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The History

of Rug Braiding 

To watch a presentation on this topic by Christine Manges, click on the button below.  The presentation was given to the Valley Forge Rug Braiding Guild on October 24, 2020.

            Rug braiding is a uniquely American art.  Although braiding is an ancient technique, it was first used to create rugs from fabric scraps in North America. 

            Braided rugs are first mentioned in 1822, when an agricultural fair in Plymouth, Massachusetts had several braided rugs that were "noticed and admired," as reported in the New England Farmer newspaper [1].  In 1826, Miss Lydia Hunt of Cranston, Rhode Island received a prize of $2 for her braided rug at the Rhode Island Agricultural Society Fair, where judges commented:  "from the neatness with which the various colors were braided together, and its substantial fabric as well as economy, [it was] deemed worthy a premium." [2] 

            While it is suspected that braided rugs may have been made before the 1820’s, there may simply not have been enough fabric scraps available.  None of the extensive lists of household goods (commonly made upon the death of a patriarch) refer to braided rugs before this time.  When the US was still a British colony, textiles were so labor intensive to make, or so expensive to buy from Britain, that clothing was often worn and patched until it was no longer usable.  The American textile industry (largely created by stolen plans from Britain) first began in New England in the 1810’s and 20’s...  and suddenly affordable fabric was available.  The textile industry needed to flourish before enough extra fabric was available to make braided or hooked rugs.

            It is interesting that there is a commonly held belief that braided rugs were part of colonial home décor.  Rugs of any sort were rare in Colonial America.  A review of property inventories in Philadelphia -- the largest city in America in 1775 -- found that less than 3% of homes listed having a rug of any type. 

 

            The belief that braided rugs were part of Colonial American decor was probably fostered by photographer Wallace Nutting, who widely published photographs of colonial settings with his wife’s braided rugs in the photos.  These photos helped promote the Colonial Revival in the early 1900’s and to sell his colonial reproduction furniture, but again, no records document colonial era braided rugs.   

            The first braided rugs were in round and oval shapes.  The rugs were often of mixed fabric content and were sewn together with thread.  Sometime in the 1930’s, an innovation began of “lacing” braided rugs together, and this method is generally used today for putting braids together.

            Another important event in rug braiding was the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service for Adult Education.  The Cooperative Extension Act was passed May 8, 1914, and gave federal funding to State Colleges to provide adult education in rural counties.  While the initial goal was to provide education to men in the best techniques for farming, there also were provisions to teach women the best techniques in home economics.  The techniques of food preservation (canning, drying) and thrifty home maintenance and décor were presented at county fairs, and booklets on these skills were handed out.  Some of these booklets were on also on rug braiding, and braided rugs were made throughout the U.S. following these directions.

            Presently, rug braiding is undergoing another resurgence in interest.  There are braiding guilds around the country, and several books on rug braiding have been published in the past 15 years.  There are several conferences that occur every year, and the technique of rug braiding is increasingly used to create fantastic "art" rugs.

 

 

[1] Nylander, Jane C., "Specimens of Taste and Skill:  New England Hearth Rugs, 1800-1850." In:  Antiques and Fine Art Magazine, Nov. 15, 2013.  

[1 & 2} Black, David, ed., The MacMillan Atlas of Rugs and Carpets, New York:  The MacMillan Publishing Co., 1985, p. 229.