Waste Not with Rag Rugs

An early folk art passed down through generations

Chris Ruwell has seen a lot of changes in her 35-year career as a family and consumer science teacher. It’s no longer home economics and no longer just for girls. But Ruwell, 57, who teaches at Merrimack Valley Middle School in Penacook, is committed to keeping the art of sewing alive. For her it’s professional and personal, a family tradition that dates back a century and looks to be continuing well into the future.

When she’s not in school, Ruwell can be seen weaving and sewing rag rugs on a 19th-century wagon wheel, which was passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her, along with the knowledge of how to make unusual “wagon wheel” rag rugs, seldom seen in this part of the country.

Rag rugs are a tradition in this country dating back to Colonial days when very little was wasted in a household — although few were being made at home by the middle of the 20th century. But for Ruwell and her family, that tradition  never really went away.

Unlike the typical oval rag rugs we’re used to seeing in our grandparents’ houses,  Ruwell’s rugs are round, with fringes — the mirror image of the heirloom wagon wheels that she uses as a frame.

“My Swedish grandmother, Fanny Stilson, who was born in 1883, and lived on a 200-acre farm in Rhode Island. She was known for taking in boarders and giving people food and a room if they needed it,” says Ruwell. “In the early 1900s, a family who had just come to America from Sweden were on their way to Minnesota in a covered wagon and asked my grandmother if they could spend the night at the farmhouse. In return, she showed my grandmother how to make a rug using a wagon wheel my grandmother had in the barn. My mother, Bessie, who just died at the age of 93, told us that on that first night they took old long underwear full of holes, ripped them into strips. But my grandmother added her own touch — vertical stripes that mimicked the wheel spokes. It makes our rugs different.”

Ruwell’s grandmother passed the craft to her daughter who passed the skill to Ruwell and her sisters-in-law. And the tradition continued when Ruwell taught her daughter, now 29, and she brings the rugs to school to inspire her students.

Ruwell says in all the time she’s made the rugs, she’s never seen any others in New Hampshire, or New England for that matter: “You do see them in the Midwest where the Swedes tended to settle, but not here.”

In the true spirit of the rag rug, Ruwell only makes rugs when she has cotton and wool rags donated from family and friends, or she finds some at yard sales. She’s just starting selling the rugs at craft fairs.

 “I’m amazed at the reaction people have to these rugs. They love the shape, they love that they’re made from recycled materials and they love the story behind them,” she says.

And the rugs are, well, rugged. “They never wear out. I still have some my mother and grandmother made.”

And now the family rugs have made the transition from folk to fine art.

“I have a nephew who is an artist and a professor at the Chicago Arts Institute. He has a couple of my rugs that appear in his paintings,” she says. “I wonder what Fanny would have thought about that.”