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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Rug Making

The Craft of Rug Making

RAG RUGGINGRag Rug Making Introduction

A craft of humble origins, rag rugmaking has a wealth of history rooted in communal activity, migration and the development of new cultures. The simple techniques used, and minimal expense involved make it a craft open to all interested in turning rags into visual riches.

Origins of Rugmaking

As the name suggests, rag rugs were traditionally made out of worn out clothing and old bits of material in poor communities where people could afford to throw nothing away. Few examples survive pre-1900 because they were used until they virtually fell apart.  

The rug was indispensable to any household. It protected feet from cold and dirty floors, divided rooms, kept warmth and gave a touch of colourful relief which offset the bareness of dwellings.  

Rugs have always been culturally important. The story of how techniques and designs spread from nation to nation is one of invasion, migration, trade and upheaval; methods changing and developing with periods of peace, the meeting of societies and the demands of geography and climate.  

In many districts, making a rug was a communal activity. Often the women in a community would work on a rug together, sitting around a frame and swapping stories and songs.  

Within the home, making a new rug would become a focal point of family activity. In Finland, progged rugs are still used to tell family histories solely through the chosen fabrics. A sense of family history and its progress is produced by using the material from clothes of special significance to family members, such as wedding dresses or christening gowns.

Basic techniques of Rug Making

Any fabric which does not fray easily is suitable for use in a rag rug. Woollen fabrics are the most hard wearing. Jumble sales are a great hunting ground for fabrics, so too are your own hoards of old clothes. Good sources of material are blankets, tweed jackets, cotton dresses, trousers and tablecloths.  

These materials must be washed for hygiene and to make sure all the fabric is pre shrunk. Any dyeing can be done at this stage. The more rags you pick up, the greater scope for an imaginative combination of colours and textures. Different textures may be combined as long as the weights are roughly the same to avoid warping.  

Backing – Hessian or sack cloth are the main fabrics used for backing. The finer the weave on the backing, the more difficult it is to work. So to begin, use a looser weave.  

Equipment – Little equipment is needed. The only necessities are a frame, a hook or progger, (depending on which technique you are using) and scissors to cut the strips.  

Frame – This is a wooden rectangle over which the portion of rug to be worked is stretched and secured. The frame holds the backing at the correct tension, preventing the rug from warping, and allows easy access to the hessian.  

Progger – Pushes through the fabric when progging.  

Hook – Catches and pulls through the rag strips when hooking.  

Proggy – This technique is used for designs which concentrate on mixing colours and textures rather than depicting precise pictorial patterns. The short strips of fabric used give a shaggy finish, rather than the refined look of the hooked rugs.  

The fabric is cut into short strips about 2-3 inches long, depending on the depth of the pile desired. The principle couldn’t be simpler; Working from the wrong side, a hole is made in the backing with the progger. A strip is pushed nearly half way through the hole using a progger. A second hole is made close to the first and the other part of the strip is pushed through.  

The type of materials used, the density of clippings and the space left between each row all effect the final result. A densely worked rug with tightly spaced rows will have a thick, upstanding pile. The reverse of this gives a flatter pile usually with a more ragged look. Lighter materials like thin cottons should be cut into wider clippings to give them more bulk, otherwise they will look flat and sparse.  

Hooking – This method involves hooking strips of rag 15 – 18 inches long through the backing fabric, using a tool rather like a giant crochet hook set in a wooden handle.  

Working from the right side, the hook is held above the backing with one hand. Beneath, a strip of rag is lightly held between thumb and forefinger. The backing is pierced by the hook and the strip is drawn back through the base to the height of pile required. The strip is guided by the hand beneath, but must not be held taught or the previous loop will be pulled out.  

The next loop is formed in the same way, and this process is repeated until the strip runs out. The loose ends are drawn through the right side and trimmed to the same height as the pile. The pile should be close enough together to cover the backing, but not so close that it causes the material to give a lumpy, uneven surface.  

Designs - designers will mark up a design on the backing fabric using a chinagraph pencil. Working on a small frame, the portion of backing fixed on the frame must be completely finished before a fresh section is started. Work on the motifs of a design first and then progress through the design working in blocks of colour until it is finished.  

A rug can be made any length, but the width is limited because you need to be able to reach the centre of the backing comfortably. This can be overcome by making up panels and then joining them together.  

To do this, leave an edge of hessian about 1 inch wide unhooked along the side where the join will be. Overlay the edges of the two panels, and hook through the double thickness backing.  

Finishing – The final touch is to neatly turn under and secure the edges of the backing. This can be done using slipstitch. Cover this with a border of heavy cotton fabric about 2 inches wide. Spare strips can be stored in the tunnel formed between the backing and border fabric in case the need for repair arises later.  

Alternatively, the whole underside can be covered in a protective backing of hessian or heavy cotton, but these often attract dirt.

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