Rag Rugs and Nostalgia at Saltaire Maker’s Fair

Not only was I lucky enough to get selected for the arts trail, I was also asked if I would like to demonstrate rag rug making. I was thrilled to do so, but I had been warned by the organisers I would need someone to help run the stall. I immediately thought of my colleague Emma Brown, one of the friendliest and most enthusiastic people I know and although the deadline for her PhD on South American mummies was looming she very kindly agreed to give up her bank holiday weekend to help me out; and I could not have done it without her. And well, I’ll let her tell you the rest …

Rag rugs and nostalgia at Saltaire Maker’s Fair – a guest blog by Emma Brown

After a very busy and highly enjoyable three days helping Chrissie Freeth run her rag rug stand at Saltaire Makers’ Fair, I finally have a chance to sit down and write something about the wonderful people we met who came to see Chrissie’s rug making demonstration.

Some 2000 people passed through Victoria Hall each day. A good proportion of visitors had happy memories of rag rugs. They kindly shared these memories with us.

The conversations usually started with the line “oh, my grandmother used to make these out of old coats!” Many of these people were now grandparents themselves, often with grandchildren in tow. One gentleman, now in his 70s, was visiting the fair with his daughter and her two daughters. The gentleman used to help his grandmother make rag rugs as they did not have carpets. He had very fond memories of sitting with her on winter nights clipping up old clothes for her. He watched on as his own two grand-daughters, aged 7 and 8, had a go at making a proddy rug with Chrissie. They were naturals and had to be persuaded to let other children have a go.

One of the nicest things to see over the weekend was the happy memories that Chrissie’s rugs bought back. One lady, in her 80s, told us that her father was not really interested in her and her sisters. The only time he spent with them was in the evenings when they helped him as he sat at his frame and made rag rugs for the family home. This was a really happy memory for her.

A couple who married in the early 1950s told me that their mothers had made them rag rugs for them as gifts for them when they set up their first home. They are still together fifty years later. Sadly the rag rugs were lost when their kitchen flooded. They said the rugs soaked up most of the water – and they were so heavy it took two people to lift them!

Another lady told us how her and her mother used to sit in the kitchen and make rag rugs together. The kitchen floor was covered with rag rugs too. Her father used to mend clocks and watches. Apparently it caused great consternation when a tiny cog got lost in the thick pile of the rag rug. She laughed as she described her parents crawling around on the rugs, trying to find the errant machine part.

A common theme throughout the memories that people kindly shared with me is one of being poor and having to make do with whatever materials were available. Despite the memories being associated with not having much, everyone had happy memories, as often the making of rag rugs was done as a family, with each person having their own task to do. Rag rugging was not just mum’s work – fathers were involved in making the rugs too.

We noticed that there was huge variation in what people called rag rugs. They were proggy mats or peg rugs in Newcastle, bit rugs in Huddersfield, clip rugs in Lincolnshire, tatty rugs in Edinburgh and peggy rugs, tabbed rubs, rags rugs or list rugs in various parts of Yorkshire.

Emma tidying the stall

We had some inspiring moments in our three days at the Makers Fair. One lady sat down to have a go at the proddy technique, despite being registered blind. She picked up the technique instantly and bought one of Chrissie’s rag rug starter kits. She is hoping to make her own rug. Another wonderful moment for us was meeting a lady who has both little fingers missing. We asked her if she wanted to have a go at making the rug, she was hesitant, but gave it a go anyway. She picked up the prodder and mastered the technique straight away. She was delighted to discover something she could do that could be a creative outlet – something she didn’t think was possible before.

Although one of the best things about our time at the Saltaire Arts Trail was hearing these memories, it was also one of the saddest; in a few generations they will be gone forever. But fingers-crossed many new rag ruggers were made that weekend, and Emma was one of them!
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6 thoughts on “Rag Rugs and Nostalgia at Saltaire Maker’s Fair

  1. Glad you had such a fabulous time. More should be done to remember heritage crafts and the memories associated with them. Next time I’ll have to bring my lace pillow!!!!

  2. I enjoyed having a go at Saltaire and have started my first rug. I want it to be in bright colours for a new grandchild’s bedroom. The dark edging I started from an old pair of my husband’s suit trousers had to be undone as it frayed. I bought a bright yellow T shirt but found when I cut it that the fabric was so thin the edges rolled under. So am searching for thicker T shirts and polo shirts, some charity shirts are quite thick. I put a 15 cm embroidery ring on the pristine piece of hessian and got quite a good circle of magenta filled in. So my pattern will be a random scattering of filled rings and the background will be made from left over strips from a random pile. The baby is due in two weeks so had better get prodding!

    1. Sounds lovely, Barbara! Do email me a pic I should love to see the finished rug! If you’re worried about the fraying you could always try cutting the fabric on the bias, and as for the thinner t-shirts, you could try doubling them up and prod two clips together. Really glad you are getting on with it and best wishes for the imminent arrival!

  3. Hi Chrissie
    Is it possible to but your rag rugs from stock ?
    I’m looking for a replacement rug approx 5×3 ft and would like to enquire as to owning one of your rugs.
    Thanks
    Tony in Thirsk

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