The Braided Rug: A Tradition Old & New
A staple of the country or cottage home, today’s braided rug is reminiscent of earlier days evoking memories of hearth and home. With sophisticated colors and patterns, braided rugs are now ‘at home’ in any setting from county cabin to urban contemporary. These are not your Grandma’s braided rugs!
The braided rug carries memories of a simpler time when families gathered around the hearth at the end of a busy day. This traditional American craft actually originated in England and traveled to North America with the Pilgrims. Simple and sturdy, these rugs were used to warm the cold wooden floorboards in Colonial New England. The braided rug soon made its way West with the pioneers, and quickly spread throughout the country.
Women gathered in the evenings, braiding rugs from old scraps of fabric, worn coats, and discarded pieces of clothing – the ultimate in recycling. They passed the skill along to their daughters, working together while the men repaired harnesses and tools. In its earliest form, there was little attention paid to design or color. Most braided rugs had a strand of black fabric running through the entire rug, since black was the most readily available fabric culled from old black coats, pants and jackets. The black strand was braided with whatever other colors were on hand at the time. This was commonly referred to as the ‘hit-or-miss’ pattern.
A typical braided rug is made from three strands of fiber. Just like braiding hair, the right strand is wrapped over the center strand and then the left strand is wrapped over the center strand, in a continuous cycle of repetition. When it reaches the desired length, the braid is then sewn together into various shapes and sizes – round or oval being the simplest and originially most popular. Eventually, square and rectangular rugs were made, some even reversible.
When New England emerged as a center for wool-making in the 1800’s, braided rugs became more sophisticated and complex. Skeins of wool became available, replacing the old discarded fabrics and remnants. As designs became more intricate, some women even developed their own recognizable style, much like a signature. There were borders and variations of patterns using color and shading. The humble braided rug came into its own as a treasure of American Folk Art.
Like its cousin – the antique hand-sewn quilt – heirloom braided rugs are difficult to find today and usually fetch high prices. Their age and fragility often makes them better suited for wall art than for a floor covering.
Hand-braided rugs are still made today by crafters and artisans following the time-honored tradition of the early colonial settlers. As cottage or country style furnishings have come into vogue, the braided rug is fast becoming a focal point of the new ‘old’ décor. Few are still hand-crafted, while most are machine made, making them more affordable. Today’s rugs come in a variety of materials, including wool, cotton, nylon, chenille cotton and even polypropylene for outdoor use.
Unlike their humble ancestors, contemporary braided rugs offer endless choices – round, square, oval, rectangular in standard or custom dimensions to fit any setting. Patterns and colors range from bold stripes to subtle hues. Some braided rugs replicate the traditional patterns that date back to the 1800’s when braiding was in its heyday. Others set out in a striking, creative new direction to impart a contemporary interpretation to the traditional braided rug with vertical, concentric and cross-sewn braids. Some rugs are even made using ‘micro-braids’ for enhanced color variation. Reversible rugs enable the homeowner to change the décor with the changing seasons. No wonder the simple braided rug is experiencing a renaissance – finding its place in homes from the seashore to the mountains, lakes, and prairies. Quite simply – the braided rug is as American as apple pie!
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