Loom Woven Rugs

by Diana Blake Gray
Master Rugmaker

This family of rag rugs includes only rugs woven on a standard loom, either a floor loom or a table loom, usually using two harnesses. Even with the simple weaving, there is a wide variety of textures in loom woven rugs, and unlimited possibilities for combinations and colors. At left is a photo of two loom woven rugs. The one on the right is done in the ‘old style’ with torn narrow strips (1/2″ to 3/4″) in a hit or miss combination for narrow bands of colors. The rug on the left was made with 1-1/2″ cotton strip, which had been double-folded, making a heavier rug, without the frayed edges. Other good materials for loom woven rugs include light to medium weight woolens, denims, and corduruoy. Particularly nice for their sheen are loom woven rugs made with lining fabrics such as rayon, nylon or silk.

The warp for loom woven rugs was usually either cotton or linen, but modern weavers have a wide choice of warp threads for color and texture variations. In either vintage or modern woven rugs, look for closely spaced warp threads, and tight weaving, for a durable rug.

During the early settlement of North America, it was fairly common that itinerant weavers would travel the frontier with their looms, and lodge with families while they did their weaving. Even through the 1930’s it was common that household rags were taken to rug weavers to use for making rugs for the family. Below are two interesting excerpts referring to loom woven rugs, one from the early settlement of eastern Canada, the other from Iowa, circa 1870. Note particularly the Canadian reference to the bright colors used in the rag rugs.

If you have an old loom woven rug, be very careful in its handling. I too often hear of someone who put one of these rugs in a washing machine, only to have it disintegrate. Because the rug warps are of vegetable fibers, they do weaken over a long period and often have some weak, rotted spots. Even when (gently!) hand washing, do not pick the rug up by an end or an edge. Instead handle it all bunched up until you can lay it on a towel (roll up and press out excess moisture) and then lay it flat to dry out of direct sunlight.

[From: Grandmother Brown’s Hundred Years, 1827-1927, Harriet Connor Brown, 1929. The book is a transcript of an extended interview with Maria D. Brown. She and her family moved from Ohio to an Iowa farm. In 1870 the family moved from the farm to Ft. Madison, Iowa, and this excerpt refers to their home there.]
“In the meantime, I had a long struggle with ill health….I wasn’t equal to any more hard work. When I could sit up, I occupied myself as usefully as possible with my needle. I made dozens of yards of carpeting. At one time I had four rooms and the stairs and hall upstairs all covered with my own carpeting.

I was particularly proud of the stair carpet. I made it so that the stripes — made of bright colors — ran up and down the stairs. I bossed the weaving of it, invented a special way of having it done, and got the woman who did it to follow my instructions, so that every step looked just like every other one. I’ve had more people admire that carpet and wonder how it was made!”

Depression era loom woven rug from my collection.

Early rug looms were bulky affairs. Photo from Ella Bowles, “Handmade Rugs” 1927

[From: The Backwoodswoman, A Chronicle of Pioneer Home Life in Upper and Lower Canada, by Isabel Skelton, 1924 This excerpt refers to the settlement era from about 1780 to 1820 in eastern Canada. Note that the industrial revolution in England resulted in the unemployment of many hand weavers who emigrated to Canada, bringing to the new country a knowledge and tradition of all facets of weaving. This is from the chapter entitled “Building and Furnishing a Home”. Spelling is original.]

“The achieving of pretty and varied colours for both her house furnishings and her wardrobe opened up a large and interesting field of activity for the pioneer woman. Her dyes were mostly home-made. Indigo was used for blue, madder for red, butternut husks or sumach blossoms for brown, onion skins, waxwood or goldenrod for yellow, and beech tree bark for drab. Green was made by first steeping in yellow dye and then in blue. By similar combinations the dyer could obtain a great variety of shades, even if she found it very hard to duplicate them. To variegate or cloud her yarn light and dark, she wound tight bands of cotton about her skeins at equal distance from each other, before dipping them into the dye tub. A pair of stockings knit from such clouded yarn was often the dearest bit of finery in a little girl’s wardrobe.

“Their floor rugs, when the time came for such luxuries, claimed close kinship with the counterpanes. They owed their origins to the same ragbag, the same dye pot and the same thrifty fingers. Their rag carpets were woven sometimes in lively stripes, and sometimes in a pattern, or rather no pattern, known as ‘hit and miss’. This was thus described by one Irish admirer: ‘They do be throwing in a bit of stone colour and a bit of red madder, and a bit of crimson and a bit of stone colour again, and believe me, it is nice stuffs they do make that you’d never ask to take your eyes from it.’ This verdict was quite true; so vivid were the colours and startling the combinations that one’s eyes were held glued to them spellbound. At the same time the bright rag carpet or woolen homespun had a beauty and distinction of its own amid the primitive surroundings of the settler’s home. It was often the one touch of colour in the room. In the evening, when the soft firelight played over and blended its various hues, it gained and in turn shed an almost Eastern splendour on the otherwise bare, cold-looking abode.

“Very often a tanned and dyed sheepskin was used as a door-mat or warm hearth-rug. But maybe the earliest attempt of all at something of this kind was the small mat made of corn sheathing— the fine husks which enveloped the Indian corn. The husks were first braided into a thick rope and sewn into a round or oval mat. Before twine was plentiful for such sewing , the tough inner back of the cedar tree was used, or a single blade of the husk threaded through the large eye of a wooden needle.”

Recommended publications:
Rag Rug Handbook by Janet Meany and Paula Pfaff.

This is a great introductory book for weaving rag rugs on a loom.

Peter Collingwood wrote a couple of books about weaving rugs and they are outstanding. If you can get hands on one of these out-of-print gems, do so, but be warned they pricey.

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