Some Old Time Rugs
( Originally Published 1914 )
Few articles of home furnishing are more useful or decorative than a well-made and attractive rug, and among the interesting techniques which have been revived from the old-time crafts are numerous hand-made rugs. There are the braided rug, the scalloped rug, the knitted rug, the crocheted rug, the hooked rug, the needle-woven rug, and the Colonial rag rug. The ragbit rug, the tufted rug, and the raveled rug are minor examples. All these rugs fall into two divisions according to the manner of making. In the first division are rugs made with the simplest hand tools and without anything approaching machinery. The braided rug, the scalloped, the crocheted, the tufted and knitted rugs are in this class. The hooked and needle-woven rugs lead from this division to the more mechanically developed rug, the Colonial rag rug which frankly takes its place as a loom-woven fabric.
The only tool used in making the braided and the scalloped rug, is the sewing needle. The crocheted and the knitted rug are respectively made with the crochet hook and the knitting needles. In this division the rugs are all made without a frame. The hooked rug which follows them in point of development is the first of the hand made rugs to be made on a frame. This wooden frame for the hooked rug is of the simplest construction and yet in it are the beginnings of the primitive loom.
The only other tool used in making the hooked rug is the hook or needle from which it gets its name. The needle-woven rug which follows the hooked rug is made on a primitive loom and shows an interesting example of one of the earlier experiments in weaving. This loom is actually nothing more than a wooden frame, not a bit more complicated than the frame used in the hooked rug. In the method of making the rug lies the main point of difference, which separates it as another and distinct type.
Though the tool in this type of rug is actually a needle it is used in a manner which corresponds more exactly to the shuttle of a mechanical loom. The comb which is used to press down the threads of the woof develops later into the reed. These two rugs, the hooked rug and the needle-woven rug, stand midway between the rugs made with the simplest tools and the more mechanically constructed rug, the Colonial rag rug.
Thus the methods of making are developed in logical sequence, from rugs made by hand to those made by relatively complicated tools—only relatively because the technique of each one is really simple. Even the loom upon which the Colonial rag rug is made cannot be regarded as anything more than the most primitive of looms compared to the complicated modern power loom.
Because the method of making these old-time rugs is so simple, their design must correspond in type, for without appropriate de-sign these old-time rugs cannot claim our consideration as serious handicraft. Even technical perfection cannot make an attractive rug, if the element of good taste is lacking. Straightforward honesty in design can alone do this, an honesty which acknowledges the limitations in the methods of construction and scorns to get effects by more superficial means.
A taste for appropriate design is sometimes a natural gift. Indeed, I am inclined to think that most people have more esthetic appreciation than they realize. They somehow believe that only those who are professionally and technically trained have any claim to critical sense in these matters. Good taste can be developed by artistic influences. It does not come only as the result of a technical training. The amateur is apt to leave esthetic matters entirely in the hands of the professional worker, whose attitude toward others inside the profession or outside can hardly be called catholic. The standpoint and interest of the amateur must be most seriously considered, for the growth of any movement is dependent on those who work for it for love. And from the ranks of the amateur often come the ablest professionals. The attitude of a professional worker is, in general, influenced by the schools and becomes increasingly academic as it is related to any specialized branch. The enthusiasm of the amateur is often dampened by professional criticism. Any one bringing a fresh attitude of mind toward handicraft should be encouraged, for enthusiasm is too rare and valuable to lose.
The beginner is likely to fail through overornamentation and technical knowledge has a restraining influence in the use of ornament for it teaches what to leave out, just as a discriminating taste will teach what to use. The inexperienced worker usually makes too elaborate a plan, then finds on attempting to execute it, that because of technical limitations many of its ornamental features must be left out.
Handicraft is only beautiful when ornamentally restrained, and meaningless decoration impairs its usefulness. The slogan of the handicrafter is to make the useful beautiful. Service is the master word, "for that which is thoroughly fitted to its use is nearly always beautiful." Beauty may be in perfectly unornamented proportions and real decoration may grow out of structure and be an integral part of it.
A school training in design without direct application to handicraft is useless for it usually consists in giving solutions for problems which do not or could not exist. Esthetic principles may be analyzed and discovered to be as exact as the laws of mathematics. They govern alike handmade rugs and mural decorations.
For instance, the handicrafter who understands the elimination of unnecessary detail and applies this principle will succeed where one with elaborate theories for ornamental motif will fail.
By working out the varied methods of making our old-time rugs we shall find just which kind of design is appropriate for each. Accordingly we shall consider the technical features which are characteristic of each rug and which identify it as a distinct type. These special features make the appearance of each rug characteristic. The inexperienced handicrafter is likely to ignore these features and to apply design from a theoretical standpoint. It may be a design totally unsuited which she or he has seen applied elsewhere and which is therefore believed to be appropriate for any kind. The practical worker uses only the type of design which harmonizes with the process by which the rug is made, and does not indiscriminately imitate the character of another rug.
Suggestions may be received from many sources but if they are to be honestly expressed they must be made practical by adaptation to the work in hand. In other words, any ornamental feature applied to a problem in handicraft must be intimately related to the special structure of each particular type. Decoration must develop as an integral part of technique. For example the most distinctive feature of the braided rug is developed from the manner in which the three strands of braid are arranged; for by braiding together two strands of a darker color with one of a very much lighter color a characteristic pattern develops when the braids are sewed together in circular rows. By emphasizing this feature in the design the rug gets a charm peculiarly its own and be-comes through a technical feature, a rug distinctive in appearance.
Another and similar example is found in the hooked rug. This is. made by filling up a foundation of burlap with loops of cloth a quarter of an inch in width. These strips may be either of cotton or wool but in either case they represent a very coarse thread and with coarse thread, a design with a great deal of de-tail cannot be carried. The most appropriate design for a hooked rug is one with large spaces of different colors in the same degree of tone value. To illustrate: there could be a color scheme in three colors, blue, green and gray. These colors must be present in approximately equal amounts and in the same degree of tone. The blue and green should be used for the figures of the pattern while the gray should come in as the background. An outline of black and one of white may be added to relieve any monotony. These outlines surround all the figures and separate them from the background. To attempt a more detailed treatment in a hooked rug, would not be successful. The arrangement of large flat color masses, appropriate for the hooked rug, differs very radically from the designs of the Oriental rug-makers. Their rugs are woven of a fine woolen thread in which medium small space arrangements may be carried out, and brilliant colors differing widely in tone value may be used. It would be manifestly impractical to weave these fine designs with the coarse thread of the hooked rug.
We might analyze the method by which each of our old-time rugs is made and find that each has some .special technical feature which if emphasized in its plan, would make its appearance distinctive and interesting. The needle-woven rug deserves special mention here be-cause in some respects it differs radically from the other rugs. It originated before Colonial times through the skillful craftsmanship of native American Indian tribes, the Navajos. These Indians still practice their craft and are making rugs to-day, some of which are as good as the older examples. The technique is quite as good but the color in these rugs has suffered from hasty methods of dyeing the wool. For commercial reasons the beautiful and permanent colors produced from the old dye recipes and handed down, no doubt, from their ancestors for hundreds of years, have been supplanted by the cheap and fugitive coal-tar product. Those which are as good as the antique Navajos are made in black, gray, and in the natural cream-color of the undyed wool.
The actual design has remained unchanged. For being religiously symbolic it is preserved by the tradition of the tribe. Moreover the Indian rug-workers are unconsciously artistic and susceptible to the technical influences of their rugs. Unless very much disturbed or misled by commercial demands, they do not use any design which is foreign to the character of their tools and materials. The de-sign developed through the Navajo method of rug-making, does not imitate natural form. It would not be in good taste to imitate the symbolic design of the Navajo, but there are many geometric forms which harmonize with the character of this useful rug, and being also abstract, .adjust themselves to its technique. The women of our country will be much more interested in using a decorative motif which has some association with their own surroundings than they would be in copying the motif of the most intuitive savage. For this reason, for most of us our own old-time rugs have an intimate attraction which the wonderful Oriental rug cannot have.