Braided Rugs and the lost art of Colonial American handicraft
The braided rug was a central part of existence for the early American colonists, who constructed these rugs out of necessity rather than as a hobby. Using scraps of clothing and other excess materials, they made braided rugs to be used as a floor covering to provide protection and warmth in their homes. Braided rug construction is a time consuming and labour intensive task; these days people simply don’t have the time to make their own rugs, especially considering that the necessity is no longer there and one can purchase a commercially available braided rug with ease.
It was the harsh climate and the limited resources that were the two driving forces behind the proliferation of the braided rug in early colonial America. The cold winters and the wooden floors of colonial homesteads meant that any insulation to conserve heat was welcome. Pioneer women, those who hand-constructed these braided rugs, would make many different rugs in different sizes to be able to cover as much floor space as possible. The art form was passed from mothers to their daughters as an essential life skill. Young women under the supervision of their elders would make rugs to be used in their future homes. They would then store them in chests and use them down the line as a dowry!
Because of the way braided rugs were made, using a variety of different scrap materials (whatever was available), there were no predefined patterns or styles. The rugs would come together based on the materials used. Although the colours and textures came together in an ad hoc fashion often women would have their own styles and add their own flourishes. These individual touches were the braided rug crafters equivalent of a signature; often one could tell who created a rug just by looking at it.
In the colonial era, braided rugs were often used as gifts. It has already been mentioned that braided rugs often formed part of a dowry but they were also used as Christmas gifts, housewarming gifts or given to those who were less fortunate. The rugs were often made at the end of a day. After the day’s work had been completed, rugs could be constructed in a relaxed setting whilst socialising with family and friends. Tradition dictated that it was the women who wove the rugs and the men who repaired and maintained the tools.
However as time marched on and America moved away from its early settler period and into the 20th century, braided rugs lost their popularity. Instead industrial rug production took over and people bought designer rugs and machine made rugs over making their own.