Crochet Rag Rug: The Art of the Home
When I told my grandmother that I was writing about crochet rag rugs as an example of something simple yet lovely to make from old fabric—clothes or curtains or rags or towels—she told me about her aunts in Haverhill, Massachusetts, who used to go to the local mills to collect wool remnants, which they then used to make rugs. They made so many of these rugs that not only were their floors covered with them, but everyone else in the family had at least two.
At the end of the day, that’s what crochet and craft are: love and handmade style. Today, so much is mass-produced and sold cheaply. But even now, there are plenty of scraps to be found from mills overseas. Philadelphia crochet rag-rug maker Cathy Hetznecker uses fabric scraps from upholsterers’ workshops and U.S. woolen mills, as well as decorators’ remnants.
The Humble Rag
In my continuing quest for reuse and upcycling applications for crochet, I delved into this world of rag rugs. I uncovered a heap of contradictory information about when, how, and where they started. There came to be something oddly comforting in the fact that after hours of research, I could not find the crochet rag rug’s true origins. My comfort came from the idea that for almost two hundred years, so many bare feet have padded over rag rugs on their way into the kitchen in the morning or into the bathroom late at night. Many of us have sunk our feet into soft, worn, handmade rugs in the places we and those we love call “home.”
The more I researched, the less I cared about the origin of these rugs; uncovering what they signified in people’s homes became far more fascinating. That rag rugs are still made and loved is the true story. An 1884 issue of Michigan Farmer and State Journal of Agriculture notes, “a rag rug may be useful, but never ornamental, and it is a waste of time and strength to endeavor to make it fanciful. Keep it sacred to its purpose as a ‘wipe.’” There’s something rather telling about how much more valued fabric is now than it was in 1884: “wipes” currently are the very definition of disposable, the opposite of “sacred.”
Rags to Rag Rug Riches
Fortunately, there are those who believe that reuse itself is a sacred act, not just in the salvage, but also in the valuing of the fabric. Emily Kircher, who sells rag rugs on Etsy, speaks to the ever-present volume of fabric in our world: “Due to the rise of fast fashion and increased consumption (and therefore increased throwing out), thrift stores are overflowing with fabrics in the form of clothes and linens. I read that only 15% of what gets donated to thrift stores actually gets purchased, and the other 85% gets shipped to other countries to be used as clothing or made into rags.” To learn to make your own yarn from rags, see Maria O’Keefe’s article “Rag Yarn: Making Yarn from Fabric.”
Imagine what would happen if instead of seeing fabric as disposable, we saw it as something sacred. Fabric not only keeps us warm, but also becomes imbued with memories over time. In the reuse of fabric, we double this sense of memory as we convert it into something new.
This sense infused Emily’s first foray into rag rugs. “I made my first rug out of all of my own old clothes and I loved having it out on my floor, seeing all the fabrics I used to wear, remembering things that happened when I wore certain items,” she says. “I really like that rugs are something you see every day, are functional, and are something that can really change the way a space looks.”
This is put most eloquently in “The Home-made Rag Rug: Practically, Poetically and Artistically Woven” from an 1897 issue of Good Housekeeping: “In this work, a woman becomes something more than a mere household drudge. She is a designer, an artisan, a poet and an artist. She becomes through this art, a writer of history, of biography, of autobiography . . . She has transfused something of her own life blood into those worn and faded shreds.” This echoes Cathy Hetznecker’s sentiments, more than a century later, of how she feels “instantly connected to the craft form—to the utilitarian purpose, the rich and varied fabrics, and the primitive way in which it was made.”
The Good Housekeeping piece notes, “what memories, what associations, what affections, what poems, histories and biographies, are here incorporated.” Whether seen as a mere “wipe” or as a cherished spot of warmth on your floor, a crochet rag rug is history crocheted into comfort.
Betsy Greer, author of Knitting for Good (Roost Books, 2008), can be found at www.craftivism.com.
To learn about rag rugs from a handweaver’s perspective, check out “A Yarn About Rags from Tom Knisely.”
Featured Image: This colorful handmade rug turns fabric scraps into cozy art. Photo courtesy of Emily Kircher
Make a New Story—Craft with Rags!