Colorful, cozy rag rugs are enjoying a resurgence as folks rediscover the frugal beauty of their ancestors' home goods. Photo by Adobe Stock/Jana
Rag rugs have been around as long as frugal folks have set aside worn clothing until they found something useful to do with the fabric. Besides keeping bare feet off ice-cold floors in winter, rag rugs added a pop of color and hominess to interiors that didn’t have much else going for décor — think of those rough log cabins and sod houses our ancestors lived in. Not many of those homesteading-era rag rugs are left; families simply used them until they wore out completely. And rag rugs fell out of fashion for a while in the 20th century.
You can recreate this pioneer style in your modern home by upcycling old fabrics to make your own creative, colorful floor coverings. Making rag rugs requires only the most basic sewing skills — just a simple stitch to hold the braids together. So, put your natural frugality to use and start gathering up that old fabric.
To prepare your fabric, you’ll need to remove any pockets, zippers, buttons, and collars, because they’ll be hard to braid and will make the resulting rug lumpy. For the same reason, we recommend you use fabrics that are similar in weight. Old bed sheets from thrift stores make great rag rugs, because they’ll be nearly identical in weight — and they’ll also be easy to tear into strips. Think about how you plan to clean your finished rug, and take that into account when choosing fabrics. Whether you’re using old or new fabrics, pre-wash them so any shrinkage happens before you make your rug — and so you’re working with clean fabric.
After the fabrics have been washed, you’ll need to tear or cut them into strips. This will be the most time-consuming part of making a braided rag rug. If you plan to cut the strips, a rotary cutter will work great. You can also use scissors, but it’ll be hard on your hands and you’ll likely need to rest frequently. This is a great project to work on in the evenings, sitting in front of a cozy fire (or the television). To store the strips until you need them, simply roll them into a ball as they’re finished.
We’ve found that strips about 4 feet long are the easiest to work with. Any longer than that, and the ends will become tangled as you braid them. You can fold the edges of the fabric strips in to create a more finished look — that is, a rug in which frayed edges don’t show. Our photographs show how we folded the strips with our fingers as we worked. Some tattered edges still show in the finished piece, but we don’t mind the rougher look. We used a contrasting yarn to sew the strips together so you could see it better in the photos, but you may be happier with a complementary color that won’t stand out on the finished piece. Choose yarn that’ll stand up well to wear, because it’ll be the only thing holding your rug together.
Our finished rug is oval, but it’s fairly simple to make a circular rug using the same instructions. You’ll need to turn the braid in a tight circle at the beginning of the stitching process, instead of laying it adjacent to its own end for several inches. Making a circular rug will probably be more difficult for beginners than an oval shape.
There’s no limit on how large a rug you can make following these instructions. We’ve seen braided rag rugs that almost fill a room, and the effect is stunning. But the larger a rug becomes, the heavier and bulkier it will get — and those characteristics will make it difficult for you to work with. If you’re new to making rag rugs, begin with a small project, such as a hearth rug, a doormat, or a table decoration, to see if you enjoy the process. Tiny rag rugs also make charming coasters and trivets.
You’ll need about 8 yards of fabric to make a 2-by-3-foot rug, depending on the fabric thickness. In general, you can estimate the fabric you’ll need in yards by multiplying your desired rug length and width in feet, and then multiplying that measurement by 1.25. For our example, 2 times 3 equals 6, multiplied by 1.25 equals 7-1⁄2 yards, which gets rounded up to 8 yards, because you don't want to run out of material mere inches from the end of a project. Very large and very small rugs will break this rule.
You can use new yardage or gathered scraps to make your rag rug. Photo by Getty Images/MaxCab
Tools and Supplies
- 2-1/2-inch-wide fabric strips
- Tapestry or yarn needle
- Binder clips
Step 1: Pick up three fabric strips and lay them on top of each other with the ends evened up. This will be the beginning of your rug, and it will be located at the center of the finished product.
Sew the strips together at the evened-up end. (You can knot the ends together, too, but we prefer sewn ends, as they’ll lay flatter in the finished rug.) Sew the strips together 1⁄4 inch from the ends with a running stitch — down and up again as often as needed, through all three layers of fabric.
Use a large binder clip to secure the tapered, sewn ends to a table, to prepare for braiding. Photo by Rebecca Martin
Step 2: Use a pair of scissors to taper the sewn ends so you end up with a blunt point at the center, about 1⁄2 inch wide. Begin the taper 3 to 4 inches from the sewn end. Don’t worry about cutting through the stitches you just made; the strips will stay together long enough for you to get started on the braid.
Braid the pieces as you would braid hair, crossing first the left, then the right strand over the center. Photo by Rebecca Martin
Secure the tapered, sewn ends to a table or other flat work surface. We’ve found large binder clips to be an easy and inexpensive way to accomplish this.
Step 3: Before you start braiding, trim the free (unsewn) ends of the fabric strips to varying lengths, with about 6 inches in difference. Trimming the ends to different lengths will make it easier to add additional strips of fabric, as explained in Step 5.
Step 4: Now you’re ready to braid. If you’ve ever braided hair, you know the basic three-strand braiding technique: Pick up the right strip and move it to the center, sliding the original center strip to the right. Then pick up the left strip and move it to the center, sliding the new center strip to the left. Repeat.
Make as much braid as you need for the entire rug in one long piece. Photo by Rebecca Martin
NOTE: Our photos show braiding using flat strips we folded by hand as we worked. You can also work with pre-folded strips. As you begin, think about how tight you want the braid to be. To make the final product look uniform, maintain the same tightness over the entire length of the braid. A tighter braid will stand up to heavier use better than a looser one, but it’ll also require more fabric and will take longer to make.
Simply overlap the ends of old and new strips by a few inches to anchor the new strip in your braid. Photo by Rebecca Martin
Step 5: Eventually, you’ll approach the end of the shortest strip. To continue braiding, you’ll need to lengthen the strip by introducing a new one. Overlap the ends of the new and old strips by about 3 inches, and continue braiding. We suggested trimming the ends of the original strips to different lengths in Step 3 because the rug would be lumpy if all three strips were overlapped at the same point — and because having so many joints in the same part of the rug would weaken the structure.
Some rug makers like to sew the ends of the old and new strips together. This isn’t strictly necessary — the braid itself will hold the ends together. However, if you prefer a sturdier rug, you may very well want to sew each new strip onto the end of the old one.
Step 6: Continue braiding until you have enough braid for your intended project. When you’re finished, you can use binder clips to keep the braids from unraveling. You can also braid several yards, stitch that length into the beginning of a rug, and then continue braiding. Either way, you’ll be making a single, very long braid for your rug; attaching separate braids would mean having rather lumpy joints between the end of one whole braid and the beginning of the next.
To create an oval rug, turn the braid back on itself a few inches from the start, and stitch the edges of the braid to each other. Photo by Rebecca Martin
Step 7: Now it’s time to pick up the needle and yarn, and stitch the edges of the braid to each other in either an oval or a circle. Start by threading the needle with about an arm’s length of yarn, knotting the end, and stitching through the beginning of the braid — the part you clamped to the table. If you’re worried about the yarn working free, you can knot it around one of the fabric strands and tuck the tail into the braid.
It's very important that you work on a flat surface for Step 7, as this will encourage the finished rug to lay flat and smooth. Photo by Rebecca Martin
To create an oval rug, turn the braid back on itself a few inches from the start and stitch the edges of the braid to each other. The easiest way to stitch the braids is to slide the needle under alternating braid loops, rather than through the fabric. Make sure the braid lies flat as you stitch. It’s very important that you work on a flat surface for this step, as this will encourage the finished rug to lay flat and smooth.
To make a circular rug, you’ll have to begin with a very tight turn of the braid. Stitching a tight turn may take some practice before you get it right. Try making two stitches through the outer braid for every one through the inner braid, to ensure the center of your rug is firmly stitched, without accidentally making a rag rug bowl instead.
Step 8: You’ve braided as much as you need to create the size of rug you want, and now it’s time to finish the piece. The next step is to unbraid the fabric strips about 1 foot from where you wish to stop, and use a binder clip to keep the rest of the braid from unraveling. Trim all three strips so they’re the same length. Take your scissors and taper the edges of the strips, beginning about 6 inches from the end and terminating in a blunt point. Unclip the braid and finish braiding all the way to the rug’s blunt ends. Because of the taper you cut, the braid will narrow gradually to the end.
To disguise the end of the braid, tuck it under a loop of the adjacent braid before stitching. Photo by Rebecca Martin
Stitch the strips to each other at the tip, and then stitch the tapered braid to the edge of the rug. If you want to disguise the very end, you can tuck it under a loop of the adjacent braid before stitching.