Before taking my first weaving class with Mary Rawcliffe Colton in St. Louis in the early 1980's, I already knew that I wanted to make rugs. It wasn't until 1989 that I finally bought my 45-inch, 8-shaft J-made loom and started weaving rugs. Since that time, I have woven approximately 70 rugs, most of which were rag rugs. I have taken many (too many?) workshops, including several that were specifically about weaving rugs. Below is a subset of things I have learned.
The Loom: You can weave a rug on almost any loom, but to have the best results, I would recommend a sturdy floor loom. Since you need to beat a rug weft harder than you beat wefts for most other weaving, it is good to have a heavy loom and/or to secure it to the floor to keep it from 'walking'. I use small squares of non-slip rug pad under each foot of my loom. My loom is long from front to back, which allows the shed to open wide enough for a shuttle even with the tight tension required for weaving rugs. It has a worm gear for both the front and back beams to adjust tension. This allows the warp to be kept at very high tension with infinite adjustability.
A Stretcher: I have been using a temple for the last five years when weaving rugs. The temple holds the warp at the full width and keeps the warp yarns at the selvage from being stretched. If the selvage warps get stretched, the rug begins to 'smile' and when it is taken off the loom, one end of the rug will be straight and the other will be curved. YOU won't be smiling.
Shuttles: I use 'canoe' shuttles. Rag shuttles are often too large to fit through the open shed when the warp is as tight as I want. The canoe shuttle is about 1 inch in width and height and can be purchased in various lengths. The longer ones work great for rugs. I use shorter ones for workshops and inkle weaving.
Hems: You need to decide how to finish your rug before you start weaving. If you want a hem, you will need to weave it before the body of the rug. I normally weave the hem with the same yarn I've used for the warp, only doubled. The weft yarn for the hem can be pre-shrunk to eliminate a hem that shrinks more than the body of the rug. As an alternative, the hem could be woven of thinner strips of fabric than those used for the body of the rug.
Fringe: If I plan to make a fringed edge, I leave unwoven warp (or use filler) for at least twice the length of the desired finished fringe. Then, I weave a heading for about 1/2 to 1 inch using the warp yarn, doubled.
Warp: When weaving rag rugs, I normally use 8/4 cotton carpet warp for the warp. It is possible to buy 'frayless' carpet warp, which does not fray as badly as normal carpet warp, but it doesn't come in as many colors. I have also used 12/6 and 12/9 cotton (referred to as Swedish seine twine) which is very strong and especially good for tapestry style rugs.
Weft: For rag rugs, 100% cotton fabric works best for weft. I have often used bed sheets that were 60% cotton and 40% polyester, but the more polyester the fabric has the less I like it. It frays in a different way, compresses differently, and has a different feel. I use a lot of fabric that is about the same weight as a well-worn sheet. However, I have woven with much thinner fabric, as well as with old denim and corduroy fabric.
Sources & Cleaning: I always wash all the fabric before I begin to weave. Check stores that sell used sheets, such as Goodwill, Salvation Army and ARC. Some of these stores have an amazing selection of colors and prints.
Sampling & Cutting: The rags can be cut in widths from 1/2 inch to 3 inches, depending on the desired thickness of the rug, the weave structure used, purpose of the rug, etc. To test the width, you can roll the fabric between your fingers to see if it is the thickness desired. Some books recommend that the rolled fabric be about the same size as a pencil. Remember that heavier weight fabrics should be cut narrower than lightweight fabrics if they are to be used in the same rug. Using 2 rags in the same shed that are 1 inch wide often works better than using one rag that is 2 inches wide, because the 2 rags compress better. I normally cut rags with the grain of the fabric, but rags cut on the bias fray less. If you mix both in the same rug, make sure you don't stretch the bias-cut rags too much or the rug will be lumpy.
I never cut all my rags until I have woven a few inches of the rug. This gives me a chance to make sure the rags are the correct width before I spend the time to cut them all. You can fold the fabric and cut with scissors, use a rag cutter, or merely tear the fabric into strips. If you are ripping the fabric, you should be outside with a good wind blowing or wear a mask. Don't breathe cotton lint. I have a portable air filter that removes some of the lint from the air of my weaving room.
Sett: For a plain weave rug, I set the warp at 6 ends per inch and often use 2 ends of carpet warp as one 'working end', which means measuring enough warp for 12 ends per inch of rug width. For these plain weave rugs, I normally weave with fabric strips about 1.5 to 2 inches in width. If you plan to cover the warp completely using tapestry techniques (see example to the left), you will need the warp to be spaced wider (4 or 5 ends per inch, for example) and the rag strips to be narrower (1/2 to 1 inch, for example). For a twill structure, the warp might be placed closer (8 to 12 ends per inch, for example). For 'open-rep' weave, I have used cotton carpet warp at 16 to 24 ends per inch.
For a "rep" weave rug, I will sometimes place the last two or four warp yarns on the edges a little closer together than the others in order to have a better selvage edge. For a normal plain weave or twill rug, the last two or four ends may be placed closer and, if I have not already doubled all the warp ends (i.e., used two ends as one "working end"), I will double the last two to four warp yarns at the edges of the rug. Doubling the warp ends and placing them closer together helps to make the edges of the rug firmer and straighter.
Rugs are pretty simple and fast to weave. Some people add weights to their beaters, but I find that just using my own weight and leaning back when I beat is enough. I usually close the shed to hold the rag in place and pull gently to place the weft where I want it. Then, I open the shed (the same shed or the next one) and beat HARD twice.
At the edges, I always twist the rag weft. One workshop leader called me a masochist for doing this every time, but it makes the edge of the rug much neater and stronger. I never sew or glue the ends of the rag strips together, but merely cut the end of each rag strip at an angle and let them overlap for 2 or 3 inches.
Weaving with two or three shuttles allows color blending and also allows the wefts to wrap around each other at the edge of the rug. This helps to keep the edges from pulling in. Sometimes I will weave with 2 shuttles that have the same type of rag, just to get better edges.
I wash my rag rugs in the washing machine and hang them on the clothesline to dry. If you grab each side of the rug at the hem and stretch the hem as wide as the body of the rug while it is still wet, the rug will lie flatter when it is dry. My son lives in Seattle and puts his rugs in the dryer, which also works fine. The rugs seem to shrink a little more in the dryer and the fringe frays a little more. But if you hang a wet rag rug outside in Seattle, it might never get dry. I have rugs on my kitchen floor that I wove in 1990 that have been washed many, many times. I must admit that the fringes are finally starting to come apart after all these years.
I keep records for all the rugs I weave. You never know when you might want to do something similar in the future. If you want to know more about weaving rugs, there are lots of books and magazine articles to help.
Allen, Heather. (1998). Weaving Contemporary Rag Rugs. Asheville, NC: Lark Books.
Collingwood, Peter. (1990). Rug Weaving Techniques, Beyond the Basics. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.
Collingwood, Peter. (1968). The Techniques of Rug Weaving. New York: Watson-Guptill.
Erickson, Johanna. (1999). Rag Weaving Gimmicks and Tricks. Watertown, MA: Erickson.
Ligon, Linda (ed.). (1984). A Rug Weaver's Source Book. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.
Meany, Janet & Pfaff, Paula. (1996). Rag Rug Handbook. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.
Johansson, Lillemore, et al (ed). (1995). Swedish Rag Rugs: 35 New Designs. Glimakra, Sweden: Väv Magasinet. (in English)
Bev Weaver lives in Colorado Springs and is a member of the Pikes Peak Weavers' Guild, the Handweavers' Guild of Pueblo, the Rocky Mountain Weavers' Guild, the Handweavers' Guild of Boulder, the Handweavers' Guild of America, the American Tapestry Alliance, WARP, and the Colorado Basketmakers' Guild. She supports her fiber habit by writing systems software in IBM assembler language. She likes to hike, bike, and run up the side of Pikes Peak when she isn't working or weaving.