Originally penny rugs were made from scraps of dark wool fabric or felt from used clothes and hats and were used as mats to clear mud and dirt off shoes. They were named penny rugs as they were made of three different sized circular medallions layered on top of each other. The top medallion was the size of a penny, though in the 1800’s pennies were larger than they are now. Sometimes pennies were actually sewn into them to help weight them down and make them lay flat.
They were backed with burlap, heavy canvas, or recycled pants’ materials. When a circle of wool on the rug wore out, it was replaced with another circle. These rugs were embellished with colorful wool yarns that were hand dyed using vegetable dyes. Blanket stitches were sewn around each circular medallion, which added strength and durability, making them quite functional.
Penny rugs were strong enough to withstand being beaten with a rug beater to remove mud and dirt. Washing them was done infrequently, by hand in a tub, usually outside and then hung out to dry in the shade to prevent sun fading.
Eventually penny rugs evolved into a traditional and colorful folk art. Women used their remnants and scraps of wool from making clothes, or “turned” wool from used clothes to make their penny rugs. They would use bits of material too small to be used for strips for hooked rugs.
Designs evolved from the simple circular medallions into colorful works of art with primitive appliquéd patterns of various animals, stars, hearts, flowers and other shapes. Personal and elaborate stories were communicated through them using designs that included people, their homes, various scenes and landscapes, thus transforming their scraps into wonderful works of art and story with elaborate stitching.
Decorative edging also became part of the art. Scalloped edges or tabs cut in the shape of teardrops or tongues were added and many of these were decorated with appliquéd circles of wool using colorful blanket stitching.
Penny rugs have recently made a “comeback” and are used to cover beds for warmth and decoration; or to decorate table and mantel tops; decorative and colorful pillows; wall hangings or pictures or throws for the backs of sofas. Variations of penny rug art have moved into quilt making as well, and almost every quilt show will have at least one wool penny rug style sampler. They are both a delight to see as well as to create and sew!
Penny rugs should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible to avoid sun fading. When not being used they should be rolled up, right side out, not folded as the fold may discolor and wear. Penny rugs may best be kept wrapped in a clean sheet to store them and NOT be stored in an airtight bag which can cause dry rot. It is now recommended that they be washed as little as possible and only spot cleaned with a damp sponge. If washed, use cool water and woolite and rinse well and lay flat to dry. (I like to use tape rollers on mine to remove dust and lint.)
Information compiled and summarized by Jane McMillen using the following references:
1) “Rug Hooking Tips/FAQ’s” http://www.paytonprimitive.com/rug-care.html
2) “Button Rugs have their roots dating back to the early 1800’s when they were called Penny Rugs.” http://www.clairemurray.com/PennnyRugs.cfm
3) “Old Time Rugs—Penny Rugs, Penny Rug Patterns” http://oldtimerugs.com
4) “The History of the Penny Rug Article 1” http://ezinearticles.com?The- History-of-the-Penny-Rug—Article-1&id=1641406
5) “History of a Penny Rug by Rag-a-Muffin Collectibles http://sites.google.com/site/ragamuffincollectibles/hsitoryofpennyrugs
6)“Penny rug” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennyrug