Penny rugs are a worthy piece of Americana - East Valley Tribune: At Home

Penny rugs are a worthy piece of Americana

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Posted: Friday, April 20, 2007 12:46 pm | Updated: 6:05 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

My decorating co-host, Matt Fox, and I are history buffs. We also enjoy antiquing and flea markets, so we were excited when we discovered an authentic penny rug in a local antique shop.

My decorating co-host, Matt Fox, and I are history buffs. We also enjoy antiquing and flea markets, so we were excited when we discovered an authentic penny rug in a local antique shop.

The term penny rug is a misnomer; penny rugs are not actually floor coverings. Instead they are decorative mats for tables or mantles. There are even penny rug quilts for beds.

Penny rugs originated in the United States around the time of the Civil War. Thrifty homemakers used woolen scraps from clothing to create decorative mats.

Using coins as templates, they cut small, medium-sized and large circles from wool, stitching the smaller circles onto the larger ones using a blanket stitch. The completed “pennies” were then stitched to a cotton backing in a pleasing geometric pattern.

As penny rugs evolved, a new style emerged in New England. A center design was stitched onto a woolen mat. “Pennies” were added to further decorate the mat. Tongues of wool were then added to form a border to complete the design.

Although rare, it is possible to find authentic penny rugs in the antique market. Penny rug styles have also seen a resurgence in the past 10 years, and new mats are available online and in stores.

Plug in the phrase “penny rug” into an online search engine and you’ll find hundreds of resources for patterns, too. You might consider purchasing a pattern if you’d like to try it yourself, but you might enjoy creating your own design even more.

To start the process, you’ll need woolen fabrics. For best results, look for 100 percent wool, but a blend of 80 percent wool and 20 percent nylon or polyester can be used.

Like me, you might be surprised to find that wool is no longer stocked by many fabric stores. Wool can be found at many quilt shops, however, both on the bolt and in smaller cuts.

For your first project, it may be wise to start with smaller cut pieces in the colors called for by your pattern. If you find you enjoy making penny rugs, however, you may choose to buy white wool and dye it.

A yard or two of white wool can be used to create a variety of colors and hues. For best results, cut your fabrics into 10-inch strips.

Using acid dyes and following manufacturer’s directions, dye one strip at a time. After placing your fabric strips into the dye bath, watch carefully and remove the strip when the color reaches a pleasing light intensity.

Remove the strip from the dye, cut off a 10-inch square and return the rest of the strip to the dye to darken.

Repeat this process to create approximately six squares of increasing color intensity.

Using this technique, you can create a variety of colors and hues for your projects. Once all your wool has been dyed, it is necessary to felt it.

Felting is a process of reducing and matting wool fibers. Felted wool works well in penny rug projects because it is soft and dense, and does not ravel.

To begin the felting process, sort your wool by color. Place your wool in your washing machine and wash it with a mild detergent on your longest and hottest wash cycle with a cold rinse. You may want to stop your machine several times during the cycle to remove any loose fibers that might otherwise clog your drain.

To dry the fabric, place it in your dryer on your longest and hottest drying cycle. Be sure to clean the dryer filter several times during the drying process. To avoid wrinkles, remove the wool from the dryer immediately at the end of the cycle.

Now the fun begins. Cut out the pieces for your penny rug and use the blanket stitch to stitch the design onto the mat.

If you would like to add a tongue border you may have to play with the tongue size. Once you’ve determined the size and placement, stitch the wool pennies at the end of each tongue.

Cut out a backing fabric the same size and shape as your finished mat. Place the backing and mat wrong sides together, slide in the decorated tongues, and pin in place. Finally, use the blanket stitch around the mat to hold the pieces together.

Penny rugs are a unique and colorful American craft. Although they may be a bit time-consuming to make, I’m sure you’ll agree they are well worth the effort. They may be called penny rugs, but in my mind they are worth a million.

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