I never gave braided rugs much thought until I was a preteen. They were just a part of life underfoot at the houses I spent the most time in; my own home, my grandparent’s home (Dad’s parents), my great-grandparent’s home and my aunt and uncle’s home.
One day while visiting my dad’s parent’s, I observed my grandmother ripping up her old red winter coat into long strips. When I inquired why she was doing that, she said, “To get it ready for its next life in the braided rug I’m working on.”
That led to an explanation about how braided rugs were made, for generations in New England, from worn-out or unused woolen clothing. The fabric was torn into long strips, sometimes joined in odd ways first, to create those strips. Old but still sturdy wool was saved until enough was on hand to get a project started. My grandmother explained how the strips were rolled with a filling of a lighter, or more worn wool inside, then folded and sewn into long sausage-like pieces. Those rolls were braided tightly and flat into long rope braids of strong wool.
Those braids are forced as flat as possible and coiled, usually into a round or oval shape, to establish the completed shape, beginning at the center. They are then sewn into place,the coils next to each other with nearly invisible stitches, using a large needle and heavy, silk or linen rug thread. When the correct size is obtained, the last braid is tapered off and joined inconspicuously to the braid beside it. No two rugs are the same and each one is a bit of a storyteller, made in a way like a quilt, from pieces of clothing well-worn and loved by family members.
I began studying the examples on the floor nearby with entirely new interest and respect. “That one there was made by my mother, your great-grandmother, at least 50 years ago,” Grandma pointed out. “Those two are my early attempts at learning the craft. The big one in the dining room is my last one. By then I realized I liked a lot of red in them,” Grandma explained. “Your mother has made a few too, I know. They are at your house in Vermont.” I knew exactly where they were there and would be checking them out when I returned home.
As a young adult, in my own home, I realized that I missed having those omnipresent and serviceable rugs underfoot. I looked at new “braided rugs” which were not really braided at all. Instead they are cheap fabrics, usually not wool, twisted and top stitched together. Not for me now that I understood and appreciated what the real ones involved and looked like. In those days, all those women in my family were still using their own rugs in their own homes. The obvious solution to me was to make my own rugs for my own home!
I soon learned that braiding rugs is a lot more work than it appears to be. Several hours of tearing, folding, sewing, joining, braiding, pressing, shaping and sewing again; goes into just a few inches of each rug. And as the rugs grow in size, they grow in weight too! It’s not a summer project either! I’d completed a small rug and started another, when my mother offered me one of the rugs she’d made. Mom was redecorating and moving things around. Of course I said yes. Living in a home heated with wood, with perpetually cold floors, those wool rugs are very practical!
but it Keeps on Going !
When my grandmother passed away and her household was broken up, no one else seemed interested in Grandma’s rugs. I was. The collection included my great- grandmother’s rugs as well. Since inheriting these homely treasures, I rather lost the incentive in my now hectic life to complete the last rug I’d begun. It still waits for me patiently, and every so often, I stop on a cold and quiet winter day and add a few inches to my own creation.
Fortunately, my paternal grandmother made a couple of braided rugs for her dolls as a child, when she was practicing to make full-sized rugs. I have one of those now in a doll’s house. Dollhouses 1, Not Just for Little Girls….
My maternal grandmother, who to the best of my knowledge, never made a full-sized braided rug, did make me this one for my doll’s when I was a child. Dollhouses 3, What Inspires Creators and Collectors?
These practical rugs are so often overlooked, if anyone even still uses them anymore. I hope you have a new appreciation for them now when and if you see them! Just think of the hundreds, or thousands of hours that have gone into each one! Having these humble treasures in my life, feels like a part of these wonderful, practical, resourceful women are still in my life, looking out for me and keeping me warm.