Monday, 7 March 2016

Starting my first rag rug

Sixteen months after being inspired, I have finally made a start on making my first rag rug.

As you can see, my study makes a good room for home crafts. So good, that I do wonder why I haven't make a start on this rug long before now - soon after seeing the rugs at Jayne's in North Devon, for instance! This was one of them:

Jayne had used strips of black, grey, blue, white and red cloth to create a small bedroom rug that felt luxuriously soft on bare feet. All her rugs - I think she had made three by the end of 2014 - were of this speckled design. I decided that my own rugs would instead have big blobs of pure colour, and not speckles. My first attempt would be a rag rug for my bathroom, and so it would feature three or four colours, plus white, to depict a sunny seaside scene - light blue for the sky, dark blue for the sea, white for the breaking surf, yellow for the sun and the sandy beach, and a sweep of green for a grassy headland and a greensward behind the beach.

I bought most of the material for getting started in the middle of October 2014, from a fabric shop I knew in Worthing. This was: a metre length of cotton in each colour, plus three metres of hessian (the rough-woven brown fabric that old-fashioned sacks are made of) as a base to work on. I also bought - online - a couple of special tools: a rag-rugger (more on this anon), and a wooden cutting gauge for cutting the fabric into strips. I'd thought sensibly about what was involved, and had done my research. I chose cotton for the very wide choice of bright colours that I could use, and for its obvious ease of cutting. It would fray - but then authentic rags would fray.

I was keen to create, and produce something at least as nice as Jayne had. But I let myself get sidetracked onto other things, and never actually set to.

Recently however, Jackie next door has been talking seriously about making a rag rug, and is presently getting together all sorts of material. She favours old fleece garments bought cheaply from charity shops, and turned into strips with a machine she has. Her enthusiasm has spurred on Jo up the road to do a rug of her own, made from her husband's old rugby shirts. Both ladies will certainly have something to show by the end of the month. So I intend to make a rug to show to them. It's not a definite contest. Nobody's credibility is at stake. But I do want to demonstrate - with a better-than-expected result - that I have some home craft skills, albeit of the simplest kind!

Making a humble rag rug still requires proper planning and preparation. Also commitment - this won't be an afternoon job. It will mean doing something every day for a fortnight. It might even take weeks!

So how have I set about it?

I began yesterday (Saturday). I unpacked my 2014 purchases. First, I cut the hessian to size, using the existing bathroom mat as a guide. A hem of about 5cm all round was needed, which would be tucked under to give an edge that wouldn't fray:

Next, I marked the outline of the mat, removed it, folded the hem under, and tacked the edge of the hem with brown linen thread at 15cm intervals, working my way around the circumference of the rug:

It then occurred to me to reduce the overlap at the corners:

This was probably a mistake, because cutting the hessian in this way might eventually induce some fraying at the tip of each corner. But it's done now. I can always sew up any misbehaving strands of hessian later on. The next stage was to iron the hessian flat. It now looked very good, a perfect rectangle to work on:

I began with the light blue cotton for the sky, tearing off a long length - highly satisfying that! - then wrapping it around the wooden cutting gauge, and snipping along the groove to create a neat pile of fabric which was then quickly snipped into strips of about 10cm x 3cm:

Then, using the rag-rugger tool, I drew a strip into the weave of the hessian:

It was as simple as that. I then had to repeat until I had filled up all the bare hessian, switching colours as required.

It was problem-free. At first the cotton strips stuck out sideways, but soon bunched up. Halfway through yesterday afternoon, I tried yellow as well:

The hours passed. It was soothing, absorbing work that did not get tedious, because there was clear progress. It was like slow and patient colouring-in, but with pieces of fabric, not pencils or crayons. Gradually the yellow strips became the 'sun' of my seaside scene. I loved the deep yellowness, and made the 'sun' extra-large. This was unnatural, but it seemed more important to create a stunning splash of deliciously bright colour, than to keep everything in strict proportion. I did however sketch in the general outline of the design as originally intended, so that I could judge how much more cotton of each colour I'd need to buy. It was becoming clear that I would use a lot more fabric than first thought!

I did some calculations. The hessian base was 101cm long and 62cm wide. On average, each 10cm x 3cm strip was planted 1cm from the next. The four corner squares (1cm x 1cm) required four strips. Each of the 159 squares around the circumference required two strips. Each of the 6099 internal squares required only one strip. That made 6,421 strips altogether. Each strip was 36 square cm - so I'd need 192,630 square cm, or 19.3 square metres, of cotton to finish the rug. A seriously large amount!

I hoped that my arithmetic was wrong, and I wouldn't really need so much. But I could now see why (a) a rag rug is always made out of waste fabric that costs nothing to buy; (b) thick fabric is always recommended, because then it doesn't have to be densely packed. My colourful cotton strips had to be packed in quite tightly, using up a lot of fabric.

This wouldn't be a cheap rug to finish!

But there would clearly be a visual and tactile reward to balance the extra effort and cost. By the end of the first afternoon, one corner of the rug was finished. The appearance and texture reminded me of flower petals:

The blue and the yellow positively glowed when placed in the sunset light:

Turning the rug over, you could check on the shape of each colour area:

At the end, I will be sewing a rug-sized rectangle of hessian onto the back. It will hide everything.

Next day - today, that is - I made the 'sun' rounder, added a bit more blue 'sky', and made a start on the green 'grassy headland':

Hmm. I'm thinking that the 'seaside scene' will be very hard to recognise! But that won't matter. It will still be an attractive rug, gloriously soft for bare feet to sink into.

I will buy more cotton tomorrow, and aim to have the rug complete well before the end of March, even if I have to take it to the Cotswolds with me.


  1. Well done, Lucy! It's so rewarding to create something from scratch, be it a knitted cardigan, a painting, a clay pot, a rag rug or even a corner of St Petrock. Now that you've told the world about it, you really will have to finish it. And when it's all done and dusted, you'll be able to look with pride and say "I did that!"

  2. Yes, I can't back out now! But I've just bought more cotton fabric, enough to finish the rug, and allmit needs now is perseverance. I will almost certainly need to take the rug with me to the Cotswolds, so you will get a chance to inspect the completed article. I do hope it'll turn out well!

    Lucy XX

  3. I remember these being all the rage in the 50's when old rags was all we had... My mother had an endless supply of strong wool since my father often wore out his thigh sock wearing his false leg and it was our job as children to unwind the knitting and wind the wool into balls. My mother then hooked lengths of this wool into a mesh fabric to make thick pile rugs which we would use as toboggans on the polished parquet floors. Perhaps we had the odd happy day back then...


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