FEW HOMES in the past were without a colourful rag rug laid in front of the fire, by the bedside or on the doorstep.
Sometimes known as proddy or hooky mats, they were frequently made by the woman of the house from a piece of old sacking or hessian, worn out shirts, blankets and other textile scraps.
In the days when ordinary households had few comforts, they were a way to brighten up a room and provide warmth on stone or wooden floors.
They were, according to Jenny Salton from the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, a form of recycling from a more frugal time when everyone had to ‘make do and mend.’
"It’s the perfect ‘green’ craft," she says. "All they needed was a bit of hessian, a clothes peg and some left-over material."
Who knows, the techniques used in rag rugging may be needed again in our cash-straightened times, so perhaps it’s just as well that they are still being passed on from generation to generation.
An exhibition, which opens at the Tolson Museum on November 14, will showcase the work of the West Riding Ruggers, a group founded 21 years ago to keep the tradition alive.
The 50 or so members of the group, which meets once a month in Bradford but has members from all over the area, have produced a dazzling collection of rugs, bags, wall hangings and decorative pieces.
Today’s rag ruggers are not just women seeking to brighten up their homes, they see themselves as textile artists. For the exhibition they have chosen the theme of celebration and the diverse cultures of the world. The exhibition is sponsored by the Rough Guide books and the Lottery.
Jenny, who is a member of the group, is hoping that the exhibition will inspire others to give rag rugging a try.
The museum is hosting three workshops to teach techniques – the first on December 6 will show participants how to make hooked and prodded festive rag rug wreaths for Christmas. (See details at end).
The West Riding Ruggers has its origins in the Bradford and District Rag Rug Group, formed after the Bradford Industrial Museum held a rag rug exhibition and aroused interest from rug makers. It has had major shows in a number of venues across the region, including Leeds University’s International Textile Archive.
Modern rag rugs utilise both traditional and modern materials, including plastic bags, old tights and stretch knits. But some ruggers are also interested in traditional patterns and the social history behind them.
"You often see a red diamond in the centre of a traditional proddy rug," says Jenny. "Some say that it was believed the diamond prevented the devil from coming into the house down the chimney.
"There’s also an American traditional rug called a penny rug, which was made from old civil war uniforms, which were cut up around pennies or dimes and made into rugs and decorative blankets," she added.
The rag rugs of the past were made from genuine rags, as clothing was expensive and was passed down many times, unpicked and re-sewn, before being consigned to the rag bag. To get them ready for rug making the clothes would be cut into tabs and then pushed through sections of sacking with half a clothes peg.
Rag rugs were popular right up to World War II, when textiles were in short supply because of the war effort, but by the 1950s, when clothes and household goods became cheaper and more plentiful, they were starting to lose their appeal.
By the 1960s there was a fashion for making hooked rugs out of yarn, creating a more up-market handcrafted item.
But the 21st century is now seeing a revival of handicrafts that produce individual works of art.
If you’d like to appreciate the work of the ruggers, the exhibition is open until April 18, 2010, with further workshops on January 31 and March 28 (price £35 – cost comprises tutoring, lunch and some materials – and booking is essential on 01484 223830).
Further details and opening times from firstname.lastname@example.org
The Vikings made rugs by pushing tufts of fleece through a woven foundation.
Proddy is the simplest technique and involves pushing short lengths of fabric tabs through a backing material and back out again, leaving two ‘ragged’ ends.
Hooking means pushing lengths of fabric through a backing to leave a ‘loop’ and is good for detailed designs and pictures.
Plaited rugs are made by plaiting between three and five strands of fabric and stitching them together.
Weaving with long fabric strips, using sticks or a peg loom, produces simple woven fabric rugs.
Tools were made from sharpened sticks, wooden clothes pegs, bone or horn, bent nails, metal keys or pokers.