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The Colonial Rag Rug

( Originally Published 1914 )

The increasing commercial importance of the Colonial rag rug or as it is usually called the rag rug, has somewhat interfered with its development from the handicrafters' standpoint.

It is being manufactured by commercial rug houses on a basis which defies all competition from the maker of rugs on a hand loom. There is usually a marked difference in the artistic value of the commercial and handmade rugs but not sufficient to make it, worth while for the average buyer to pay the difference in price if in fact this difference is recognized.

This is one of the important influences the Arts and Crafts Movement is having on commercial products. So popular has become this style of rug after having been taken from obscurity and rejuvenated by the handicrafter that all commercial rug stores keep large consignments in stock. Most of these commercial rugs are fairly presentable and vastly more desirable than the older type of ingrain or brussets carpet rug of cheap manufacture. Then too, these rugs have changed the fashion of using one entire rug as a floor covering and a partially bare floor has been substituted which is much more cleanly and consequently more healthful. Who does not remember the awful days of spring housecleaning, when the carpets were taken up and shaken'? Days of terror, when the air is filled with a year's ac-cumulation of dust and dirt and when the one thing which seemed desirable was to make an escape from all the confusion.

Surely a few simple rugs which can be daily shaken out if necessary are a welcome ex-change.

In former times Colonial rugs were woven of old rags, but the increased demand has made it necessary for the hand-weavers and commercial makers alike to buy and use new materials. There are certain advantages in this for it is easier to work into an established color scheme of decoration and (also to reproduce rugs to order. Technically new materials have almost revolutionized the methods of rug-weaving.

On the old Colonial looms the warp was threaded at intervals of about one-fourth of an inch each through the reed. This was necessary because the woof or cross-threads being made of all kinds of old and worn-out materials it had to be reinforced by the warp and the closely set warp-threads thus gave the strength and wearing quality to the woven fabric. In the modern rug the warp is threaded at intervals of one inch between the reeds. As the woof is made of entirely new materials there is no need to depend entirely on the warp for durability. From an artistic standpoint it is also an advantage to have the woof made of new and strong material and bright, harmonious colors. Almost all the modern handmade rag rugs are woven on warps of uniform color, either soft cream color of unbleached thread or some equally inconspicuous tone. This with the bright colors of the new materials makes an agreeable contrast.

In olden times the Colonial weaver always used old material on a closely set warp of hand-dyed or unbleached linen thread. The rags used for the woof were, more often than not, pieces of hand-woven linen which having served their purpose in the household were laid aside for winter rug-weaving. The harmonious tones of these fabrics, indigo blue usually predominating, always made artistic and attractive rugs.

A surviving link between these older industries and the modern handicrafter, is the rag carpet-weaver found plying his trade in villages and small towns. For the most part these men while having carpet-weaving for a regular trade, supplement it with some more lucrative employment which does not hold out during the entire year. For instance, in coast towns where men follow the sea in open weather, during the more severe season when they are unable to fish and sail some of them work at their looms. The village weaver while skilled at his craft, untrained as a designer. The farmers' wives bring in their balls of cot-ton and woolen rags numbered in the order in which they are to be woven, and he assumes no responsibility as to the results. He is suffering from too many serious economic handicaps as it is, and no doubt it will not be long be-fore he and his loom will have altogether disappeared.

The only warps it pays these weavers to use are the commercially dyed cotton threads in aniline reds, greens, purples and yellows. In order to cheer up the sad-looking gray and black rags which mostly constitute the color of the accepted dress of our day he mixes together in the same warp all these colors with fearful consequences. Small wonder that his days are numbered.

The handicrafter in revising this old trade has again raised its standard of artistic excellence established in Colonial times, and has re-united art and craft. Indeed the only way at present in which the handicrafter is able to make salable rugs is to weave them of hand-dyed materials taking the greatest care to produce a better rug in wearing quality and de-sign than can possibly be made by commercial methods. By giving them that individual touch which is undoubtedly recognized by some but for which there is only a limited market the craft may be kept alive.

The occupation of weaving is a delightful one. It has the same soothing effect as does knitting and so the worker may at least find much pleasure and even a little profit in hunting up an old Colonial loom and setting it up in the city studio where the noise of the treddles, bed-dies or bar, mingle strangely with the clang and uproar of the busy city street.


It is not an easy thing to find an old colonial loom. It is necessary even to advertise in farm journals, look around in junk shops and sometimes hunt for months before one can be literally unearthed, and set up ready for weaving. There are of course the more modern mechanical iron looms but they are rather difficult to manage technically and are not as docile or satisfactory to work with as the old Colonial loom. Sometimes after finding an old loom, parts must be replaced. This is unfortunate for it is most difficult and expensive to find some one who can do the work. There are firms who keep parts of looms especially the heddles and reeds, but the wooden parts must usually be duplicated by hand.

The parts of the old Colonial loom consist of four square wooden posts usually about four inches thick and seven feet high. These four upright posts are connected at the top and base by horizontal bars, some of which are actually parts of the framework used to keep the loom steady and others which are more directly parts of the mechanism itself. For instance, there is a cross beam on the top of the Ioom midway between the ends from which come two smaller upright posts supporting the reeds and batten. At the back near the bottom is the warp beam also a cross beam, and underneath near the center is the cloth beam. In front the weaver sits on a crossbeam and there is another smaller one on which the warp is tied. Other parts of the loom are the heddles made either of thread or metal which resemble small eyelets, which hold the warp thread. The reed also holds the warp. A wheel down by the side is supplied with a crank for winding up the woven rug material. There is a shuttle for holding the bobbins and another wheel for winding bob-bins. The wheel for winding bobbins may be made of an old flax spinning wheel. Then there is a warping machine which is serviceable though nowadays warp can be procured al-ready beamed.

If it is possible to find a practicable carpet weaver to help with the first experience in setting up warp, the handicrafter will be saved time and worry. The setting up of warp has almost as many difficulties as weaving and is much too intricate a process to be successfully carried out by written instructions.

After the warp is beamed there is little difficulty in carrying the warp threads across the loom and through the reed and tying them on the crossbeam in front. All these details are easily mastered when one has once seen them worked out but until then they seem full of technical mystery.


In buying material for Colonial rugs whether they are to be made of hand-dyed or of already commercially dyed material, it is cheaper to buy what is known as seconds and mill remnants. There are many commercial houses in a large city which deal in seconds and odds and ends of material which having some imperfection cannot be sold by the retail houses, but which does not lessen their value as rug rags. Materials of the weight of the cheapest grade of unbleached cotton muslin are the most practical when commercially dyed materials are bought. But if the material is to be dyed, it is better to use the unbleached muslin itself which I have recommended throughout the book for making rugs.

In either case the material can be cut or torn. It depends on the kind of texture one wishes for the woven fabric. There are many advantages in tearing the cloth because the little unevennesses coming through the torn material give an attractive and original texture in the finished rug. If the material is to be cut, roll it and cut it with a knife by the process recommended in the chapter on hooked rugs. There is also some difference in texture in rags which have been torn before they are dyed, and those which have been torn after dyeing. It is wise to experiment with these two kinds in order to get a different quality of .surface.

Tear all the materials of the quality and kind recommended here into strips of one and one-fourth inches in width for general use. This width must be lessened if the materials are heavier and increased if they are of lighter weight.

Wind all the strips into balls so that they may be easily rewound on the bobbins, always keeping the colors separated. The average amount of material required is two pounds to the woven yard, and about four yards of unbleached cotton cloth to a pound, or eight yards of cut' up material to one yard of woven.


After the loom is threaded with the warp start in by weaving in a few rags of any color, in order to have something against which to press the bar. These first rows of weaving will be later unraveled and the warp used as fringe. The space should not measure less than four or five inches. In starting a rug the warp threads are apt to draw in a little and consequently a beginner will make one end of the rug narrower than the other. Now start the heading which is usually woven of warp thread doubled and in most instances an inch and a half of heading is wide enough. After the heading comes the borders or border as the case may be. And after the border one-half the center of the rug. In beginning the rug pin a tape measure along The edge at the heading and measure as the borders and center are woven. Allow about one inch to the yard for shrinkage in making measurements of the rug. Repeat the second half of the center, then the borders, then the heading and then the fringe. If there are several rugs to be woven on the same color of warp do not take them off until all that color warp on the beam has been used. It is more economical to use up the entire warp that has been beamed. When all the rugs have been woven they can be taken off the cloth beam and finished by knotting the fringe at each end.


A few general principles of design may be applied to the Colonial rag rug, and only very simple designs are suitable for this style of fabric for its construction is simple. In the Colonial rug the most noticeable feature of its construction is the crossing of the warp and woof threads and the effect in general is that of cross lines. Therefore any design made of cross lines or bands is suitable. Study carefully the proportion of the bands to the center. Do not attempt to weave in ornamental figures. They are totally out of harmony with the construction of the rug, for in order to make ornamental patterns pieces of woof must be cut and laid on over the original woof thus doubling it at certain points. The extra thickness makes the rug wear unevenly and detracts from its serviceable qualities.

Certain ornamental features may be introduced without disturbing the construction of the rug. Twists may be made of woof threads and woven in the rug give the effect of what is known as "crow's-feet." These are also called arrow-heads. These are in harmony with the technique of the rug.

Centers for Colonial rugs may be made of small pieces of cloth sewed together in a hit or miss style. These give a contrast to uniform borders. Dark and light bands may be used with centers of medium tone. The rugs may also be woven without a defined border; some-times a few broken cross stripes are effective.

In Buff and Brown: Sixteen yards of unbleached muslin are required to carry out this plan. Twelve yards must be reserved for the buff and four for the brown. The buff must be dyed by the recipe for iron buff given in the chapter on the needle-woven rug; and the brown must be dyed with catechu given in the chapter on the crochet rug.

Use brown warp for this plan and set your loom for yard-wide weaving. Make a heading of the brown warp thread used as woof, follow this by six inches of solid buff, then twists twice across for buff and brown making the crow's-foot pattern. This should be followed by four and one-half inches of solid brown. Then twice across again with twists of buff and brown and twenty-seven inches of solid buff which all together makes half of the entire rug measure. Begin now and repeat these measurements backward; first the twenty-seven inches of buff and go on until the heading is reached. The size of this rug is three by six feet. Leave about four inches of warp thread for a fringe at each end of the rug. This fringe should be knotted into groups of six threads each after the rug is taken off the loom.

In Gray with Mixed Border of Black, White,' Red and Dark Blue: The amounts of material for this plan needed are thirteen yards of unbleached muslin, one reserved for the white and twelve yards to be dyed gray with tannic acid over iron buff by the recipe given in the crocheted rug. Two yards of commercial turkey red muslin and four yards of plain dark blue cambric and one of black are needed. If commercial materials are used they should be all washed before tearing into strips for weaving.

Use a plain unbleached warp or a multi-colored carpet warp for this plan and set up the loom for yard-wide weaving. The size of the rug is three by six feet. Begin by making one and one-half inch heading of bright red warp, two inches gray, twists twice across to make crow's-feet in black and white, two inches turkey red, four and one-half dark blue, two red, twice across with twists of black and white, this with twenty-four inches of solid gray complete one-half the rug. Repeating these counts backward beginning with twenty-four inches of gray and going on to the heading of one and one-half inches bright red warp, complete the entire rug.

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