Rags, Rugs, and a Mystery
I saw this picture in a National Archives blog post for Mother’s Day. The winding of the rags caught my eye. I thought I remembered reading that during the Great Depression, whole kits for rag rug weaving were sold — pre-warped looms and prepared rags for rug wefts — and I wondered if this picture was evidence of that.
The only information with it was its caption “Photograph of Mrs. Anna Price.” At that time the photo had not yet been put in the online collection, and I couldn’t get any more information. This week the archivist kindly notified me that the photo was now online — but, when I looked it up, there still was no more information!
We know this lady’s name, but not where or exactly when the photo was taken. It is in a group with 23 other photographs, most of them showing women at paid jobs. The creator is credited as “Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau. 7/1/1920 – 7/21/1967” but several of the pictures have dates of 1918 and 1919 written on them (including the one of the women rivet heaters that I posted before). Some of the pictures say they are from England. We don’t even know why all these pictures were put together — was someone doing a talk on women’s work?
So we can only gather evidence from the picture itself. When I look at it, I notice that the rag strips are cut pretty thin, and all from one type of fabric; it looks like a sheeting weight. Then I notice the piles and piles of stuff in the background, blocking part of the window. If this were a recent picture, I would think that stuff is polyester batting or stuffing, but being that this is an old picture, I am guessing that it is the sheeting fabric they are going to cut up for these rag balls.
I can’t tell what the strips are looped around — it could be the corner of a loom, but zooming in, that wood looks thin and splintery, so it could be a homemade winder, similar to the one below.
And I notice the beautifully crocheted sweater on the baby! This is not some hand-me-down, it fits perfectly.
I hope Mrs. Price was able to supplement her income by selling her crochet work!
As far as the planned use for these rag balls, I would think they are for weaving. They don’t look heavy enough for braided rugs, and hooked rugs are usually made with wool, not cotton.
So I did a little research, but I was not able to find anything about rags prepared for rug wefts and then sold to weavers, so I have no idea where I got that idea. But I have the feeling that if Mrs. Price was going to weave these up herself, the photographer would have shown her weaving. I think the fact that the photo shows just this step in the rag process means that this is what she (and her husband?) did for a living.
There were looms specifically made for rag rug weaving. Here is one in 1937, the Weaver’s Delight, by Newcomb Looms. Normally a floor loom has treadles down on the floor, that the weaver pushes with his or her feet to raise the harnesses that lift the threads. In this case, you can see that there is a device attached to the beater (on the right side of the loom, where it says “Davenport, Iowa”). When the weaver pulls the beater forward, the device will lift the harnesses in alternating fashion.
An article in Handwoven magazine said that these looms came pre-warped — which would be great, until it was time to re-warp the loom! I have not found any information about what weavers were expected to do then. Send the whole loom back, as people sent back early Kodak cameras to be re-filled with film?
One of Erasty Emvich’s sons weaving a rug in farmhouse near Battle Ground, Indiana. Mr. Emvich, tenant farmer and father of twelve children, also weaves in his spare time.
The many rag rugs in the picture above are also obviously made of assortments of rags, not big batches of the same fabric, as we see with Mrs. Price.
The picture also shows a device sold by Newcomb for pack its special rag-weaving shuttle — it’s the little stool on the left with rollers and a metal funnel.
Newcomb designed a shuttle that allowed rag strips to be drawn out smoothly from prepacked metal cylinders. To pack a cylinder, the rag strip was passed through a guide, over and between two friction rollers, and down into a funnel inserted into the open end of the cylinder. Turning a crank folded the rags on themselves in the funnel, and they were pushed down with a plunger. A dozen cylinders came with a shuttle-filler stool; each could hold enough weft for 14″ of carpeting.
Janet Meany, Paula Pfaff, and Theresa Trebon in Handwoven magazine, Sept./Oct. 1997
And here is another rag rug made from a variety of rags, in typical “hit-or-miss” style, from 1939.
Original caption –
WPA (Works Progress Administration/Work Projects Administration) supervisor instructing Spanish-American woman in weaving of rag rug. WPA project. Costilla, New Mexico
While researching these rag rugs I came upon another interesting source, a 2007 thesis on rag rug weaving by a woman who researched her grandmother’s weaving and that of other women in the community.
There is also a good article, Handweaving in the Industrial Age, 1865 – 1920, in the May/June 1993 Handwoven magazine.
So I don’t know anymore about Mrs. Price and her job than I did when I started. If you can give me any information, I would love to hear it!