Exercise 1.1 The Archive
I contacted Dumfries Museum and put in a request to see some of their archive textiles. Lydia Cant, The Museums Officer – Collections (East) kindly replied with a link to the online archive from where I was able to select three items to view: a rag rug; a Sanquhar knitted child’s pullover; and a patchwork quilt.
Lydia made an appointment for me to come and view, handle and draw the items on 1 July 2016. All three of the items were in storage and had to be retrieved for my visit. Lydia wrote down all the information on the three items, held at the Museum for me, and laid the exhibits out, one at a time on a tissue-paper covered table in her office.
There were a number of restrictions in place: photographs must only be for personal use (I will therefore not be able to post them on this blog); only pencil to be used in close proximity to the exhibits; and handling must be carried out wearing protective gloves.
The three differently-textured and sized objects offered a range of surfaces to draw.
Exercise 1.2 Substance and Story
Item One: Rag Rug
1 What is the textile made from?
The rag rug has a hessian backing (made from jute fibres, possibly from a sack – but no printing (eg, advertising logo) was visible on the reverse). The rug was also lined with hessian. The pile is made from a mixture of recycled clothing, including wool, cotton and possibly other textiles. There are a mixture of weights from medium to thick. Ribbed knitwear, stripes, and patterns are visible on individual fabrics.
The archive label (an old exhibition label), describes the rug thus: “Rug has been produced by hooking strips of rag through a hessian base.”
The museum staff care for this piece by wrapping it in acid-free tissue paper and storing it in a large archival lidded box. Individual items are stored on top of one another in the box, separated by further sheets of acid free tissue, with heavy exhibits at the bottom, lighter items towards the top. This protects the items from moisture, pests, light damage, dust, etc.
In general, modern rag rugs can be vacuumed using a hand-held tool (not the beater bar of an upright) either with or without some plastic mesh to protect the fibres. They can be cleaned by hanging on a washing line outside and beating with a carpet beater, or similar, to remove dust and dirt. Spot cleaning can be carried out, or immersion and a squeezing action used to wash the rug in a bath of water. Gentle soaps used for cleaning wool are recommended. The rug can be drip dried before lying it flat to dry fully. Care should be taken in moving the rug, so that strain is not applied to the backing. If stored, they should be rolled with the pile outermost.
2 Production Methods
The rag rug has been hand hooked by pulling strips of recycled fabrics through a hessian backing to form loops approx 2 cm in height, now flattened with wear. The fabric strips looked very wide (approx 1.5 – 3 cm, some folded) (described as ‘Primitive’ in the US): the border having the widest strips. A tool like a large crochet hook in a wooden handle is often used, although I have seen antique, improvised tools, such as a modified large key used (the unlocking mechanism removed and a hook made in its place). Basic shapes are marked on the hessian first (for example, using a burnt stick from the fireplace). In this case, the cat, border and possibly the scallop shapes may have been marked first, then filled in with rows of hooked textiles. The woven jute backing may have been from a recycled sack, and the pile from recycled clothing and other household fabrics. These included a mixture of both knitted and woven textiles, such as wool and cotton.
The outer border is made up of dark colours: blacks, greens, browns; the background is a mixture of creams, browns, pinks, blues, a touch of turquoise, checks, stripes, plains, patterns; a few spots of greenish black (I did wonder whether these dark splodges in the otherwise paler background might have been repairs, or more likely resulting from a shortage of the paler coloured fabrics). The black cat has eyes that look as if they are made from twists of fleece, perhaps used to give a more round shape to them then could have been achieved with a loop of fabric.
3 Where is the textile from?
There was no maker’s label on the rug, but it was donated by Dalswinton Mill, Auldgirth in 1979. There are examples of rag rugs dating back to the late 19th century, although as this piece is undated, we can’t be sure that it isn’t more recent. (Only by removing and analysing the textiles that have been used in the pile, could a more accurate date be arrived at, although because people store and use older fabrics, the best one can do is to say that it was not made before a certain date, for example if it contained a 1970s dress fabric of known manufacturer, pattern and age, it could not have been made before that fabric was available … unless the fabric was used to make a more recent repair!).
The earliest example of a rag rug found in this country is mentioned in Emma Tennant’s book Rag Rugs of England and America. The rug is said to contain Battle of Waterloo Uniforms (themselves dating to 1815). Many rag rugs were used to destruction and early examples are therefore rare.
There is much debate in the literature as to where rag rugs first developed, and it may be that the technique sprang up independently in different parts of the world. In the UK, the practice may have been introduced by Viking settlers or traders to the inhabitants of The Shetland Islands, and so to the rest of the country. The making of rag rugs was common in the UK between the late 19th century, and the 1920s, when it declined as factory-made carpets became affordable. The practice was revived during WWII, when resources were scarce, and has again gained in popularity with the renewed interest in sustainable living and recycling. Nowadays, with the more colourful textiles available, a more artistic approach is often taken by the maker.
In Scotland in the 19th century, jute fibres imported from India were made into hessian in Dundee. The Verdant Works website has some historical details about the process, and conditions for the people who worked there. Hessian was used for the backing of the rug, and as the base through which the recycled textiles were hooked.
If the rug was disassembled, it might be possible to trace some of the fabrics by their patterns to the original manufacturers if pattern books were still in existence. Other fabrics may be home knitted or woven ones made from wool, cotton or linen .
The nearest town to Auldgirth is Dumfries: a possible source of woollen yarn and woollen goods. “Dumfries’ importance as a port of trade and commerce peaked in the 1840s, especially hosiery manufacture and the wool trade” is quoted from a survey of Dumfries and Maxwelltown (surveyed 1847-51).
In his 1891 book The History of Sanquhar (Sanquhar is a town in Dumfries and Galloway), James Brown describes how every family had a spinning wheel and made their own yarn from sheep’s fleece, the resulting yarn would then be sent to the weavers and woven to their requirements. At the height of the weaving industry, in the 18th century, Sanquhar was home to up to 150 hand-looms. He also describes the demise of the smaller weaving establishments following the invention (first patented by Edmund Cartwright in 1785) and adoption of the power-loom in the late 18th century.
Cotton Mills were to be found at Gatehouse-of-Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway in the 18th and 19th centuries: a possible local source of cotton textiles.
4 Problems Encountered
As is usual with older rag rugs, little importance was attached to them, being a domestic, functional and disposable item, so there is no labelling on the piece, and no known information on the maker or date of production.
Traceability might be important for archival care of the rug: the type of fabrics used and age of the piece may dictate how it is cleaned, displayed and stored. Traceability might also be important in historical terms, as mentioned earlier, there is debate about where in the world this technique was first employed. If a very early piece was found, it could provide useful evidence to back up or disprove a particular theory. Knowing the country of manufacture might also be important if an artwork needed to be exported for some reason (such as being sold to someone in another country), or an attempt could be made to reclaim it by its country of origin, if it was found not to be British.
Anecdotal information may help to fill in gaps. In fact, Dumfries Museum launched a newspaper appeal to local people for memories of rag rug making, and examples of rag rugs, when they held their 2011 exhibition on the subject.
My Mother was born in Wigtownshire, Dumfries and Galloway in 1944, and these are her memories of her Mother’s (my Grandmother’s) craft work, including rag rug making.
“My Memories of My Mother’s Handicrafts
Mother was born in 1908, the eighth of nine children, to a tenant farmer in Galloway, Scotland. Money was not plentiful, so early on in life she was taught to sew and knit, to make do and mend. Clothing on the whole was made to last but in terribly drab colours.
I was also part of a large family, the sixth of ten children. Mother’s handicraft skills were well tested keeping us clothed and adding small touches to make the home as comfortable as her small income allowed. With two older sisters, I loved wearing the smocked gingham dresses mother made. Once the smocking was complete she finished the main sewing on her treadle Singer sewing machine, a well-used item. She enjoyed her leather work, making items such as purses and bags using thonging.
The one craft I remember quite clearly was her sitting by the fire of an evening slowly working her way through a rag rug. Each room had at least one rag rug by the fire or a bedside. Any garment that was outgrown, ripped or worn out at the knees and elbows was saved. The best pieces of the material would be saved. They would later be cut into strips and put in the rag rug box by the kitchen range. Most of the strips were still drab in colour. One has to bear in mind that, for instance, girls’ knickers were navy, bottle green or dark brown and boys’ shirts and trousers were mainly grey. Those were lightened by flannelette sheets and woollen blankets. In fact any item beyond repair was utilised. Sometimes blankets were put to boil with heather, gorse blossom or moss added to give better colour. The woollen material would not only be dyed but would shrink and become felted. This made them easier for Mother to cut into strips with her old steel, long- bladed scissors.
The canvas for the rugs was a hessian sack. These sacks had one side and bottom seamed. Once this stitching was removed the hessian was flattened out. Even the jute thread that was removed from the seams was used again to turn in a narrow hem similar to the top of the sack. This flattened material dictated the size of the rug. Some hessian was coarse and others much finer. Mother had a different method depending on the hessian thickness.
Method 1 for the coarse hessian which had larger spacing in the weave. A large steel crochet hook was required. This had a rounded top to the handle (see photograph below). Each strip was folded, the round end of hook used to push the fold through the hessian. Adeptly flipped over, the hooked end then pushed through three threads on to draw the fold back through to the front of the hessian where the ends were drawn through the loop as with present day rug making. Using three strands each time to loop over gave a good tightly made rug. Once the top was completed a backing of old curtaining or similar finished the item.
Method 2 for the finer hessian: it was done using large pointed bodkins (see photograph). Narrower strips of about half an inch were used. These were threaded through the bodkin eye, down passing two threads, back up through before removing the bodkin and double knotting the strip. This method was slower but produced a neater firmer rag rug. These were generally used in the bedroom alongside the bed. Much nicer to stand on straight from a warm bed than the cold linoleum floors. Again old curtains came in useful to neaten the back and edges.
The rugs were hung over the washing line and beaten from time to time. I cannot recall them ever being washed or shampooed as we would today. Even after much use they still looked homely. An excellent way of recycling. I do wonder if some are still around now.
Only if making a rug for the WRI* Shows would Mother endeavour to make a design. Most were done randomly with perhaps a deeper border.
My sisters and I were always keen to give a helping hand and soon learned the techniques. Mother had two short lengths of different widths of timber in her box. These were used for cutting the strips to the correct lengths. Simply wrap the strip completely round and snip off. Repeat and soon there would be a pile off strips all exactly the same. This ensured the finished rug had a neat, even pile.
We also learned to knit from an early age. She taught me how to turn the heel of a sock and to graft the finger of a glove, how to read a knitting pattern, how to crochet, how to do French seams and double yokes on dresses.”
Jane Paintin 4/7/2016
* [Scottish Women’s Rural Institute]
1 Visual Examination
The rag rug I studied at Dumfries Museum was darkened, discoloured (browned) and faded, with frayed edges in places; a split to the backing hessian and a few missing loops of pile. It was a little gritty and dusty. However, it still appeared to be robust and useable. This piece is undated, but a date from pre 1920s or mid 20th century seems most likely. The tear to the backing hessian has been repaired using white cotton string by the Museum.
I imagine that this would have been made at home for use in the home, using recycled family clothing and household textiles (as was done in my Mother’s childhood home). The central cat is a charming touch and probably depicts a beloved pet.
2 Design elements, details, decoration and construction story
This rug is perhaps more decorative than many of the period, which were often of the ‘hit and miss’ variety, (a bag of mixed fabric strips would be picked from at random to form a mottled effect when hooked or prodded), sometimes a central motif such as a diamond or circle was included in red fabric, if available, and the rugs often had a darker border. The repeated scallop shapes and central cat portrait in this piece are quite decorative. The way in which a rag rug is hooked from strips of fabric, gives rise to the possibility of forming a pattern. A single shape can be outlined and filled in with fabric, then simply followed inside and out with further rows of hooking to produce a striped ‘echo’ effect.
Anecdotal evidence (such as that found in Jenni Stuart-Anderson’s 2003 book, Rag Rug Making) tells of how a new rug would have pride of place in front of the fire or in the ‘best room’ for visitors to admire. Older rugs might be swapped to another room, sometimes used for extra warmth on a bed, or underfoot in the kitchen, and eventually end up in the dog kennel or for some other use: one lady mentions the oldest rug insulating a potato store! There were many stories of whole families or groups of friends and neighbours making a rug together: children cutting strips; the adults prodding or hooking around a framed piece of hessian. It seemed to be a sociable pastime in the colder months, with a useful product at the end of it. However, some people still associated the rugs with being poor, and remembered having been forced to make them.
I certainly feel a sense of connection with this piece, having made five of my own rag rugs/wall hangings, using recycled clothing from my family, supplemented with charity shop and auction finds. I can look at my rugs and remember where most of the fabric came from, who wore it, when it dates from and all the memories associated with the people and textiles.
When I was browsing the Museum’s collection online prior to choosing my objects, these three pieces immediately felt familiar and connected to my life. I felt that they were all handmade by ordinary people (although the sweater is actually machine knitted, as it turns out), and two of them reflected my own interest in recycling. When studying the rag rug I found it interesting to follow a line of fabric and speculate about the original garment that it came from – a sock?, a braid or ribbon at one point, perhaps from a sailor dress, thick knitwear like a jumper; patterned fabric that may have been curtains or a cushion cover; blue and white striped cotton like a work shirt; herringbone weave wool that might have come from a suit or jacket.
A rag rug was an inexpensive way to create some comfort for a home; could be a sociable and inclusive activity; and would make the most of scarce resources.
Emma Tennant, a contemporary rug maker, says “For me one of the greatest pleasures of designing and making rugs is the way that it sharpens my perception and appreciation of even the simplest details in life.”
Cant, L. Rag Rug – DUMFM: 0207.62 handwritten notes taken from Dumfries Museum’s database 1/7/16.
Paintin, J. My Memories of My Mother’s Handicrafts remembered and written down on 4/7/16
Brown, J. The History of Sanquhar (2nd Edition) (1891) J Anderson & Son, Dumfries
Margetts, M. (ed) Classic Crafts: A Practical Compendium of Traditional Skills (1989) Guild Publishing, London
Stuart-Anderson, J. Rag Rug Making (2003) Traplet, Worcestershire
Tennant, E. Rag Rugs of England and America (1992) Walker Books, London
Vail, J. Rag Rugs: Techniques In Contemporary Craft Projects (1997) Quintet, London
Cuddihy, D. Rolling Back The Years To Ragtime The Glasgow Herald, 7/3/89 Website archive:- https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19890307&id=MDNAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=MlkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5208,1792878&hl=en
Liptrott, S. Dumfries Museum Helped By Standard Appeal 25/2/11
Updated 25/10/13 in The Dumfries & Galloway Standard. Website archive:- http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/local-news/dumfries-museum-helped-standard-appeal-2576689
http://maps.nls.uk/townplans/background/dumfries_1.html consulted 3/7/16
http://www.rrsdiscovery.com/index.php?pageID=131 consulted 3/7/16
http://www.dumfries-and-galloway.co.uk/sights/towns.htm consulted 3/7/16