With the emphasis in today’s world on recycling, going green and not wasting our natural resources, I think we would have been better off today if we had paid more attention to our ancestors. They had the practice of reusing items and not wasting anything from the start. One of the items that they recycled is something most people would throw away. Rags! I was fortunate enough to inherit my Great Grandmothers loom that my Mother cherished and made great use of by turning our old sheets, jeans and clothes into beautiful, practical rag rugs. I can remember Mom sitting for hours and tearing old clothes or sheets into narrow strips, sewing or knotting the ends together and them rolling the “rags” into balls that she would later wind around a shuttle to weave into her rugs.
To weave a rag rug, one of the things you need in addition to a loom and rags of course, is warp string. The warp string is a stronger, heavier yarn that is held tight by the loom's frame. Warp has to be strong, because it is held in a lot tension during the entire process of weaving. Be sure when you are stringing up your loom, that you have even tension to make your rugs more durable. With today's technology, we are able to use cotton yarn and artificial fibers, but traditionally warp was wool, linen or silk fibers. Usually, the warp is more of a neutral color to blend in with your rags but it does come in a variety of colors to use. When stringing up your loom, be very careful not to cross the warp threads. You will have to thread your warp thru the heddle, which is a comb like item with slots and holes that you will alternate the warp thru. Most looms will come with complete instructions, but if you pick up a used loom, try searching on the internet for instructions. Unfortunately, the loom that I have doesn't have a manual, so I am very careful to attach my new warp thread to an existing string and pull it thru the heddle that way. This step will require some patience, you have to be sure that you don’t cross your warp string, that you alternate it between the holes and slots and that you have tight even tension. It takes me a good day to string up my loom, but once it’s strung up, I can weave several rugs before I have to string it up again.
Once the loom is strung up and you have your rags torn and ready to go, the fun begins. Your rags or as they are called “weft” must be wound on a shuttle. A shuttle is usually a flat stick with notches on the ends that you wind your weft on lengthwise. The width of your rag strips can vary depending on the thickness you desire on your rugs. I will typically use between 3/4” to 1” strips depending on the heaviness of the fabric. I make my strips of blue jeans into narrower strips than what I would a linen fabric. You can use both types of material in the same rug; just make sure the finer fabric is in wider strips to make your rug more even. The fun thing about using rags is the assortment of colors that you will have and how they will weave a pattern in your rug. You are able to weave by raising and lowering the heddle and sliding the shuttle thru the open space in your warp threads. When you raise the heddle, the strings that you have put thru the holes will raise, while the strings that you have in the slots will remain stationary. Once you raise the heddle and slide your shuttle thru, you will have to make sure that the welt it tight against the preceding row. Most looms will have a type of comb bar that will aid in this process. Now you change the position of the heddle by lowering the holes and raising the slots, slide the shuttle thru, tighten the welt and keep repeating the process. It won't be long until you reach the desired length of rug that you want. I almost forgot, you will also need a “stretcher” to hold the ends of your woven rug to the original width while weaving, so you don’t end up with an hourglass shape.
To finish the rug, carefully cut the warp from the front of the loom, leaving enough warp to be able to tie two strings together in a knot, about 4” works well. This will not only secure your rug from unraveling, but it adds a nice fringe to your finished rug. All you have to do is repeat the same process to your rug on the back of the loom and you’re finished. You will love how rag rugs wear and are easy to clean by running them thru the wash with a mild detergent. Vary the width of your warp and make place-mats, table runners or use your imagination to make a variety of things. Just tear, string, weave and enjoy!