Posted by R. John Howe on 01-06-2004 07:13 AM:

An American Felt “Rug”

Dear folks –

A little while ago, I put up a rug that I own that is partly felt and is an example of a piece in which the use of felt was not controlled by its more functional qualities. Instead, it is my suspicion that felt was used primarily because it was inexpensive, readily available in a choice of colors, and easy to work with.

Since we have a little additional time in this salon, I’m putting it up again, because it “fits,” in a way, with our felt theme here.

Here is the piece:

It is an American textile called a “Penny” rug or quilt. The field area of this piece is 17 inches wide and about 41 inches long. The border is in addition. I cannot estimate its age.

Despite the fact that I have seen a number of examples of this field pattern in pieces in antique stores over the last few years, there is surprisingly little information on the Internet at the moment about Penny rugs or quilts. What a general Google search for this term will produce, mostly, are offers to sell you kits to make such rugs. This suggests that the skills required to make Penny rugs are not advanced. And it indicates that they are still being made.

But “penny rug” or “quilts” are a kind of U.S. textile that have been made at least as far back as the 19th century. One writer estimated that they began to be appear about the time of the U.S. Civil War (the early 1860s).

Here is, roughly speaking, how Penny rugs are made. First one selects some wool felt in various colors for the circles (the “pennies”).

One then cuts circles from the felt in three sizes and sews the smaller ones (in a concentric way) onto the larger ones, being careful to combine colors attractively.

Finally, one sews the larger felt circles onto a cotton or linen backing, again arranging colors in ways that seem pleasing. The rows of circles are usually alternated with each subsequent row positioned in between the previous one.

While I like the color composition on this piece, it is the dramatic border that sets it apart for me. I have not seen another instance with this saw-toothed border.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt for a Turkmen collector that this border is done in red and that it has black edges.

I have not yet found a book treatment of Penny rugs and quilts, but there are clear indications from what I have been able to find, that this is a textile with a definite history that it will be interesting to research.

I have, so far, found only one other similar example.

This piece has a height of 41 inches and a width of 54 inches. It is indicated to have been made in New England in the 19th century. (I have recently been told by a dealer in American rugs and textiles that the “saw-toothed” border is mostly likely also a New England usage.)

I was interested to see that this 19th century piece is presented rotated 45 degrees from the posture in which I found mine and in which I have displayed it. For some reason I find the posture with the tapered ends at the top and bottom more pleasing.

I conjectured a bit about how my piece might have come to have its dramatic “saw-toothed” border. Then I discovered that there were “tongue” rugs as well as “penny” rugs. Tongue rugs usually have a center device of some sort and then the tongue-like devices are placed around it with the rounded ends outward. I have seen instances in which there is only a small center piece and the tongues are attached in overlapping circular shapes but I have not been able to find one as I write this.

But the tongues seem pretty quickly to have moved to the edge of the rug. Here is one example in which only small tongues were used at both ends.

But soon more lengthy tongues were used at the edges of the field to form a border all round. Here is a modern example:

You can see that the designer of my rug decided that she could make the border more dramatic by pointing the tongues and edging them in black.

My apologies to those who have read most of this before and fairly recently at that.


R. John Howe