Monday, August 25, 2008

How to make a rug from recycled materials

From Rags to Rugs—making recycled rugs and mats from plastic bags, twine or cloth

(Originally published April 10, 2008 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

If you haven’t heard about the plastic trash vortex, swirling slowly in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii, you soon will. Some say it’s the size of Texas, threatening great numbers of sea creatures who get tangled in it or ingest it. You may have opted long ago for canvas bags in lieu of paper or plastic when you shop. But to use up any old stash of plastic bags you or your neighbors may have (some supermarkets also collect used plastic bags for recycling) consider making a plastic bag mat.

Plastic Bag Mat

What you need:
· Plastic shopping bags
· 2 or 3 large garbage bags
· Large rectangular piece of cardboard
· Ruler, pencil, scissors

The cardboard serves as the loom and strips of garbage bags create the warp. The finished rug will be about 3” smaller than the piece of cardboard. Cut ½-inch wide by 1 ½-inch- deep notches, spaced 1 ½-inches apart, along the top and bottom of the cardboard. Cut the garbage bags open at the sides, and then into long, 6-inch-wide strips. Knot the strips together, then create the warp by wrapping them around the flaps created by the notches, and up and down the length of the cardboard. Tie the beginning and end diagonally across the back of the cardboard.

To weave the grocery bags, clip the handles, slit the bags down the sides to open them out flat, and tie the handles of first bag to the warp at the top corner of the cardboard. Weave the bag in and out of the warp, alternating the pattern with each row. Tie the handles of the second bag to the end of the first and continue weaving. Be careful not to weave too tightly or the sides of the rug will start pulling in towards the center of the loom.

When the weaving is complete, slip the warp off the loom and push a row or two of the weaving out to the ends of the warp. Cut the diagonal warp on the back and weave the ends into the rug. See for helpful photos of the process. The finished rug is probably not abrasive or strong enough for a doormat, but definitely works as a soft beach or gardening mat.

Hay Twine Rug

I first read about a way to reuse plastic hay bale twine in Craft Magazine—where they described making an outdoor rug with a purchased board loom, such as the Knifty Knitter. Instead of using plastic twine, I made my knitted rug with a roll of medium weight jute twine. (Jute is one of the cheapest natural fibers, and is 100% bio-degradable and recyclable.) There are also several websites ( and others) that give instructions for making yarn from plastic bags, which you can then knit using the board loom or regular knitting needles.

The Knifty Knitter—the oblong version—is a hand-held plastic loom that allows you to knit without needles. The loom length determines the width of your rug, so look for the longest one (18-inches or longer) you can find. It comes with a plastic needle, a hook tool, and directions. With jute or any fiber that doesn’t stretch, you have to knit very loosely. Once you get the hang of it, the rug goes fairly quickly. The finished product has a very loose, decorative weave, suitable for a placemat or small patio rug.

Field of Flowers Rug

To use up fabric remnants (even old clothing) and create a rug without the use of plastics, you may want to consider making a rag rug. Generally, rag rugs are made one of three ways:

· by using burlap (hessian) as the foundation, and pulling lengths of fabric through the weave (hooking, prodding and clipping are various methods—see “Making Rag Rugs” by Clare Hubbard)

· by braiding lengths of fabric, and then sewing the braids together in a round, oval or other shape

· by weaving fabric strips in and out of warp threads, with or without a loom (see “Twined Rag Rugs” by Bobbie Irwin for the myriad ways this can be done)

I was initially inspired to make a woven rug when I came across a rug sample called “Little Field of Flowers” in a San Francisco boutique. (See for a beautiful little promo film featuring the artisans who make Nanimarquina’s extraordinary rugs in India.) “Little Field of Flowers” is hand-dyed, hand-loomed 100% wool felt. My rendition is synthetic felt flowers, woven into a rag-rug on a simple hand-made loom. To make the loom and the rug, all you need is:

· 7/16” doweling
· 2 1/2” x ¾” sanded pine board
· Drill with 7/16” bit
· 1 1/4” finishing nails
· Hammer, ruler and white glue
· Cardboard and string
· Plain black yarn
· Rotary cutter and self-healing mat
· Synthetic felt for flowers (figure 1/2 yard for each square foot of rug)
· Strong knitting yarn for warp
· Non-raveling fabric for weft
· Scissors, paper, pins

“Rag Rug Inspirations” by Juliet Bawden shows how to make a simple loom. Basically, you make the long sides from dowels, glued into holes drilled into pine boards.

Pound nails at regular ½-inch intervals along the length of the pine boards to hold the warp. Add the warp by stringing yarn (or even cloth remnants) up and down and around each nail, from one side to the other. Triple the yarn at the beginning and end to strengthen the selvage edges.

Weave a 3-inch-wide loom-sized piece of cardboard in and out of the warp threads and press it against the lower nails. Weave a doubled length of yarn in and out several times close to the cardboard to hold the rug edge in place when it is cut from the loom.

To speed up the weaving process, weave a 1 ½-inch wide loom-sized piece of cardboard through the warp threads. Fasten string to either end of the cardboard through two small holes to create a “shed stick.” When the shed stick is turned on its side, it will create a larger gap, which makes it easier for you to pass the fabric through the warp in one direction.

Cut lengths of fabric about ½-inch wide—the “weft”—using a rotary cutter and mat. Using the shed stick to raise alternating warp threads, weave the first fabric strip through the warp threads, leaving a 4” tail to be tucked into the next row. Continue weaving in the opposite direction, under and over the warp threads. Use the shed stick to push the weft firmly down into straight, even rows.

Draw 2- to 3-inch flower patterns onto paper, connecting each set of flowers by a short strip of fabric. Wrap the connected flowers around the warp threads periodically to create a layer dense enough to cover the weft fabric, about one set every 8 warp threads.

Finished with a doubled weft thread as at the beginning, leaving about 3” of warp thread. Cut the warp threads from the nails, divide into groups and braid into a fringe, or weave them back into the rug. Add a backing to provide extra strength.

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