Stephanie is helping to keep a traditional craft alive
It’s the ultimate make-do and mend, giving old and worn-out clothes a new lease of life as eye-catching rugs.
And helping to keep the tradition alive is Stephanie Gaston, who first fell in love with the craft almost a decade ago.
Until the mid-20th century rag rugs were a common sight in working-class homes, helping to protect families from cold drafts and keeping feet warm and toasty.
Older generations may remember helping to make them as a child or sitting on them at their grandparents’ homes.
They were made from old sacks and strips of old clothing, sheets and other fabric such as scraps from dress making.
It was a time where everything was used and nothing was wasted. Now Stephanie is one of a number of people helping preserve the traditional craft which had been born out of necessity.
“I like rag rugs because they’ve got a history. In the early 1800s, they didn’t have fitted carpets, they would have had quarry tiles or packed earth and later lino – which would have been awfully cold.
“These rags would have added a bit of comfort and anything was better than bare floors. I have quite a reference library now of books and I’m really interested in learning about all the different techniques that were used. I know of about 40 but there were lots more and they were different depending on the area of the country where people lived,” she explains.
Stephanie, who lives in Telford, has always been interested in sewing and knitting from an early age and also learned to crochet.
Then nine years ago, one of her friends who was moving on to other crafts introduced her to rag rug making and immediately she was hooked.
“She gave me her rug tool, boxes of rags and showed me how to do it. You end up making more rugs than you could ever have in your own house, so I started selling them at craft fairs.
“I found that a lot of people were more interested in learning how to do rag rugging so I began doing demonstrations and talks for WI groups instead,” says Stephanie, who is a member of the Heritage Craft Association.
Each rag rug begins life from a hessian base and different techniques such as progging and hand tufting are used to pull or push the material through the backing.
“I generally work with t-shirts that I buy from charity shops and other recycled materials. I tend to choose items that have already got holes in and can’t be worn again. I only use adult clothes, I wouldn’t cut up children’s clothes.
“I’m also lucky that I have some friends that do other crafts and give me their scraps. These will be fabrics that I wouldn’t go out and buy new as that’s not what rag rugs are about but these are leftover scraps that I’m recycling and turning them into something else. It means I get to work with some lovely fabrics like Harris Tweed and cashmere.
“I also raid the bargain bins in charity shops. I once bought some silk scarves that were 10p each. If it’s going to be a rug it needs to be hard-wearing like t-shirt material as you don’t want it to fray. Finer materials like silk and cashmere might be used for cushion covers or wall hangings,” says Stephanie.
Although she might have a design idea in mind, she says it’s important to be prepared to change it depending on the availability and quantity of the fabric.
“You don’t want to get halfway through and run out of a specific colour so a lot of thinking goes into the first half as you have to judge how much material you need. You may have to adapt it as you go along and experiment with different colours.
“You could go into a whole town of charity shops and not find the colour you want so you have to let it evolve and be willing to try new things.
“There is a quote by textile designer Kaffe Fassett, whose work I really like, which says ‘don’t be afraid of wasting time experimenting’” explains Stephanie, who collects vintage rag rug making tools.
One of her favourite pieces is a poppy rug which now sits proudly in her living room. Measuring one square metre and weighing around 6.5kg, it’s the largest project she has undertaken.
“I never realised how many different shades of the same colour there were. It wasn’t just about finding the right colour, but the right shade of red for the petals. It really gave me an appreciation for colour.
“I was really pleased with the final result and I use the image for my logo and business cards,” Stephanie tells Weekend.
She recently spent around 40 hours completing a rug, measuring 145cm by 45cm, for National Trust-run Attingham Park, near Shrewsbury where she also volunteers.
Hundreds of ‘rags’ measuring 9cm by 2cm were used to create the finished piece which has been placed in front of the fireplace in the bothy in the walled garden.
When she’s not working on a project, Stephanie enjoys giving talks explaining how she came to be a rag rug maker and how she sources materials and works out a design.
“I’ve had some people in tears because of the memories seeing a rag rug evokes. It makes them think of people from a long time ago who are no longer here. I personally don’t remember rag rugs from when I was younger but a lot of people do,” she says.
“I enjoy passing on my skills to others who want to learn how to make rag rugs and I love the challenge of learning techniques and turning what is considered to be waste into beautiful items,” adds Stephanie.