By Dayna Woolbright
Coming from a crafts background I was very excited to get to work with some of the textile collection at the Superstore. I’ve always loved making things and for that reason I really appreciate items that have been produced in the hands of others, whether they are skilled craftsmen or simply an amateur trying a new skill. In any case a handmade item embodies the story of its maker and the process they have undertaken to create it. For me it is those stories that make an object truly unique.
Last week we worked on a number of rugs and carpets but there was one rug in particular that stood out. It was a rag rug created in the early 20th century. The rug has a dark blue border and design worked in rectangles and triangles striped in different colours, central to the piece is a rectangle with the text; Home Sweet Home; worked in red. It’s a lovely object and its neat rows of looped material suggest it was made by a careful and controlled individual. Its size also implies that they must have been very patient since it measures 139cm X 180cm and would have taken hours to produce.
Rag rugs can be found all over the world, the principle are the same but technique varies slightly from place to place, they can be created using a number of methods such as hooking, prodding, braiding and looming. The most common technique used in the home is prodding and hooking, these processes of creating rugs are considered traditional handy-crafts.
This rug in store is created using the hooked technique; stiff, thick fabric is used as a base. Hessian is a popular choice chosen for its durability, open weave and ease of availability, this rug is no exception. The hessian backing is usually mounted on a wooden frame to keep the fabric taught and allow the maker the use of both hands. Thin strips of fabric are then pulled through the backcloth by poking a small hooked tool through the backcloth and pulling the fabric upwards creating a loop. This is repeated at regular intervals until the hessian is no longer visible. Fabrics were often recycled, this is likely to be the case with this rug as the larger sections are created from dark thick fabrics, perhaps from an old coat or sheet? While the bright red fabric seems reserved for edgings and the central text maybe because this was in short supply.
Unfortunately most rag rugs have no written history, this may be because their simplistic design and construction and practical uses meant that they were not regarded as highly as crafts such as embroidery or quilting etc. In most cases their origins are passed on through oral family histories. However, we do know a little about this rug in our collection, it is thought to have been made by the disabled son of a gardener at Barningham Hall. The Hall is situated in North Norfolk not far from the village of Matlaske. It was built in the early 1600 for Sir Edward Paston but has changes ownership several times over the years. The grandeur of the estate suggests that the owners were very rich and it is likely that a number of staff were employed to maintain the building and grounds. The gardener’s son may well have made the rugs as a source of income if he was unable to undertake physical work in the gardens. We have two rugs made by this gentleman both of which were property of a Mrs Money of the Street, Matlaske.
From a social history point of view rag rugs can be very interesting. In the 19th and early 20th century they are commonly associated with times of hardship becoming popular during periods of economic decline such as the Great Depression and during the Second World War as part of the ‘make do and mend’ campaign when materials were scares and people had to make use of the materials they had. A torn knitted jumper could be unraveled and re-knitted and equally a length of fabric could start life as a ladies apron which when worn could become a child’s dress then see out the rest of its days as fabric strips in a rag rug. Tools could be made or manipulated the shaggy-style rugs are often referred to as ‘peg rugs’ as they are created using a dolly peg which had been whittled down to a point. Many examples exist in various museums but it is often only the colourful and well-designed rugs that survive. The rag rug found in the superstores exemplifies this as its excellent condition suggests it was never used.
In recent years the rag rug has yet again made a comeback, thankfully this is not just as a result of the recession, but to a renewed interest in vintage and traditional crafts and most importantly due to their eco-friendly appeal. Instead of throwing away worn or dated clothes and other items, you can turn them into something practical and unique! Designs have become a little more eccentric due to the multitude of fabrics available and today the only limitations are the maker’s imaginations!
If you like textiles you may be interested to know that Norfolk Museums and Archaeology service has a study center devoted to costume and textiles. It holds over 27,000 items in its collection including agricultural labours clothing, ladies Victorian dresses, some fantastic Norwich shawls and much, much more! Viewing is by appointment but you don’t have to be an expert! For more information call 01603 223873.