see braided rag rugs, where fabric is braided into a long cord, then wound into a circle or oval and stitched into place for durability. Knotted rugs are similar to the latch hook projects that you made as a child and are built onto a rug mat. There is plenty of room to create your own design when making a knotted rug, since you can plan out an elaborate pattern or randomly place fabrics for an organic design.

Woven rag rugs can be made using a handmade wooden or cardboard frame. This site has tutorials for several different styles of handmade rag rugs. Depending on the size of your rag bag, you may be able to experiment with more than one type. Let us know what methods produce the best results for you.

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2 thoughts on “THE HISTORY OF WEAVING (AND RAG RUGS)

  1. Kathleen

    I make hooked (not latch-hooked) rugs out of thrifted t-shirts on 100% cotton backing I get from Dorr Mill in NH. I keep them at around the 2×3 foot size and I don’t back them with latex or anything which means they can go in a regular washer and dryer. When they wear out, they can be composted, but honestly, I have had my first one for 10 years now and it shows no sign of being ready for the compost pile :)

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  2. Eva

    I have the same experience: I crocheted my rug, about 40″x40′or so when I was expecting my first daughter…ten years ago. It has been used in many different rooms since then and stood up to wear beautifully. It is wool, but I wash it regulary ( so it of course felted a bit, to its advantage). Now I am inspired to make one out of cotton jersey, maybe even on my loom:-)

    Reply

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