Rag Rug Weaving

While checking my email on Friday evening, I decided to take a look at the Atlantic Spinners and Handweavers web site.  I was pleased to see that Nancy Boyne would be sharing tips and tricks on weaving rag rugs during a hands on day Saturday.  My husband was away for the weekend, and the weather forecast was clear, so I decided to take the trip into Halifax for the day.

ASH is lucky to have the use of Scott Manor House, a Dutch Colonial Manor built in 1775, which is now a provincially registered heritage property.   I arrived shortly after 10am to find a room full of weavers, books, samples and a small loom, and much chatter about a variety of projects currently on everyone’s looms.

Nancy opened by talking about what looms are recommended for rug weaving.  Seems that countermarche get the most votes, while counterbalance with extra weight on the beater come in a close second.  Jack looms didn’t get very good reviews in all of Nancy’s reading and research, as they don’t have as good a shed.  Apparently many books recommend an overhead beater, but there was little explanation of why they were better, we concluded that perhaps gravity came into play.

There was great debate about using paper, wood slats or venetian blind slats as warp separators while winding on.  Paper can start to veer off while winding on, wood slats can be bulky, blind slats have sharp edges.  Seems it is a very personal choice.  I found some large industrial rolls of heavy wallpaper, and will try that with my next warp.  Another suggestion was the old vinyl window blinds, or a similar material that could be found at a fabric store.

The use of shuttles also showed a variety of opinions.  Most of the literature out there recommends a ski shuttle.  Nancy made me very happy by saying she doesn’t use any shuttle, just her hands, good to know I’m not the only one.  We both agreed that all that winding and unwinding was far too cumbersome.

Nancy had a very interesting shuttle she purchased at Convergence this past year, it was designed for use with a material called Pomppana.  It is a Scandinavian material, cut on the bias, about 1/2 inch wide and sold in rolls.  It has the appearance of corduroy when woven into rugs, bags or placemats, just a few of the samples that Nancy had for us to see and touch.  The colours available are solid and quite lovely.

Seeing the fabulous Pompanna samples, we got talking about what materials can be used for rag rugs.  Seems the sky is the limit.  Some use only fabrics that have been prewashed and dried to avoid shrinkage after weaving, while others just cut and go.  Nancy has a daughter who works in interior design, so she gets many drapery and upholstery samples to use.  Many of us raid the bins at our local used clothing stores.  Nancy talked about Jackie Mackay, a prolific rug weaver here in Nova Scotia who got much of her fabric from Suttle and Seawinds on the south shore of the province.  I use leftover bits from a local clothing designer who specializing in women’s career wear made from unused vintage fabrics that have been stored in warehouses for up to 60 years.

For many of us the most interesting material used in rug weaving was the recovered weft from old rugs that Nancy had ripped apart.  These rugs had come to the end of their life, but the weft was still usable.  She had several balls of these rags, that looked like some sort of funky yarn.

Now that we had seen many of the weft possibilities, our attention was set on warp.  Seine twine is highly recommended,  and many people were happy to hear that there are distributors who carry various colours of this strong warp material.  Linen is another favourite, but the cost can be quite high.

As the day went on we talked about cutting methods for rag strips.  I’m partial to just ripping nearly to the end, and then moving over an inch or more and then ripping back the other way.  This gives me a long strip with frayed edges and bulky ends, perfect for the textured rugs that I enjoy weaving.  Other methods included using a crank rag cutter, using a rotary cutter, cutting fabric in a circular pattern, or folding and cutting several layers.  Many people gave us sources for rag strips that can purchased on rolls or in balls, much more convenient, and probably a lot healthier then ripping or cutting.  Using a mask when preparing rag strips was the number one bit of advice that I’d pass on.

The funniest part of the day for me was the discussion of joining rags for weaving.  We heard about gluing, several sewing methods, an interesting but time consuming buttonhole method, or my favourite just overlapping as you go.  You could see several philosophies coming out regarding this topic.  There were a couple of weavers who make their living at the loom, they felt that all the extra work at the sewing machine put time and cost up too much.  In contrast, several people indicated that for them the preparation was part of the experience for the.  And then there were the self proclaimed impatient crowd, me being one of them, we just want to get on with it, and see a project completed, no time for all these details 🙂

There were so many other subjects that we touched on, and tips that I’ll make use of in future projects.  Things like using two thinner strips and twisting or flipping them for colour effect.  Or when weaving a double width project, throwing a heaving shot of linen to bind the two layers together every 10 inches or so to keep them in order when winding onto the loom.  A great calculation for estimating material needs, approximately 1 yard of fabric = 1 square foot of rug.

We were lucky to see examples of many weavers rugs.  One that was woven using old sheets, which had been laid out and dyed before cutting so that the colour design would come out in the woven project.  Another rug that was bold primary colour blocks, sett at 16 epi, and woven with 8/4 cotton, double bound, so bright and wonderful.  One weaver had used linen remnants, all in natural tones.  She cut the strips, and then decided that she should dye them, as it was going to be boring all in beige.  She ended up with a mass of tangled wet strips, and got the notion to throw them in the drier, well you can imagine the mess.  It took her three movies to untangle the ball, and she now has a lovely textured rug, that I’m sure she’ll treasure for many years.

As a wonderful closing for the day, we heard a story from Joyce Chown, a contemporary of Mary Black, you can see many of her samples in the Key to Weaving.  She used to teach an introduction to weaving at the local craft school.  It was her favourite class because most of the students didn’t know her, so she could be especially hard on them for the first bit, and then soften up later on, so they would really like her.  She would make them do many samples, and had them warp the loom three times in a row, very quickly, so she’d never have to show them again.  She then taught them how to do rag rugs.  One year she got the idea to get a bail of used clothing from the Salvation Army, and have the class cut them into strips.  These bails are huge, so she had it all set up in the class on the day they were to begin, with the twine cut, and equipment ready.  When she returned to the room after lunch half of the clothing was missing.  The students had found it and done a little “shopping”.  Needless to say she never got another bail.

Thanks you to the ASH members and especially Nancy Boyne for a such a great learning day.

Julie Rosvall

Wolfville, Nova Scotia


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