The history of the Swedish Rag Rug
Fancy home decorating
The traditional Swedish rag rug has become a symbol of the good, simple, down-to-earth, country style living. When thinking of rag rugs, one picture old cottages or farmhouses with whitewashed floorboards, adorned with long rag rugs, striped in cheerful colours.
However, this is not how it all started. Rag rugs are traditionally woven from recycled cloth. But travelling back in time to the turn of the century, between late 1700’s to early 1800’s, all cloth was handmade! A very timeconsuming labour. Cloth was precious and not something taken lightly upon. A good and frugal housewife would treat all textiles in the household with utmost care and clothing were mended, passed on and altered until they were totally worn out. Even then, nothing that could be used again would be thrown away. They’d be turned into patches for mending or used for quilts.
This applied for all social classes. In those days, paper was still made from rags of cotton and linen. That also meant worn clothing and other textiles from households. ”Cloth merchants” traveled the Swedish countryside, buying discarded textiles that they passed on and sold again to the paper industry. It proved hard though, as people preferred to hold on to their clothes and textiles until they were worn to threads. There was even a law introduced, stating that each household had to contribute a certain amount of rags for paper production. A receipt for sold cloth would be rewarded with a tax deduction. That didn’t help much, as people would insist on saving every precious piece of cloth.
In this perspective, you might understand what an unthinkable luxury and disrespectful foolishness it would seem to common people, to put the valuable textiles on the floor and WALK on them! The use of rugs was a fashion introduced by wealthy Swedes that were fortunate enough to have travelled the continent.
The rag rug first appeared in manors and other prestigious estates. This symbol of status and wealth then slowly made its way to well-off country farmers, merchants and priests. They had large rooms that was used only for socializing or spaces that would be festively decorated for holidays and for receiving guests.
Humble conditions and small spaces
In the middle of the 1800’s, the dwelling for common folks could at best times, be a small cottage, consisting of a small entrance hall, a kitchen and one single room. There could be a small attic, but most of the year, the family would have to spend all their time gathered in a small space where they would cook, eat, wash the dishes (and occasionally themselves), sleep and do indoor chores. Not all cottages would have wooden floors even. If very primitive, the floor would just be stamped clay. It was absolutely unthinkable to lay out rag rugs made of precious cloth in this, most likely not-so-clean, environment.
However, in the middle of the 1800’s big changes was set in motion. The production process of paper mills changed. Wood pulp became the modern raw material for paper production and the demand for textile pulp decreased. The start of the industrialization not only meant improved living standards, but also made goods accessable and more affordable – also textiles!
When the fashion of rag rugs slowly started to spread, they were exclusively meant for the nicest rooms and many times not even for every-day-use. They would be rolled out for the holidays or possibly for Sundays, when there would be no messy work indoors. Young girls and women working at large or wealthy households surely noticed how nice and fashionable it looked with rag rugs. Hoping and dreaming, that some day they might also be able to afford maybe a small piece of such luxury in her future home.
With improved living standards in the second half of the 1800’s, by and by, families would get larger living quarters. If lucky, you might have an extra room – a space that you did not have to use for everyday life, but a space for special, social occations. That’s when the fashion of the rag rug started to spread among more common people. The rag rug was a popular decoration that would brighten up the family’s nicest room.
By the 1880’s, rag rugs had become commonplace in every home in Sweden. In winter, rag rugs on the floor would protect from cold drafts. The best thing was if the rugs could be lain side by side with just a little space between. This meant cleaning could be minimized, since you would only have to scrub the surface that wasn’t protected by the rugs.
Have a close look at an old rag rug and you will discover the many nuances and qualities of the fabric strips, tightly woven together to become a new rug. Both cotton rags, cloths of wool and knits may be included. Old shirts, threadbare dresses and gowns that have been washed many times, have been cut or torn into 2,5 – 3 cm wide strips to be used as filling/weft in the strong cotton warp (the lengthwise thread).
Dark, common colours like black, brown and blues will dominate the composition. Reds, yellows, greens and white were rare and sparse, therefor had to be creatively used in narrow stripes and made to last as long as possible if you were to make a long weave.
The art of weaving was traditionally a skill passed on from mother to daughter. A sought after skill, as a skilled weaveress could generate an extra source of income for the household. Tricks and designs were guarded and a weaveress that had a good eye for composing nice designs would be much admired. In the latter part of the 1800’s, the knowledge of how to weave also spread, as there would be classes arranged and books with patterns and inspirations for different weaves. Weaving rag rugs became popular, since the actual weaving was easier to master with rugs, than that of fine linen weaves.
There are many stages in the weaving process, before you can actually start weaving: first the warping, then the dressing of the loom. This includes beaming, winding on, threading the heddles, sleying the reed, tying on to the front tie-on bar and tying up the treadles. Not to forget all the strips of cloth that has to be cut or ripped, if you’re about to weave rag rugs.
Ready to weave! This is the creative and fun work, composing patterns when mixing and matching different cloths and colours, trying to make the most beautiful rug imaginable.
A housewife who worked quickly and skillfully could weave both for personal use and for resale. Even young children, the elderly and women who did not know how to weave could obtain a little extra income by cutting cloth into the strips necessary for weaving rugs.
Superstition and magic
There were of course some who were very skillful weavers and others not quite as talented. According to old folk tradition, there were different ways to achieve excellence and special skills in weaving. One was to hold the tool or instrument that you wanted to master in your hand, at the very strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve. This was certain to boost your abilities.
Another way, often tried, was when a godmother was to carry a baby girl to church to be baptized. Before leaving the house, she would let the little one touch the thimble, spinning wheel and loom, believing this act on such an important day would help the girl to become a skilled weaver.
The art of weaving itself was also surrounded by superstition and magic. In some counties you may not weave on a Thursday, in others not start a new weave on a Friday. In the very south of Sweden, you had to set your loom up in Easter week, but never begin the actual weaving work on a Monday!
Today, rag rugs are again becoming as popular as they once were, but the skills of this craft is not as commonly known any more. Even if there is a slight rise of weaving-interest among the young, there aren’t that many of the old skillful weavers around to pass the knowledge on. What used to be a necessity and a way to earn a much needed income, is now more of a hobby – something done for the joy of the craft.
Whatever the reason, the outcome is still the same – beautiful, traditional, warm and handwoven Swedish rag rugs on the floor!