When I was a child, I would visit an elderly neighbour’s house, and remember being fascinated by her kitchen rug.
Sitting alongside an enormous stove, it was shaggy and bright – a rainbow of colours. I would sit and run my fingers through it. I now know that it was a rag rug, a once-popular sight in kitchens and living rooms up and down the country.
Rag rugging is a skill that has been used for hundreds of years to turn old, unwanted textiles into hard-wearing, decorative rugs. It was particularly popular in the UK in the 19th and early 20th centuries when most people could not afford to buy carpets or rugs and needed to make their own floor coverings.
After cutting old clothes and fabric scraps into strips, they used a special tool to weave the strips between the strands of a hessian backing. Different colours and types of fabric were woven into patterns to create attractive, colourful designs, then trimmed for a neat and even finish.
The craft died out, but over the past two decades it has resurfaced and is now practised by thousands of people around the world, many belonging to special groups who meet to make rugs, wall-hangings, and other items, as well as to share tips about their hobby.
Diane West is one of those people. She belongs to West Riding Ruggers, which is celebrating its 21st birthday this year.
“I made a birthday cake using a rag-rugging technique,” says Diane, as she unearths a fantastic rug of a much-loved pet rabbit who died.
It is hard to believe it is made from oddments of material. “It is bits of felted scarves, pieces of wool jumper, suede, and nylon – all scrap,” says Diane.
Another rug, made with scraps of a nylon garment, could easily double up as a stunning shawl, or even, with a little work, a dress.
I’ve come to Diane’s home in Baildon in the hope that she can teach me to rag rug. I’m lucky in that when I visit, she has two friends she made though rag rugging who have flown from Australia to stay with her while they attend Reeth Rug Retreat, an annual four-day rug-making event in the Yorkshire Dales.
The pair – Jo Franco and Judy Ingram – were staying en-route to an international gathering of rag ruggers in America.
Having seen what is possible, I can’t wait to get started. Diane’s studio is brimming with crafty accessories for rug making. One thing I notice are rows of what seem to be clothes pegs cut in half.
This, I learn, is to be my tool. With it, I am to prod a strip of material through a piece of hessian (the women all refer to their craft as ‘proddy’, one of the many regional names it goes by). Then I have to take hold of it at the back, and, making a hole next to the first one, prod the other half through.
Diane shows me how, and I follow, but I lose my grip on the material at the back. It is vital to hold on, or you have to start again.
I soon get the hang of it. “You see how easy it is,” says Jo. “When I first started I thought there must be more to it, but it is really easy.”
Soon, I have inserted more than a dozen scraps, and the flower I hope to create is taking shape. “This is so relaxing – I could stay here all day,” I tell my fellow ruggers.
A former art teacher, Diane became interested in rag rugging after attending an exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum, where the group now meets.
“My mum was horrified when I joined the group,” she recalls. “She said: ‘What on earth do you want to make those dirty old dust traps for?’”
“When she was younger, it was sign of poverty – if you could not buy a rug, that was what you had on the floor. No-one treasured them, and books of the time were all about embroidery, lace making or knitting – nothing about rug making.”
Diane finds a framed picture of a yacht at sea in a sunset. “This is made from old tights,” she says, explaining how they can be dyed different colours to make up the picture.
She tells me how she once desperately needed yellow material for a rug. “My daughter had just finished Brownies so I used to jumper – she went mad, and still reminds me of it when she sees the rug.”
Judy explains how the craft began in Scandinavia. “It was cold and the rugs were made to cover the floors and keep feet warm.”
Adds Diane: “Raw fleece pushed through a woven backing has been found in a Viking tomb. It is thought the Vikings brought it over to the Scottish islands.” Further back in time, traces of early Egyptian fabrics were discovered with strips of fabric knotted to linen warp.
Areas such as West Yorkshire have a long history of rag rugging due to the availability of textiles, and sacks which contained raw wool.
“My mum is from County Durham and remembers going to the Co-op and asking for empty flour sacks,” says Diane. “They would unpick them and hook narrow strips of fabric through.”
“It is just starting to take off in Australia,” says Judy, “and many English people living there remember making proddy and hooky rugs.”
Hooky rug-making involved using special hooking tools to weave the fabric through the hessian backing.
The three women, who are now firm friends, met through The International Guild of Handhooking Rug Makers. They are clearly passionate about their craft and about its history.
Diane shows me an old photograph of a group of young men smartly dressed in collars and ties, at work on their rugs. The caption below reads ‘Wesleyan 4th Class Boys’ Rug Making Bazaar, 1909’.
“This area has a really interesting history of rug-making – the huge rug on the wall in the photograph shows they must have worked as a group.”
When my flower is complete, Diane glues it on to a backing and inserts a clip. I leave with a lovely rag rug brooch – and it really was easy.
- West Riding Ruggers meet in the lecture room at Bradford Industrial Museum on the second Saturday in the month, from 2pm to 4pm. For more information, contact Diane on (01274) 587301. An exhibition of the group’s work is being held at the Tolson Museum, Huddersfield, from November 2009 until March 2010.