A Conversation On Rag Rug Weaving

We are getting ready to set up one of our looms and never having woven rag rugs before we turned to our friend Betsy who is an avid rug weaver.  Here’s what we learned:

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What width rag do you use to make your rugs?  We have been saving blue jeans for years and have piles of them.

For denim rugs I usually use strips of 1 1/2″, and for tablemats, and table runners usually 1″. When the material is lighter I use wider strips – usually up to 3″ for light weight sheets – maybe 2″ for flannel. Knits and hard to tear stuff I might do with a rotary cutter on a board, but a lot of the time I just tear the strips.  This is not ideal with dust and lint in mind. When it is nice enough outside I like to do it on the porch and these days inside I have an air filter running inside when I do it.  I tried wearing a mask, but with my glasses it is uncomfortable and gets in the way.  I am just about to do some now in fact while I wait for things to dry out a bit more.

Okay!  That’s great to know…we have never done rag rugs but we are getting to the point of wanting to set up a loom for it so we are reading and watching in the wee hours when I get up…I was thinking that I like the Japanese device and could make one using heavy Exact-o knife blades, and if I did that then I could make them whatever width I wanted.

I have seen something that has a crank to it, somewhere – probably a catalog – I think just pulling fabric pieces through you’d probably get better control. It is nice if the strips are very uniform, unless you want an irregular effect.

I think I answered a question about width already. I usually tear denim strips at 1 1/2″ wide. First I cut/tear the bottom hem off – then I cut the side seams and tear across the bottom of the leg. Then I start with a tear up the side that looks closest to straight – this depends a lot on the “cut ” of the style, but usually the outer seam. I measure in the 1 1/2″ width, making notches with scissors across the bottom, then tear the length of the leg as far as I can. Brian likes to get more by taking the back patch pockets off with a seam ripper, but I just tear- if I can tear through the pocket-fine, if not I just use the shorter piece. It works best with 100% cotton jeans.  If there is too much polyester I usually can’t tear them and just trash those.  If the material is very worn you get to a weak spot and the fabric tears across, at the knee sometimes. Not much you can do about it. If the pieces are less than a foot or so I just discard them. When I finish one pair of jeans, I usually bundle the strips with one strip tied around the rest. When there is variation in the shades I sew the strips in a pattern – one or two from each pair of jeans to even out the variation through the rug -l ighter and darker shades. I just took a look to see if I could find a good video about the sewing of the rags, and didn’t see one.  I sew the strips together on the machine, placing “right sides” together at a 90 degree angle and sew on a diagonal-with a small triangle on the right. With the end of that second strip, you turn it right side up, place the next strip right side down and again sew diagonally leaving a little triangle to the right.  When you have enough to fill a shuttle stop and trim the connecting thread and the little triangles about half an inch from your seam.  Then you have a long continuous strip of denim.  With the diagonal seam it isn’t as bunchy as other methods of joining the strips. With denim , which is sturdier than most other materials, I think this is especially important. If I am gearing up for a big project I might do these up and roll them into balls, but sometimes for variety I tear and sew and weave in rotation to mix up the muscles I am using – sometimes turn on the air filter and leave the area for a bit.

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I usually weave rugs at 12 dpi with 4/8 all cotton warp. I have a 15 dpi reed on my heavy duty loom most of the time – sometimes I double thread 2/dent and 2/heddle and every other dent in the reed-usually to mix up the colors with more variety, so that is more like 15 dpi. Not sure if all that will make sense to you.

Just out of curiosity, have you ever considered ripping from opposite ends, every other rip, and stopping short by 1 1/2″ of the end so that it forms a zig-aged continuous strip? You use an air filter…do you find that helpful?

The alternating cut does work with knits and I have used it to do the “T-shirt yarn”, but with tougher denim it would make unevenness that would be unacceptable to me. I don’t like things looking ragged, but some folks do not mind it. When you have the problem of a weak spot due to wear on the pants that would mess it up, also.

Since I started having bouts of allergy-induced asthma I do use the air filter in my work space, because preparing and weaving with rags creates dust, and I also vacuum with a shop-vac more often than I used to. I like to do processing on the porch when it is comfortable, and often use it as an entry-level job for people who are visiting and who want to set and talk. We can get ahead sometimes and have the rags ready to go.

THANKS Betsy!

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Betsy weaves on a Newcomb loom, made in Davenport, Iowa.

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