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Friday, May 20, 2011

The Birth of a Birch Tree Rug

Today's blog is about weaving a Birch Tree Rug....

I love making these rugs--- as they are recycling at it's finest!

My weaving friend, Barb Barnett in Plainfield, Iowa, purchases big bales of an item called "Loopers".     They are factory surplus material that consists of knitted loops of cotton fabric, leftover during the process of machine knitting socks.  This loops is what is cut off after the toe seams are sewn on commercially knitted socks, and spaced in between where the next sock is started on the machine.  They come in a variety of colors mixed in with mostly white cotton loopers, from making sport socks that can bought in the stores.  These are normally discarded into the landfills.

She buys the huge bales of these leftover surplus loops from the factory, and they fill an entire bed of their pickup truck!   She drives the pickup truck right into her studio through the double wide barn doors and releases the compacting bands.... PPOOOFFF!  They explode outwards and bury the entire truck!  It takes her and a few helpers a few days to bag up the loopers into large garbage bags and prepare them for sale and shipping.

Weavers buy them in quantities by the pound, about 10 pounds for an average 50x30 inch rug.  I buy many many bags full to stock up.  I store them in tall plastic garbage cans in the garage and storage room in our house.  They take up a lot of space, but what I save on shipping is worth it to stockpile them when they are available.  I try to work in a purchase with her while driving near her Iowa farm or if she is driving near to a festival where we can meet up.   Here are her websites:

Normally, during the weaving the process, the first step is to "chain them" together.   But in this particular rug I am highlighting today, the customer wants more browns and greens interspersed in the rug.  Sooooo I am going to dye the loopers before chaining them together.

I call them Birch Tree Rugs because they look like the textured bark on birch trees of Wisconsin. They are usually cream, white, black and grey.  Unless I dye loopers to different colors.  Which is what this customer wanted--- some greens and browns mixed in.

We have a burner stand with an LP tank that is used for deep frying turkeys.  Nix on the greasy turkeys since Steve started watching his cholesterol.   We use it now for outdoor canning, dyeing, or cooking big pots of Alaskan Snow Crab Legs when the kids come over LOL!    Steve set up the burner for me in the open garage area, as it was a very windy day.   I put the loopers in mesh lingerie bags to simmer them in the water.  I add Rit dye, some vinegar to help set the dye, and some salt because we have very hard well water here from the outside faucet.   I keep three of these marked stainless steel pots for dyeing only, never cooking in them. Steve tended my dyepots while he worked in the garage.

Once they were done and dried on my big rack in the yard.. it was time to start chaining them into a long chain that can be woven on the loom.  This is a slow process that can be done out on the deck to keep the lint to a minimum, or indoors with a good vacuuming process of the entire area once you are done. 

Here are the tubs of dried loopers and the start of the chains in my livingroom

Once the chains are made, they are wound on long stick shuttles, the width of the rug to be woven.  During this process I am wearing a mask as things get quite linty and dusty.  

First step of the weaving process on the loom, I weave a 3 inch "header" of thin cotton yarns to be folded over as a hem on each end of the rug.  

This customer wanted hems instead of tied knots and fringes.  This is her fourth rug she has ordered from me, and she knows what she wants.  That is a very nice way to take orders from experienced customers who envision the finished product and can order it easily.  I also wear my mask during this process. 

This is my Union loom, made in the 1930's-40's   It had been converted from a 2 harness to a 4 harness loom by it's previous owner, the late Irene Taufner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I obtained five of her looms in a roundabout way from her estate and kept this one.  It's a good workhorse of a loom and I have woven many, many rugs on it.  The weaving process is hard on my body, especially the stomach area due to past surgeries. This part goes slower than I would like.   But at least I am weaving! 

The long narrow stick shuttles work well to get the thick chains of loopers through the loom, back and forth, back and forth---creating the rug inch by inch.  I push up the appropriate harness with my foot on a treadle, and push the shuttle through the opening, through to the other side.  

I make sure the chained loopers (called the "weft")  is laid in without pulling or being too slack.  The lengthwise threads (called "the warp")  are then clasped around the chain when I release the foot on the treadle.  I have to grab the beater handle, and pull it backwards firmly to beat the length of looped chain into place on the rug.  Change harnesses with another treadle, repeat. And repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.   haha... 

That is the mesmerizing process of the weaving that gets the weaver into a Zen mode.  Soft music playing, a loom doggie or two at my feet, birds singing in the open patio door---- I can spend hours doing this.  And I do! 

I keep track of the length of the rug while weaving via a tape measure pinned to the start of the rug.   I have to weave 13 inches of rug for every 12 inches of desired length of the finished rug.  The loom stretches out the rug under tension during weaving.   So for this 69 inch rug, I had to weave 6 extra inches of length while on the loom. Right up to 75 inches on the tape measure before starting the hem for the other end.   

Once the rug is finished, I spread diluted Elmer's washable school glue along the last half inch of the header area to hold the woven cotton threads in place. (I also did this at the beginning too)   Once the hem has dried overnight, I can cut the rug free, folded over triple layers and hemmed securely with heavy quilting thread.  

I carefully cut the rug free from the loom and carry it over to my antique Singer sewing machine.  This machine is from my Grandma Groop, which she gave me to me years ago when she was done with sewing. It is the only machine I have found that can sew through the thick triple hem areas of rugs.  It is a portable machine in a round topped wooden case, so I can take it on the road in the RV.   But while at home in the Loom Room studio, it's easier to have a flat surface with a big table behind to help catch and hold the rugs level while hemming.  My daughter, Erin, had this discarded sewing machine table from the house they bought.  Steveio put two and two together and voila!  It works for me!   

 I add my own personalized tags to the hemmed areas ----  Hey---  it's my Designer Rugs!

Once the rug is hemmed, then I take it outdoors on the deck to photograph it, and trim any stray threads...

 Here it is, a new Birch Tree Rug for my customer, Jan, from Wildomar, California.

After this pic was taken yesterday, it was boxed up, and shipped out to it's happy owner!  It is a very thick and heavy rug.  It weighed 12.5 pounds when finished.  It measures 69x33, exactly the size she had ordered. I like the variety of the browns and greens mixed in with the normal whites, creams, blacks and grays.  I sent the customer the photos of the birth of her rug. 

She wrote:

Hi!  Thanks for the pictures of my fantastic rug!  I just LOVE it!  I am so impressed with your artistic skills.  And, the prep work to get it to the loom is so interesting.  Thank you for sharing the process with the "birth" of my rug.  I am even more awed with the beautiful rugs that you create!
My rug is perfect and I cannot thank you enough.  It will look so good behind my couch where I can enjoy it every time I walk through the family room.
Take care.


  1. From dying the loopers to the final product, how many man hours did you put into this rug?

  2. Hey Judy... I would guess the dyeing would be about an hour between gathering, filling the pots, dyeing, spreading out and drying.

    The chaining up would be 2-3 hours while sitting on the deck or watching tv.

    The string of warp on the loom takes a LONG time, but I warp up for 40-50 rugs at a time, so that averages out to maybe just minutes per rug.

    The weaving of the actual rug usually takes me 3-4 hours now, but in the past (pre-surgery days) I could knock that rug out in an hour or less. I have to take breaks and go slower now. But it's a labor of love!

    My rate for pricing is $1.25 a running inch. So a 69 inch rug would be $86.25 I probably have 8 or 9 hours into making it.

  3. WOW Beautiful work!!!
    Have fun & Travel safe

  4. That was fascinating. And I love the fact that you take something most people have never heard of "loopers" and you make something beautiful out of it rather than have it take up more space in a landfill. Beautiful work.

  5. What a wonderful story of how the rug came to be! A great blog.

  6. I can't believe how much work goes into a rug like that. And how little you charge. You keep working like that and you'll put lots of Chinese out of work! ;c)

    Nice to see real, old fashioned craftmanship.

  7. I liked the "tutorial" of the rug-very nice. The rug turned out beautifully--I'll have to try loopers someday.

  8. I love the colors--great job, Karen! It was interesting to read about the process.

  9. Two notes from the rug purchaser:


    Good morning! Thank you for sharing the blog about my rug. I have always been so curious about the loopers and you have answered my questions. I knew that they were the leftovers from making socks, but your blog made it so interesting to learn more. I have two Singer Featherweights. They are little dynamos. I have made so many quilts with those machines and they just keep purring along! The loom is so impressive and to know that it has worked for you and others tells a great story. I met a weaver lady, Mrs. DeBoer, in Pipestone, MN on one of my many visits back home. She had a very similar loom and liked to work with denim. She recycled old jeans. Back in the '80's she charged about $6 for a rug which was 24" x 48". She weaved down in her basement and her husband had converted a Featherweight to a cutting machine to cut strips for her rugs. Your blog brought back a flood of memories of going down to her basement to buy rugs on my visits. I thank you for that!!!

    I am so looking forward to receiving my rug. I will let you know when it arrives. As always, it is such a pleasure doing rug business with you. I am so grateful to have found you!

    Take care.




    Good morning! The rug arrived yesterday. It is so wonderful and the colors are perfect. I LOVE IT!!! Thank you for all your hard work. I really admire your talent. Also, thanks for sharing the whole process with me.

    Take care.



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