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Charm And History In Rag Rugs

When it comes to the Home Arts our great grandmoc'hers were no slouches. With their needles and know how, their home made dye baths and their worn out but hoarded cloth from garments and household, they made rugs and carpets that collectors today grab up both for their charm and for their historical part in America's past.

Few American children today ever helped tack down a room size rug from sewed together strips of rag carpeting. Fewer still have sat at great grandma's feet on a winter evening, shivering delightedly over pioneer tales as she sorted the hoarded rags and doled out the "fit to use" pieces carefully cut from the linen, wool, and later, the cotton garments. These had to be torn lengthwise, two fingers width, sewed end to end, and rolled into a ball as big as a baby's head. The end was caught fast with a couple of stitches to prevent unwinding, and the ball was set aside for grandma's dyepots, or for the "carpet weaver."

The earliest type of American rag carpeting was the old blue and white linen rag woof put together with old, thick, hand twisted white linen warp thread.

Hand Made Rag Carpets Were a Pioneer Art

Seldom now can a strip of old rag carpet be found in that chest or trunk dragged from that dark cobwebbed corner of the attic. Gone with the years too is the "Joseph's coat" rag carpet of every cloth and color, once found in half the homes of America's sturdy youth. These were woven with the colors hit and miss. Bright cotton warp threads, set about a fourth inch apart, gave strength to the worn rags of the woof.

It took two pounds of carpet rags to make a yard of carpet, not counting the extra woof used for crow tracks or arrow heads, thrown across the strip in groups of half a dozen woof lines every few feet to give the carpet a little "gumption"-life and pattern to you. Added over the usual woof, these designs made a raised, irregular surface which wore out more quickly than the plain carpet, so were considered "mighty extravagant" in their day.

Many of great grandma's rugs were made up of pieces "hitched" on to a backing by needle and thread. This was true of her quilt block or pieced rugs, her appliqued rugs, her tongue rugs, her dollar or coin rugs, her button rugs, and her bit or fluff rugs.

Rugs with Strawberries, Flowers, Vines, and Clover Leaves

For pioneer pieced rugs, the cloth pieces were sewed into blocks then stitched on to a dark backing which itself was often made of larger cast off pieces sewed together. The pieced blocks were set on in a way to cover the worn spots and "splicings" of the backing. Sometimes the blocks were set on in hit and miss patterns, leaving parts of the backing exposed. In these exposed parts great grandma's needle often stitched gay color touches-say, strawberries in a bed of green leaves, or a scatter of various colored flowers.

The appliqued rugs showed flowering vines and overflowing fruit baskets cut from bright colored pieces and "buttonholed" in pattern onto stout backs, generally of dark wool.

Tongue rugs were threshold favorites. They were made of tongue-shaped pieces the size of great grandma's hand, and smaller, overcast with colored yarns at the sides and tip. These fancied up pieces were then sewed to a backing row on row.

If grandma's red petticoat or grandpa's red flannels weren't fit to patch a mite further but could cut into a lot of red tongues to scatter through the black and brown pieces, they plumb perked up the whole kitchen. Often grandma worked a flower, star, or spiderweb in red or green yarns on the tongue 'tip. Generally too she buttonholed a flower or four leaf clover in the rug's center to cover the joining of the tongue backs.

Dollar, Fluff, Embroidered and Hooked Rugs

Dollar rugs were made of penny to dollar size wool pieces overcast in rainbow colors and scattered like bright coins over the dark backing. Button rugs used the smaller pieces sewed to the backing through their center, button style, instead of by the edge. Bit or fluff rugs, of inch or two strips, sewed (or hooked) to the backing and leaving the ends up to give a velvety pile, let nothing go to waste.

Crewel embroidery, done in the earlier days with home made wool yarns and home made needle, put chain-stitched leaves, flowers and fruits on wool, linen or cotton backing. More elaborate picture patterns or lattice-like all over designs were later used. Sometimes the ambitious mother sent abroad for a big piece of canvas backing, for crossstitched rugs were mighty elegant in "their time" and prettied up many a home for the daughters' courting days.

Hooked rugs on linen, linsey woolsey, or wool backs, took finger width strips of linen or wool drawn in as yarns to make the surface design. The coarse home made materials of the older rugs made bulky yarns so the loops were drawn in at wider intervals, giving a looser, shaggier surface and pattern than later hooked rugs made of cotton and "store" wool.

The more modern hooked rugs, made of cotton hooked through burlap, allowed intricate patterns because the loops could be put closer together. Patterns so made ran to elaborate flowers and scrolls, pictorial scenes, and hooked mottoes.

Great Grandma Grew It, Spun It, Dyed It, and Made It

Braided, knitted, and crocheted rugs did not use backings. The braided ones took wider "yarn" strips so the raw edges could be turned in for a smoother, firmer braid. The earlier ones of linen or woolen or both were round or oval but later ones were often rectangles or squares. Sometimes as many as five to twelve strands were braided at one time. The trick in the sewing was to feed the braid to the curve so it would neither ruffle from over-fullness, nor "hoop up" from skimping.

Knitted rugs, and later, crocheted rugs, were seldom worked up in a single piece because they were too unwieldy. Instead, they were generally made up in sections, then joined.

The wool, linen and cotton were produced, processed and used right on the farm. So were the dyes which still vitalize the old cloth, except the cochineal for red, and powdered indigo for blue. These, with copperas and alum for "strengthening" the color or "bringing it right," great grandma generally bought from her peddler.

Grove, garden, orchard, pasture, barn lot, and even, to be honest, the household chamber lye, all had to help in the home dying process. Among the simple color producers were black walnut hulls, bark and roots which gave brown; scrub oak bark and roots which gave black; and acorns, and willow bark, each of which gave gray. Onion skins or lightly boiled peach leaves or hickory bark, gave yellow. Maple bark or grapes gave purple. Beet juice, or madder, red.

Though her work was most certainly "never done," the floor coverings great grandma managed to make in her "spare moments" are now treasured furnishings in the Colonial homes, Dutch cottages, and modern Ranch houses of sophisticated America.

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