Needlework Rugs

by Diana Blake Gray
Master Rugmaker

Needleworked rag rugs are of relatively recent origin compared to other types of traditional rag rugs. With needleworked rugs, fabric (rag) strip is substituted in a needle work method that had originally developed with finer threads or yarns.

Rag rugs have been made on burlap or canvas bases using various needlework techniques including: cross stitch, embroidery, needlepoint and rya knots. The same techniques have also been used for making rugs using bulky wool rug yarns.

At left is an example of cross-stitch with cotton rag strips on burlap. The rug is shown in progress. Note that a grid of guidelines is drawn on the burlap as a stitch guide. These days the base fabric of choice is cotton monkscloth since it is softer and easier on the hands.

Every so often I’m contacted by someone looking for the special canvas for making yarn Rya rugs. I haven’t come across a US source, but considering the structure of Rya, I was reasonably certain that a special canvas really wasn’t needed. In “Rugmaking from Start to Finish” (1972), Joan Scobey echoes that with: “Actually, you can adapt any firmly woven, heavy duty cloth for rya use. If the material doesn’t ‘give’ enough for you to insert the threaded needle, pull out one horizontal thread every half inch or so to duplicate a rya backing, and make your Rya knots across these pulled rows. Always work from selvage to selvage.”

The “Harrison Mat” made in about 1840 features a center of needlework depicting William Henry Harrison on horseback. Around the center are rows of “caterpillars” (wool cloth gathered on a thread and stitched to the base fabric—see the Sewn Shags tour stop). From Handmade Rugs, by Ella Bowles, 1927.

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