Monday, January 30, 2012

Out of Unpromising Materials

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.

Post Script

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. 


Karen Andreola 


  1. Dear Karen,

    Your project turned out beautiful! I tend to enjoy the projects with an end close at hand. I often have several small projects going on at the same time, as well as books too!

    Your geranium in the window looks so pretty, my sweet hubby bought me some pretty pink tulips...a touch a spring for the house.

    You look very beautiful in your outfit, perfect for cooler weather.


  2. I've frequently followed your (or is it CM's?) admonition to have three books going at one time. For ex. right at the moment I am reading a cozy English mystery, a self-help book, and a somewhat slow-going book of philosophy. I hadn't thought about applying the same idea to handwork, although I usually have some knitted socks on the needles (for knitting on the go) and a bigger at-home project. Perhaps I will consider adding in an "immediate gratification" project such as colorful ornaments or glass jar covers, etc. I usually keep those as a "reward" for finishing longer projects, but they could be a nice refresher, as well.

    Karen, do you happen to have a blog entry on the topic of having three books going at a time?

    Thank you very much for sharing your life, your home, your thoughts, and experiences with us.

  3. Dear Karen:
    Thank you so much for the little lesson on rag rug making, it was so interesting. And I dearly love your new hooked cushion - it is so sweet and looks just perfect in the chair. How fun to anticipate new projects! Finally, let me say how lovely your winter outfit is - I do so love those shoes and would love to know where to purchase a pair of my own!
    Happy days to you -

  4. Have your read "Claire's Gift" by Maxine Trottier? I think that you would find delight in it. :) Thank you for your warm and enjoyable words.

  5. How lovely it turned out!! :) Your shoes are so cute! I hope to read Larkrise to Candleford's been on my to-read list for awhile.

  6. Your finished project is so pretty. It lends a feeling of contentment to me as I read your posting.I too have multiple projects underway,that way I am never bored. We women have the honor of making a home out of very little sometimes.My 5 geranium plants I keep over year to year make me smile each time I quench their thirst.They will look so pretty on my "stoop" this Summer.To be content with small means...What a blessing it is to be a Home Maker.Karen, thank-you much for the encouragement you lend to "the ladies at home"...Dawn E. Brown

  7. Shall I admit that my red geranium is faux? I move it from room to room. My eldest daughter is the one with the indoor green thumb. I passed along my plants to her during our last household move and they've become "jungle corners" in her house.

    I also like to mingle small projects with long-term ones.

    "Always keep three books going" isn't Charlotte Mason's phrase exactly but does follow the spirit of what she endorsed. I unearthed it twenty years ago while researching old articles in Charlotte Mason's "Parents' Review" magazine. I make reference to it in "A Charlotte Mason Companion" It's an easy-to-remember suggestion isn't it? It would indeed make a good upcoming blog post.

    Clark Shoes are my favorite. Because I hold onto shoes for years I look for styles that are retro. These look 1940s to me. If the skirt were more form-fitting and less A-line the outfit would be more like something Helen would wear on the BBC "All Creatures Great and Small."

    I enjoyed our chat at the kitchen table while I waited for a sweet potato pie to be done in the oven. Now that it's done other chores call.

    Thank you Ladies,
    Karen A.

  8. The idea of using what we have on hand has been out of popular fashion for a good while it seems. My grandmother, great aunts, and great-grandmother made quilts. They never purchased new materials for these quilts. While in my 20's, I was introduced to another family who made quilts regularly. However, they would go to the store and purchase all new coordinating fabrics for each quilt.

    I still dream away many enjoyable moments looking at my family's old quilts remembering Bertsie's dress, Tommie's housecoat, Gennie's jacket, my mother's dress...

    I have learned to also enjoy the more coordinated beauty of a quilt made from all new fabrics chosen specially for the project. There is certainly room for both kinds in our world today.

    Margaret Thatcher's The Path to Power, an autobiography about her earlier years, encourages my stunted frugality and ingenuity. She was a girl during the Second World War. The experiences of folks who lived through that time period give a whole new meaning to re-cycling. I mended a tear in a sheet several times over because of her!

    Our weather has been unseasonably warm lately. I've been taking a coat along only because it's January. My mother drilled it into my head that one should never leave the house in winter without a coat, though recently it's been left in the back seat of the car!

    I'm still working on my son's Aran sweater. The back is finished. The front is just begun.


  9. It turned out beautifully!

    I love home keeping and domestic arts - beautifying my home, using things we have on hand, repurposing...this is what our ancestors did!

    Really good post Karen!


  10. Okay Karen, you now have me googling wool rug hooking!
    This is something I might have possibly done in a more modified form in the past, distant past. Your chair pad with the shepherdess and sheep have made a good notch in my brain. I am thinking it would speak peace to any lady-of the-house as her eyes rested upon it when she walked it by throughout her busy day.

  11. Your chair mat is lovely. You did a great job! Thank you for continuing to post.

    I have a skirt very much like that and wear it often.

    Please consider writing more in the series of Pocketful of Pinecones and Blackberry Inn. I'm just enchanted with your characters and learn a lot about teaching and homemaking.

  12. Dear Karen,

    Your chair pad turned out very well! Thank you for validating my "need" for rescuing all the wool and denim discards at the thrift store where we volunteer~ they'll come in handy someday! :)

    Long live good old-fashioned elegant economy.

    Love and blessings,


  13. Ladies,
    Thank you for your compliments.

    It is so lovely to hear, too, a request for a sequel to my home education stories.

    "Elegant economy" - that decidedly feminine phrase from Elizabeth Gaskell's "Cranford" - has stuck with me, too.

    I'd like to look into "Claire's Gift." My list of looking-intos is getting longer.

    Your blog friend,
    Karen A.

  14. Having just now found time this morning over coffee to read this post (as well as all the comments), I want to say how thankful I am to you, Karen, and your readers for validating my habits of reading more than one book at a time and of working on more than one project at a time.

    I ordered Lessons at Blackberry Inn and look forward to curling up by my wood stove in my favorite chair this weekend to do a little reading. (I heartily agree with Vintage Wasp's request.)

    Your project turned out beautifully, by the way. Thanks for sharing!



  15. I love the way it looks on that chair!

    I watch quite a few cooking shows (off and on) and I always love to watch Lydia's Italy and Jacques Pepin.

    They both came out of war torn Europe and even in their cooking today, they don't throw away anything!

    I just found Pocketful of Pinecones at Goodwill. I'd sent my copy to my daughter (and the sequel was a gift later) so I'm looking forward very much to re-reading it. It's a lovely book.

  16. There is nothing like 'elegant economy'. Here in the cottage, I tend to hoard every scrap I can...someday I tell myself, but fabric is something that is just too precious to discard!

    You look really pretty in your monochromatic outfit :-) The shoes are truly very nice...

    Thank you for sharing your rug hooking today.


  17. Your chair mat is lovely and suits your chair so well. I really like your outfit also especially your cardi.
    Blessings Gail