It was Linnea Eliason who belted out that "Weaving is Wonderful!" Coming from a vibrant 93 year old, her joy summed up what most weavers already know, like a secret within them that comes to life in a rag rug, fabric or wall hanging. Weaving has that satisfaction of creating; transforming a moment, a concept, a scene or something quite inexpressible, into a tangible form. Rag Rugs may have had a utilitarian origin by necessity, to warm floors or to be placed upon beds to keep children warm during cold nights. But, today’s modern designs, use of color, innovative techniques and unusual fabrics have transformed rag rugs to a textile art which now can adorn walls.
The exhibit Standing on Tradition, Rag Rug Techniques was created in partnership with the Minnesota Discovery Center and the Range Fiberart Guild, through funding in part from the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the MN State Legislature, (Legacy Fund of MN). When Carol Sperling of the Range Fiberart Guild first had the idea of a rag rug exhibit she envisioned a display of all techniques for making rugs with rags or cloth. Mai Vang, Discovery Center Curator, along with Sperling, Barb Leuelling Mary Erickson, Alana Maijala and members of the Range Fiberart Guild worked to bring together elements of rag rug making on the Iron Range and Minnesota.
This exhibit honored the artists and the rugs, as well as the looms they were woven on. On display were many examples of several techniques used to make rag rugs such as weaving, looping, hooking, sewing and more.
Weavings require two sets of threads, vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft). Warp threads are placed onto the loom; they must be parallel, no two can cross. The weft threads interweave between warp threads to bind the cloth together. Depending on the pattern that these warp threads are threaded, different patterns are created when weaving. Color and texture of the weft material also influences design. In this exhibit weavers used rags or cloth for weft.
Nalbinding is a textile looping technique that pre-dates knitting. The word Nalbinding comes
from Nal meaning needle. A short needle made of bone or wood was used to loop wool in various stitches to make clothing. In the United States, rug makers used a toothbrush for their needle to stitch rags with the Nalbinding technique. The bristle end of a toothbrush was sawed off and filed to a point. The hole in the handle of the toothbrush became the eye for the “needle.”
Wagon wheel rugs get their name from the wheels once used on wagons by early American pioneers. Spare or old used wagon wheels made a perfect holder for the warp to create a circular rug. Weft materials can be woven or twined on the spokes (warp). Today circular frames are made from a variety of materials including PVC pipe, wood, and metal.
In Scandinavian countries, this technique was used since the 1600s. Today, this technique involves pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a burlap, linen, or monk’s cloth with a rug hook. Designers drew on the foundation fabric and started hooking by first outlining the designs and then filled it in. The old “primitive” style of hooking uses wider strips and simpler designs. More detailed designs involve narrower strips for complex patterns with shading and highlighting.
Sewn rag rugs begin with a backing of heavy material such as canvas or denim. Fabric pieces are cut in a desired shape such as squares or rectangles and sewn to the backing. When sewn together these individual pieces create a deep texture for the rug. Polyester double weave and fleece are good choices for sewn rugs.
The braided technique is one of the most popular in rag rug making. Immigrants and pioneers saved scraps of fabric and made floor coverings which gave warmth and provided an element of decoration. Colonial women braided in the evening when other chores were finished. Often braided rugs were given as housewarming or Christmas gifts and for church raffles. Among the braided rugs, three-strand-braiding has continued in popularity although there are many different braids that could be used.
Knitting and crocheting are two examples of the many looping techniques. Knitted and crocheted rugs form a textured surface which is beautiful and also thick to the touch. Larger sized knitting needles and crochet hooks are used to accommodate the thicker rag materials to make rag rugs. Shaping and color change possibilities are endless.
This collection of rugs, made between 1920 and 2012, has historical significance, and we present these interviews with area weavers as an oral history of rug-making in the region. The creativity of each artist is brought out along with common themes of history, teaching, family, and tradition.
These artists - Carol Sperling, Ruth Koski, Janet Meany, Bill Schaffer and Linnea Eliason - are leaders who continue to inspire and connect us.
This web component is funded in part from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, Duluth, MN.
In 1978, Janet received grant funding to interview weavers in Two Harbors, Minnesota. She soon realized that each person had a definite style or signature of making rugs, leading her to become fascinated with looms since she saw them as “pieces of sculpture.” Janet saw the value of studying old looms and, together with Paula Phaff, wrote The Rag Rug Handbook, a classic resource still in use today by weavers of all skill level.
After compiling her book, Janet started “The Weavers Friend,” a newsletter that has been published for 25 years. It is a place for rag rug weavers to share their stories and photos of their projects as well as to encourage weaving among those who are often isolated around the country. Without Janet’s constant support and dedication, the weaving community would not be as connected as it is today and important and unique histories would have been lost.
Carol Sperling grew up in Rochester, Minnesota where she became a Registered Nurse and worked at Mayo Clinic. She and her husband came north to Eveleth shortly after they were married and have resided on Ely Lake for around 55 years. Carol became a leader of a Girl Scout troop and was very involved with her three daughters for many years.
While attending the State Fair in St. Paul, she became fascinated with Minnesota Weavers Guild members who were demonstrating weaving and spinning in “The Women’s Building”. This was so inspiring to her that she worked with the Girl Scouts to earn Badges in “Fiberart” which eventually lead to the formation of the Range Fiberart Guild. Always being innovative and thrifty, she did some simple weaving with cardboard looms, and later with little wooden frame looms she made for the scouts to use.
Linnea Eliason learned how to weave from her mother Anna. Like her mother and grandmother before her, Linnea is an important link in the Lundquist family tradition of weaving.
The continuation of the tradition of weaving came to Bill Schaffer when Linnea was teaching his daughters how to weave and he saw what his daughters were making.
Bill continues with the joy of creativity that weaving gives, but his main reason for weaving today, unlike the generations before him, is not to make a living from it or to make a functional object. It has come to a point where the artistic process is more important and he enjoys the surprise of creating. Bill, like each generation before him, has used knowledge from the past and made it relevant for today.
Ruth Koski was born in Finland in 1928 and came to the US with her parents when she was 18 months old. Because her father was a minister, she moved with her family first to Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Menlo Park, California; Hancock, Michigan; and went to college at Michigan Tech where she met her husband. She and her husband settled in Virginia, Minnesota.
Her parents gave her a wonderful traditional rya rug that was commonly used in Finland during the wedding ceremony in which the bride placing the rug on the floor for her and the groom to stand on.
What is so inspiring about Ruth’s journey in spinning and weaving is that her Finnish heritage drew her to teachers that had a similar background that are shown in her techniques. Ruth’s reminisces about her life in spinning and weaving, and said “This has been an interesting saga -- thinking back, how did I want to do this?"
This digital exhibit is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council thanks to a legislative appropriation and an appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
Standing on Tradition, Rag Rug Techniques, an exhibit at the Minnesota Discovery Center, was created in partnership with the Range Fiberart Guild with funding in part from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
Exhibit and events are made possible in part by a grant provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature from the State’s arts and cultural heritage fund with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008.
Photo Credits: Jill M Aubin Photography, William J. Butkovich Photography, Barb Leuelling, Mary Erickson
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