Blog of Chrissie Freeth tapestry weaver, features writer for UK Handmade, weaving features editor for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Artist in Residence National Trust and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association
You may or may not remember these, the mat making frames that belonged to an elderly neighbour. He saw me rug making in the garden and kindly offered to get them out of his cellar and lend them to me.
They were made for his mother by his father in the 1930s and he remembered playing under them as a child and driving his mother crazy. Well, a bit of soap, gallons of wood worm killer, a liberal smattering of Danish Oil, a new length of upholstery webbing and voila!
The wood is utterly lovely and there are some intriguing tell-tale signs of their previous owners, including the pencil lines drawn sixty/seventy years ago by Jim’s father as he made them, and the initials JD. Apparently Jim’s mother liked putting initials on everything using the end of a hot poker from the fire. There is a bit of confusion about who these initials actually belong to as they are more likely to belong to his grandmother Jenny.
It is just a little bit fab knowing the names of the ladies who used these frames before me – Nora and Jenny. They are 7 foot plus and took up the width of their living room in both Caroline Street and Mary Street here in Saltaire. They are too big for my little workroom so I will be setting them up in my own living room, just got to decide what to make!
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.
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!
A couple more rag rugs just snipped from the frame, actually the first one I finished last week but the ground has been too wet outside to photograph it. I am a big Bloomsbury fan and have always loved Vanessa Bell’s design for her sister Virginia Woolf’s posthumous book, A Writer’s Diary. Proddy rugs are not noted for being too accommodating when it comes to design but I am rather pleased with how it turned out. Although I do enjoy making proddys, they are severely depleting my fabric stash. The cream background is nearly four metres worth!
This one is another flower proddy and I have to say it is my favourite so far. Some of the fabric in this one is so soft and lush. This will be going on sale at the Arts Trail although if anyone buys it I will be utterly heartbroken. I haven’t sorted the edges and backing yet, just tucked it in underneath which is why it looks a bit funny in the corner.
Not the best piccie and for that I apologise – it is too cold to go outside for better light; but at least these flowers are faring better than my seedlings caught in the late snow last week. These proddy brooches are made from some stunning quality scarves that recently came my way and some lush woollen blankets from my stash. I raided my grandmother’s old button tin for the centres.
The clips are around 3 cm long and 3/4 an inch wide and cut to shape. The photograph below shows one of the brooches just about to be cut from the hessian backing. I hem the circle and draw a ‘bullseye’ to guide the clips. I recently got my own bodger (Brown’s ?) and although it was in a sorry way, after a few taps with a hammer, a bit of WD40 and some sandpaper and elbow grease it was in tip-top condition again. I’m not normally a fan of using a bodger, I much prefer to work proddy mats the traditional way from the back; although I got used to it in the end, I don’t think I would use it for larger projects.
The bodger was from ebay and in amongst the job lot of rug making stuff was also a brass hook; the shank was stamped “RY BELL” and I was thrilled to realise it was one of the hooks made by John William Bell who was born in 1882 in Sunderland and who is mentioned in “From Rags to Riches: North Country Rag Rugs” written by the senior keeper at Beamish Open Air Museum, Rosemary Allan. Presumably the RY refers to the Ryhope Colliery where he worked as a blacksmith. I was ever so slightly thrilled!
As well as these vases of brooches there’s also a basket full of them. I just need to do some labels and they will be ready for the Arts Trail.
Today has been cold and miserable and wet so I thought I’d post this picture from just last week when I was proddying in the sun in my yarden and could not have been more content with my lot. The rug on the go is my flower proddy which I finished yesterday. Each clip is about three inches so it is very shaggy and so very, very soft!
Apologies for being so rubbish at this but I have been much distracted by a Very Good Cause, more of which another time.
At an auction last week I can across a rather curious contraption still in its original box and proclaiming itself “Airlyne” The World’s Fastest Home Rugmaker. I hadn’t a clue what it was or how it might work but took a punt and brought it for a few quid. I don’t know how old it is, but 1940s/50s.
Fortunately there was an instruction leaflet buried at the bottom of the box and setting it proved a doddle. A metal bar attached a webbed strap to a central needle, and two screws clamped the device onto the end of a table. I put a towel under the plate not wanting to risk scratching the surface.
By pulling the foot strap the central needle pushes up and down through an opening on the plate and through the fabric. A small sprung screw to the left of the needle lengthens or shortens the amount the needle pushes upwards, changing the length of the pile. By pushing a wire supplied through the eye of the needle and along the length of the needle’s shank, it is effortless to pull up the thread. I used some thick wool I had lying around and a scrap of hessian.
It is very easy to use, very fast and very addictive. I thought it might be unsteady, pulling at the table, but not at all. Your hands are free to move the hessian as the needle goes about creating a series of loops which you can leave as they are or cut to form your pile. I’ve only ever made one rug before and that was with a latch hook, so I am a complete novice and suspect I am making too many loops per inch, but that is only a matter of experimenting.
I’m very glad I got it and can’t wait to start a proper project, it’s just a case of finding one; in my typical ‘running before I can walk’ scenario, I already have high hopes of ripping up the carpet on the stairs and replacing it with a handmade runner…