Out of Unpromising Materials
Margaret and Mary, the sisters in Miss Read’s Village Christmas, sit before a cozy fire each evening making a hearthrug, “a gigantic monster of Turkish design, in crimson and deep blue.” Margaret’s end of the rug grew much more quickly than Mary’s. Her hook made “staccato jabs, and the wool was tugged fiercely into place.” Mary took her time and enjoyed the process. The Lady-of-the-House can picture Mary fingering each strand of wool gingerly. While Margaret looked to the day it would be done Mary would be sorry when the edges where bound and the rug was finished.
Do you enjoy the relaxing process of working on a homemade project even if it takes many months to complete? The Lady-of-the-House does. But she also works with the project’s end in view. She will admit that when it comes to filling in the background of a rug design, with a little less patience the canvas tends to be somewhat stabbed. Not as fiercely as Margaret’s filling-in, but compared to so small a needle used on a linen sampler, hooking requires a more robust, less delicate handling in places. The wooden hook can form a callus in the palm, observes the Lady-of-the-House. The wool for the shapes and figures is pulled into loops circumspectly.
While she works with needle and thread the Lady-of-the-House pictures how a project will look on a window, a bed, a wall or – in the case of her circular rug – on a chair. Three quarters into it and the Lady-of-the-House is already scheming and dreaming up another needle project. It isn’t unusual to have three projects started zealously at once. Like having three books started, in both cases she will pick up the one she feels fit for.
In chapter four of Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson describes the “poor folks” of the English hamlet where she grew up in the 1880s.
“Yet even out of these unpromising materials, in a room, which was kitchen, living-room, nursery, and wash-house combined, some women would contrive to make a pleasant, attractive-looking home. A well-whitened hearth, a homemade rag rug in bright colours, and a few geraniums on the window-sill would cost nothing, but make a great difference to the general effect.”
A rag-rug in olden days was made of cast off clothing. The clothing was no longer good for anything but to be kept in a ragbag. Here in America the first hooked rugs thriftily made use of the ragbag. Many a household relied upon things made by-hand and nothing was wasted.
After a hundred years of taming an uninhabitable wilderness, early Americans were becoming more comfortable. They were snug on their homesteads. The windows were glass, the floors were wood; parlor floors were even painted. Rather than straw, rope beds were stuffed with an upgrade of feathers. After a long day of toil beds plump with woven blankets, patchwork quilts and a feather pillow or two, awaited them. There may even be quilts on reserve kept in the linen chest. Perhaps this is when homemakers turned their attention to using up their rags.
All cloth was valuable in early America as it was made primitively and painstakingly from wool off of sheep or flax in the field. Although a family had startling few changes of clothing they dressed in good cloth. When the Declaration of Independence began six years of invasions, battles, retreats and inflation, the women were busy making hooked rugs.
“For as we know, women keep house and hold the world together through all the anxieties, miseries, and tragedies of all the wars.”
Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder)
Woolens passed patching and mending, were cut into strips. These were mostly grays, browns and black. A woman with an eye for domestic art died her rags. Red was made from cochineal for a design of roses, indigo for sky and forget-me-knots, pokeberry juice and walnut-husks gave more colors for shading.
She washed empty grain sacks, sewed them together and drew a design on them. Pulling the strips of rags with a hook through the weave of the sackcloth gave her what she called, a “rug” - a new word derived from the Swedish “rugge” meaning coarse, rough, rugged.
By the work of her hands, over some months, she lovingly turned rags to riches so-to-speak. It was creative work that satisfied her and gave her family a bit of luxury for the floor.
With these vignettes the Lady-of-the-House wishes to encourage you to think big thoughts and relish small pleasures.
January brought little snowfall. Some days were mild enough for wearing an oversized cardigan and for trying out a new pair of shoes.
I can’t help wonder that one day - years hence - a woman with an eye for domestic art will cut up the wool plaid from this skirt for making a rug.