Friday, February 3, 2017

A History of Penny and Sewn Rugs

Did the original makers of penny rugs collect wool from friends,
 cast offs of family clothing, perhaps from mail order samples from woolen mills or maybe scraps from seamstresses?  Collecting until they had enough to create a planned rug, or worked the pieces like a quilt until it was large enough to assemble?

What are critics, collectors, and makers saying?
A penny rug is a compilation of scraps of the household
and imagination of the creator, designed from what was provided or collected.
 One’s desire to make something from collected pieces.
Not unlike a quilt, a penny rug is a story of the day.

Handcrafted "ruggs" were used to cover beds for warmth, cover table tops or hearths, for decoration and purpose. They can be found in very large sizes showing wear.
Is that an indication that they were walked upon or just well used on beds, tables, chests, and hearths?

 Earlier pieces done on burlap are difficult to find in good condition, as burlap can break down over many years of storage. A large piece of wool was seldom used as a backing because it was too precious. Not all penny rugs were made up of circles. An appliquéd pattern depicting things like animals, people, primitive shapes, flowers, homes, and festive scenes, have come to be known as penny rugs. 

Where did handcrafted penny rugs originate? Settlers may have brought rugs and techniques with them from their European homelands.

Excellent examples of antique penny rugs can be found in the following publications
and articles.

American Hooked and Sewn Rugs, by Joel and Kate Kopp, the sewn rugs found on page 123 through 130 are wool stitched on wool, cotton, or linen.
They date from 1835 to early 1900.

Quilts, Coverlets, Rugs & Samplers by Robert Bishop. The two appliquéd rugs in this book are on pages 296 and 297. Both are described as wool on wool.

A quote from the Bishop book; “Hints for Collectors. This unusual rug is in good condition and would make a fine addition to any collection. Rugs made before 1850 are fairly rare, since many homes had no textile floor coverings well into the 19th century. Made for tabletop or chest, rugs like this were never walked on. Therefore, they are usually in good condition.” Then, referring to the second featured rug, Bishop goes on to say “Few such elaborate early 19th century rugs were made, and of those, even fewer exist today. Not within the means of most collectors, a piece like this is very expensive.”

Quoting from Ami Mali Hicks, her book The Craft of Hand Made Rugs, published in 1914. Page 53 The Scalloped Doormat or Tongue Rug… “It’s tongue-shaped unit or scallop is cut out of odds and ends of woolen cloth, and sewed on a burlap foundation. These scallops should never be made of cotton as cotton does not wear well with this treatment. The more closely woven the fabric of which the scalloped doormat is made, the more serviceable it is. Loosely woven cloth is apt to fray. Old bits of broadcloth are a satisfactory material to use.” Does Ami refer to woolen broadcloth in her day as what we have come to know as cotton broadcloth?

In October 1952 for a Popular Science and Mechanics magazine,
 Eleanore Engels
writes about using old hats.

 In this article Eleanore describes making rugs that would be used for floor covers.
 “For these rugs, use either felt or extra-heavy woolen fabrics
    (broadcloth or flannel) which don’t tend to ravel, or a combination
    of felt and fabric. You can use lighter weights if you sandwich 2
    or 3 layers of cloth together to give proper thickness. You can use
    all new felt, obtainable by the yard in 72 in. widths, from
    department stores or mail-order houses; combine it with salvaged
    materials, such as old hats, discarded billiard and pool table
    coverings, old college pennants and blankets, industrial felts (from
    paper mills), and scraps left from the manufacture of athletic goods
    such as jackets and bowling shirts. (Try Salvation Army store,
    Goodwill Industries and rummage sales for old hats.) Don’t use fur
    felts or tissue felts—they are too soft to be durable under foot.”

When researching you will find that some rugs have decorative edging, done with elongated pieces resembling the shapes of teardrops and tongues. Tongues may also be known as lamb's ears, scallops, shoe heels, clam shells or pen wipers. There is much history about these truly homemade cottage craft rugs.

These photos are examples
of rugs done in the tongue and penny styles.
They appear well worn.
Were they used in light traffic areas such as bedrooms and baths?

This rug was found on auction site
Description reads:
1880-1890 felted wool table rug in a layered clamshell pattern, each row stepping higher toward a central damask panel decorated with appliqued hearts and a floral sprig whose leaves are stuffwork hearts. This rug was actually used and shows wear in several areas with missing overcast stitching and wear to the central motif. Despite that, the design is clear and vivid and with judicious restoration could be spectacular. 42” x 30”. Stitched on linen with a red

This rug was found on eBay wildbunny4
Early Antique Hand Stitched Penny Rug 40" x 40" Late 1800s | eBay

This rug was found on site
Penny rug, 27" x 41", very good condition, no holes or tears

Further references can be found in
Time Life Books
 American Country; The Needle Arts

Page 93 begins the chapter “For the Table” with penny rugs
 and appliquéd rugs shown on pages 96 through 101
“reaching their peak in of popularity around the 1870s, appliquéd table rugs were part of a Victorian fashion for making highly decorative, but largely useless, handicrafts to fill every corner of the home” …”they were purely ornamental, and might be placed on a parlor table .... “to create an “artistic” vignette.”

The chapter goes on to feature illustrations and varying compositions including the penny or “button” rug. The book has a wonderful collection of American needlework including samplers, bed covers, as well as hooked and braided rugs.

Don’t just settle on that issue; look further in the Folk Arts edition (on page 142) to find more appliqué rug references. Here again it is mentioned that the rugs were used as coverings for tables and chests instead of being placed on the floor.

Penny rugs are great fun to research, follow and create.
There are many craft magazines and more recent publications that reference them. Take a look back through your own collections.
Perhaps you have issues that were kept from earlier generations.
Search thrift stores and book sites to find
colonial, country, Victorian, folk art, craft or décor books.

Following is an excerpt from The American Folk Art Museum article

“Appliqué is a nineteenth-century term for an earlier needlework technique known as applied-work. Historically, appliqué has had many uses in clothing, upholstery, bed furnishings, and quilts. By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, it had become a popular technique used to make table, hearth, and floor rugs.
Appliqué involves cutting elements from one fabric and sewing them onto another, larger foundation fabric. The technique lends itself to original geometric or pictorial compositions created through the use of single-layer or multilayered applied elements. Most appliquéd rugs are made primarily from wool, often in dark, saturated colors. Finer details may be added through embroidery and appliqués cut from lighter-weight fabrics. The room-size Appliquéd Carpet in this exhibition is a highly unusual example of this technique because of its monumental scale and dazzling imagery.
By the mid-nineteenth century, appliqué became the basis for a type of table rug known variously as a penny, button, coin, or money rug, whose primary design motif is a circle. The rug could be composed of same-size circles that were cut using a template and repeated across the surface, or of multiple circles cut in graduated sizes. The latter were stacked in decreasing size order, with the smallest on the top, and then sewn onto the foundation. Embroidery, often buttonhole stitching, was usually added around the circumference of each circle. Penny rugs were finished into geometric shapes-square, rectangular, oval, or hexagonal-and remained popular into the twentieth century.



  1. Interesting and your examples are BEAUTIFUL!

  2. Fascinates me how these things are so much about social history and perhaps a desire to have something practical but also attractive in lives.

    1. Exactly! And then folks wanted "store bought". Handmade is far superior.

  3. Beautiful work Colleen. Just came across this article and was so happy to see your name pop up in the comments. Nice article on the history of Penny rugs!