A Social History of Rag Rugging

A Social History of Rag Rugging:

In my line of work, I’ve spoken to thousands of people about the history of rag rugging, and what has really struck me from all these encounters is the feelings that the craft evokes. Some of us remember relatives making rag rugs, others were forced to cut up the fabric against their will when they were younger (those are the traumatised ones) and others have recently made rag rugs out of a loved one’s clothes after they passed away. Whatever the story, rag rugging is rich in social history that has never really been recorded. I love hearing your personal rag rug stories but could kick myself for not having written them down. Well, that ends here!

Going forward, I’ll be keeping a record of all your rag rug stories here. Please email your rag rug memories, stories and journeys to hello@raggedlife.com and I will add them to our People’s History of Rag Rugging. They don’t have to be old stories – they can be from last week if you like, and they don’t have to be written perfectly – they just have to be true. (Photos very welcome too). Thanks so much for getting involved everyone – I can’t wait to share them 🙂

p.s. if you’re looking for a more literal history of rag rugging, it can be found here and if you’re looking to take up the craft, do check out our Ragged Life rag rug workshops and kits here.

Elspeth’s Rag Rug Story:

So, I thought I’d start our People’s History of Rag Rugging with my story… it seems vaguely fitting…

Every year my secondary school would put on a recycled fashion show where arts students had to make and model an outfit made entirely out of recycled items. A few examples of recycled outfits are below 🙂

Recycled Fashion Show Costumes at St. Francis College Letchworth

My friends – Jasmin, Ellen, Sarah-Jane and Isa modelling their outfits.

My mum had made rag rugs for as long as I could remember so one year I asked her whether she would teach me how to do it so that I could make an outfit to wear. At the time, I didn’t realise how ambitious I was being and I grossly underestimated how long it would take to finish my outfit. I ended up rag rugging day and night to get the outfit finished in time and went through a gazillion audiobooks while I was making my costume. Thankfully, I just about got it finished and, on the day of the fashion show, I walked down the catwalk in my rag rug costume. It weighed a tonne (anyone who has picked up a rag rug can vouch for that) and was pretty itchy, as I hadn’t lined it at all (big mistake), but I was super proud of what I’d accomplished and had well and truly caught the rag rug bug. Fortunately, the judges of the show were also impressed because I won a prize for my efforts and there began my love of rag rugging.

Unfortunately most of that (in)famous costume has disappeared over time so I can’t share it in all its glory but my mum turned the waistcoat part of the outfit into a cushion which you can see below. It isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing piece I’ve ever made but it’s part of my history of rag rugging so I’m glad she kept it around.

A Purple Rag Rug Cushion on a Patterned Chair Made from a Rag Rug Waistcoat

My mum made my rag rug waistcoat from the fashion show into a cushion so that my hard work didn’t go to waste.

Victoria’s Rag Rug Story:

So, that’s my story, but where did my mum learn? My mum is from Lancashire so most people assume that she was taught by her mum (the craft is very prevalent in the North-West) but surprisingly, my mum is actually self-taught. Her history of rag rugging began when she was looking around a shop while visiting a friend in North Yorkshire and saw a rag rug for sale. As a keen knitter and crafter, she was intrigued by the craft so bought the rug. It was from that first rag rug that she taught herself how to rag rug and she has been making gorgeous rugs ever since. Below is the original rag rug she bought… it’s looking a bit battered by now but has still stood the test of time. We think that the person who made it wasn’t particularly experienced because they didn’t realise that the rag rug letters would completely disappear when surrounded by the shaggy rag rugging.

An old blue and white rag rug with letters on it

You can see the letters visible from the underside of the rag rug (right photo). I’ve often wondered what the letters stood for. Any ideas?

Close up of an old shaggy rag rug with pastel colours

The main body of the rug is done in the shaggy technique but the letters were done in loopy. Whoever made the rug did their rag rugging very tightly.

Verena’s Rag Rug Story:

Verena sent me this rag rug story in early September, 2017 and to be honest, it’s stories like this which are the reason why I started this collection of stories in the first place. There are so many wonderful histories and tales tied up with rag rugs which are never told. Verena kindly allowed me to share this story with you and I’m sure it will touch you in the same way it did me. Here is Verena’s story:

“This is a rug with a very heartbreaking story. I made it out of the clothing of a friend’s baby girl of 18 months who tragically died within 8 hours of getting diagnosed with meningitis. I cut up all her tee shirts and jersey dresses, and the whites are her vests. This will be given to her mummy and daddy on the 14th September at their wedding which would have been Mia’s 3rd birthday, please keep this secret and do not post it anywhere until after that date. I haven’t done this since I was 10 when I helped my grandmother to cut up old coats to make what we called peggy rugs. I’m 68 now, I hope you like it.”

Pink Rag Rug with Name Mia in the Middle

Verena made this lovely rag rug for Mia’s parents.

Bibi’s Rag Rug Creations:

Monica met Bibi while travelling around Tanzania and couldn’t resist sharing her story with us…

“On a tour of Dar es Salaam I came across this lady selling her rag rugging at a tiny local stall. She uses old sugar bags as the base (a kind of plasticised hessian) and off-cuts from the tailors. The small pillow she’s holding has a special zipped back to keep money etc safe when sleeping, a very practical idea in houses of 6 – 7 families. Bibi was proud to have her photo taken with her work. She is also the local midwife and apothecary!”

Rag rugs in Dar el Salam Tanzania

Here is Bibi with some of her wonderful rag rug creations.

Anonymous Story:

This story was submitted by one of the ladies who attends our Ragged Life rag rug coffee morning who would like to remain anonymous…

“I don’t have a long history of rag rugging although it was probably in my mother’s heritage (she came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne). She certainly told me how people made these rugs at home although she didn’t feel inclined to renew or replace the rug which I vaguely remember as a very young child on our kitchen floor.

My own experience of rag rugging is as a redemptive occupation for.  I took a morning class and found that it was something that I was able to do and which was a way to create something which was beautiful and unique.  After the class, I went home and rag rugged literally ‘til dawn to finish my first sunflower.

For me rag rugging is ideal for mindfulness and that is one of the reasons why I find it so therapeutic.
The rag rug coffee mornings are also enormously beneficial.  Here talking and activity balance and flow and are really quite joyous.  Actually, in my whole life, I have never felt so at home and never a bit weird or uncomfortable.

Finally, beyond the aesthetic and touchy feely aspects of rag rugging there is a lot to occupy the mind. Rag rugging has a long history and it’s amazing to look at the beautiful and quirky things people made in the past – sometimes centuries ago.  And now I’m learning about how people from all over the world are using their rag rugging like Bibi in Africa making comfy pillow safes to boost her income.

I would like to thank you, Elspeth, for introducing me to rag rugging and for the coffee mornings and the posts and blogs.
And of course thanks to your mum for keeping it going when you’ve been away and for collecting the old rag rugging books which are so beautiful and inspiring. 

All good wishes”

rag rug social group coffee morning rag rugging socially

Everyone looking busy at our fortnightly rag rug coffee morning.

Jane and her mother’s Rag Rug Story:

Jane recently got in touch with me to show me her first go at rag rug sample made for her mother. She told me that she was inspired to give it a go after hearing stories from her mothers childhood. She wrote:

My 94 year old mum had told me on many occasions, that, her parents used to make a 6ft by 5ft Rag Rug ready for every Christmas morning,  it inspired me to have a go.

She later got in touch with me again share more of her mother’s memories of her family Christmas Rag Rug. This is what she sent me:

It’s amazing how, by doing by doing the Rag rugging, and, chatting alot with my mum about it, has got her thinking about her time at home, living with her 8 brothers and sisters.

She explained how they had a large ‘Yorkist fireplace’. One half was an oven and the other a fire. Her Mother used to clean it by applying Black led all over it then, buffing it off with dusters. 

Around the front of the fireplace was a large Brass fender which, again was polished up to the highest standard!  Mum said it looked fabulous when finished!

Her Mother and Father used to sit either end of the fireplace on chairs, and, each would take an end of the Rag rug, eventually, finishing by meeting in the middle! Hard work but all with it!

Such togetherness ♥️

Jane’s mum with her sensory sample rag rug

Share Your Rag Rug Stories:

This is a live and growing collection of rag rug stories so please send your memories and tales of rag rugging to hello@raggedlife.com

No story is too small 🙂


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As always, happy rag rugging!

Elspeth x

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[…] A rag rug jacket has been on my rag rug bucket list for quite a while now, which is quite strange given that my first foray into the world of rag rug clothing was pretty uncomfortable (read more about that here). […]

5 years ago

I love the International – ness of seeing the rugs made in Tanzania and absolutely adore her bright rug, may have to copy that!!

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