Sewn Shag Rugs

by Diana Blake Gray
Master Rugmaker

This family of rag rugs are all made by sewing bits of fabric to a base fabric in ways that create a raised texture. All sorts of different types and shapes of fabric pieces were used for different effects. Some of these rugs take the names from the pieces such as “pen wiper rugs” which were made from small squares of flannel that were kept on hand to wipe excess ink from pen tips and “dollar shags” made with patches the size of a silver dollar. Others have common names describing the texture itself such as “accordion rugs” while still others carry names related to groups that made the particular type of rug including “Amish dustcatchers.”

In the early to mid-1800s all of these rugs were hand-sewn but with the increased popularity of the sewing machine in the latter part of the century nearly all had been adapted for machine sewing. A notable exception are the “caterpillar” rugs which can only be made by hand.

A common backing fabric for sewn shag rugs was mattress ticking, since the stripes in the fabric created guidelines for stitching. Most often these rugs had simple stripes or a very basic geometric pattern, if any, but Ruth Cannon of North Carolina makes sewn shag rugs with complex designs.

Sewn shag rugs created by Ruth Cannon of North Carolina.

Dustcatcher style sewn shag rug

“Caterpillars” of gathered fabric.

Sewn shag rugs are grouped into several major divisions:

1. Strips or patches. These rugs were made by stitching one edge of the fabric strip (either flat or gathered along the edge) or a small piece of fabric to the base, so that one edge stood out. Flat strips of fabric were also stitched down the center to the backing, creating two standing edges for each strip. This group includes the dustcatcher, pen wiper, ruffled and pinch pleat types of rugs.

2. Caterpillar Rugs. Fabric strips were gathered in the center along a heavy thread and then stitched to a base fabric. Because of the gathering process, these rugs often carry the mistaken name of “shirred” rugs. Their most common name however was caterpillar rugs, since the gathered sections of fabric rather resemble a caterpillar.

3. Accordion rugs. Fabric strips were laid on the backing fabric, then stitched across repeatedly, with folds of the strip standing up in accordion style folds.

4. Ravel knit rugs. Old sweaters and other worn out knitted garments were unraveled to salvage the yarn. The yarn was then re-knitted into long narrow strips which were then stitched to the backing fabric along one edge, creating a thick pile. (This can also be done with new yarn or with cut sweaters or stockings, without the unraveling and re-knitting.)

5. Fork-wrapped Sewn Shags. A tool like a crochet “fork” (for making hairpin lace), was wrapped with rag strip, then fed under the foot of a sewing machine, with the stitching catching the middle of the wraps, securing them to the backing fabric. As the sewing proceeded, the wraps were fed along the fork, and more wraps added at the back end. The loops were then clipped to create a shaggy surface. In the early 20th century several sewing machine manufacturers produced special attachments just for this type of rug making (usually with yarn rather than rag strip) and even produced printed fabric patterns for the rugs.

Recommended Publications:
Twenty Easy Machine Made Rugs by Jackie Dodson, 1990 (out of print but still available on amazon etc.)

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