Left over, left over, right over middle: a guide to making your own braided rugs.
Although I never met Gwendolyn Brunelle, she has - indirectly - taught me how to braid rugs. Born and raised in North Woodside in Dartmouth, NS, Gwen died there in 1997. Fortunately for me, her husband Paul, who learned the craft with Gwen, is a wealth of advice.
The Empire Loyalists, whose lives are recreated at Kings Landing Historical Settlement in New Brunswick, brought their version of the craft with them from the 13 American colonies. Lois MacDonald, craft coordinator at Kings Landing, believes that the tough, utilitarian nature of the braided rugs probably meant they were used in high-traffic areas of the home.
Over time, braiders began to incorporate different strands of colour into rounds, creating patterns such as the arrowhead, diamond, double-diamond and rickrack (a narrow, zigzag braid used as trimming). Finer wools were made into intricate hooked rugs used for living rooms (parlours) and bedrooms, although lesser qualities of hooked rug continued to be made.
Scott Robson, curator of the history collection at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax, says that various qualities of rug were made for different tasks - including rougher ones for kitchens.
Gwen's interest was piqued in the late '50s by a couple of examples of mats that were falling apart, illustrating that some things didn't work. She knew she didn't want to make mats that way. With the help of a book on rug braiding from her family, some patience, practice, and help from Paul, Gwen figured out how to make tightly braided rugs, which are still on the floor of their home.
After meeting Paul, and seeing Gwen's rugs, my own interest was piqued, and I started learning this craft. Here are instructions based on what I have learned so far.
- Woolen fabric in variety of colours
- #6 linen thread
- Sewing thread
- Beeswax (optional)
- Measuring gauge or ruler
- Tape measure
- Sewing needles
- Darning needle or lacing needle (available online)
- Braid aids (optional)
- Braid Klamp or sewing bird (optional)
- Large safety pins
- String and clamp (optional)
- Brick and sock (optional)
- Needle nose pliers
Step One: Gather some woven woollen cloth. A chair seat mat, like the one illustrated here, will take less than 2 lbs of fabric. Check out yardage and used clothing, or contact woollen mills for mill ends and scraps. Choose fabrics that are similar in thickness, so that the mat wears evenly, but you can thicken lighterweight braiding strips by lining them with another lighterweight fabric. Thick fabrics can be torn into narrower strips to thin them down. Tweedy colours are great as background against which bold solids can stand out. Plaids and stripes make for interesting braids.
Step Two: Launder and rinse all items in warm water on the gentle cycle and hang to dry. Take all the clothing apart at the seams, removing linings, pockets and buttons, and so on. Gwen often dried the mill ends or clothing on the clothesline where they became wonderfully soft.
Step Three: Tear some 1½"-wide strips parallel to the weft, and roll the strips into balls. Use the stretch test to work out which is the weft. Hold a piece of fabric in your hands 1-1½" apart, and pull gently; the weft will stretch slightly, the warp will not. You can cut the strips; however, it will take longer and, as Gwen felt, the soft edges of the torn strips will fold more easily and "snuggle together very softly."
Step Four: Choose three strips in colours that go well together to make a T-start. Note: dark colours in the centre of a mat will look like a hole, so start with at least two light strands. Using the photo as a guide, join two of the three strips together with a diagonal seam: the outside of the orange strip faces down, and up on the red-green plaid. Trim the fabric to within ¼" of the seam. Lay the strip flat and, with the insides facing, fold both edges into the centre (see photo). Sew down for 2" on each side of the seam. Take the third strip, inside up, and fold 2-3" of both edges into the centre and then fold in half along the centreline. Oversew the seam. Make a T: lay the tube, with its fold on the right-hand side, at the centreline and at right angles to the diagonal seam and sew into place (see photo 4b). Fold the top edge over and oversew it for 2" on either side of the diagonal seam. Slide the braiding tools onto the strips (see photo 5).
Step Five: To get all the seams on the right-hand side, braid left over middle, and right over middle, but twist it so that the seam is on the right. Right-hand seams are always on the inside of the mat, which is important on the final round.
Step Six: To create the centre of the round mat, pass left over middle, left over middle, and right over middle, pulling tightly. Keep raw edges concealed and the seams on the right as you repeat the process until the resulting circle of braid is 3" in diameter. Place a safety pin through the braid as a marker and do one round alternating left over, left over, right over middle, with left over, right over, left over middle. Anchor the braid as you work; I use a large safety pin tied to a pillar, and Gwen liked to hold her work down on a tabletop with a brick in a sock. A safety pin will stop the end of the braid from unraveling.
Step Seven: Braid straight for the rest of the chair mat. Join new colours with a diagonal seam in combinations that please your eye, staggering them to reduce bulk. Straighten out folds and wrinkles on the underside as you go.
Step Eight: Once you have completed a length of braid, begin constructing the mat. Use a blunted darning needle and 3 feet of linen thread. (Gwen waxed her thread to preserve it.) Work on the underside of the mat. Knot the end and hide it close to the first bend, then sew the loops together, working toward the T-start. Begin lacing at the turn by the T-start. Slip the needle between loops on the side of the mat and into the adjoining loops on the braid being attached. Never skip a loop on the mat itself, but you may have to skip the occasional loop on the braid. Hide any exposed threads. Use a flat knot to join more thread. Make braid, and lace it on until you have reached the required size.
Step Nine: The last 8" of braid are tapered. Cut the strips 9" beyond the end and slip the braiding tools off. Taper the strips. Fold, oversew the edges, and braid to the last 1½". Lace the tapered braid on. Weave the inside end into the
Step Ten: Iron the mat under a wet tea towel to flatten it. Thank you, Gwen.
The Complete Book of Rug Braiding, by Helen Howard Feeley (Longmans, Green and Company, Toronto, 1957)
The Braided Rug Book: Creating Your Own American Folk Art, Norma M. Sturges (Lark Books, 1995)