Rugs have been made by weavers for thousands of years on all sorts of looms. I have woven many rugs on a rigid-heddle loom and have included projects for them in my books, workshops, and weave-alongs. I hear from time to time the pronouncement, “You can’t make a rug on a rigid-heddle loom.” The reasoning is often related to tension and beat. Let’s unpack this a bit.
After pondering this question, a chat with tapestry weaver, Rebecca Mezoff, shed light on perhaps where some of this focus on tension may evolve. It is a matter of scale. Good, tight, even tension is required for very large rugs (and tapestries), but smaller throw rugs sized for the largest rigid-heddle don’t have the same requirements for success.
Tension is also somewhat a result of technique. While extreme tension may or may not be required for rug weaving on a rigid-heddle loom, even tension is a must. Soft spots are a bummer in any warp, and they are an extra bummer on a firmly packed warp.
Now, I will say I find it easier to get tight, even tension on looms with additional front and back beams and rigid, non-folding bodies—or if they do fold, the loom has some kind of locking mechanism. So your type of rigid-heddle may inform how successful you are in weaving a rug.
There is also the concern that the rigid-heddle itself doesn’t have enough oomph to pack a rug firmly. With the right materials and sett, it is absolutely possible to pack a weft firmly enough to create a sturdy, long-lasting rug. All that is required is to do what rigid-heddle weavers long to do, press the weft firmly into place and (possibly) whack it a few times with your heddle.
If necessary, and it isn’t always, you can also pack the fabric further with a tapestry beater. This is best done on a closed shed. When the heddle changes position to the next shed and you have yet to place a new weft, it is considered a “closed” shed. By using a tapestry beater to press the previous pick further before you place the next one, you can further pack the yarn. To learn more about sheds, check out this blog post.
Rugs can be made from a wide variety of materials, and in this, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, don’t be afraid to use whatever you want to make a rug. Really, a rug is just a large piece of fabric you put on the floor, although with safety in mind, you don’t want something that is easy to get tangled up in and can cause falls. Using a non-slip rug pad is advisable with rugs on the floppy side. That said, rugs that last and lay flat, benefit from good materials.
In general, you want a warp yarn that has a good amount of twist, is strong, not highly elastic, and has a little bit of grip. Rug warp of various sizes is relatively easy to find online and from specialty yarn sellers. Maysville 8/4 Cotton Carpet Warp and Bockens Cotton Seine Twine in various sizes are examples of some go-to options for weavers. Pop the names into your favorite search engine and multiple weaving retailers will come up. There are also wool warps available, although you have to seek them out. I have enjoyed using Shepherd’s Lamb’s wool warps.
The weft should be firm—soft or highly elastic yarns are harder to pack evenly. Many of the yarns we can easily lay our hands on are designed to be soft and pliable for the knitter or crocheter. For a rug, you want the opposite of that. One way to test a yarn for its suitability in rug making is to squeeze it. If it compresses easily then that is what it is going to do on the loom. If it resists the pressure of your hands, then it is more likely to hold up under the rigors of weaving and wear. Think of it as the difference between white and whole wheat bread.
I demonstrate the squeeze technique in the second Yarnworker weave-along where I tackled the Simply Striped Rug from Weaving Made Easy. I started talking about yarn at about 13:38, although you may find the entire video useful when it comes to thinking about weaving a rug. This video was made before the Yarnworker School was born.
It can be a bit challenging to find these firm yarns in the larger weft sizes for rugs—something in the heavy worsted to bulky range. Weavers have often turned to fabric weft from upcycled and recycled weft materials. Thick mop cotton is also a popular choice, although it can be hard to find.
When thinking about wool, the strong, sleek, long-stapled wools, often touted for interior use, are the ones to look to for rugs as they are sturdy and resist felting and pilling. This gives me an opportunity to give a shout-out to the Livestock Conservancy’s Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em, project. There are a number of wools highlighted in this program that are prized for rug weaving. Among them, but not limited to, are Leicester Longwool, Lincoln, Navajo-Churro, and Karakul. I have also enjoyed using Halcyon Yarn’s Signature rug wools. They offer three different options.
Selecting materials is relative to your sett. Rugs are typically woven on large, open setts, somewhere between 4-8 ends per inch. How you sett your yarn depends on what your goals are. Are you weaving a thick, weft-faced rug that requires an open sett to allow you to pack the weft yarn over the warp, or are you going to let some of the warp show as you might in a rag rug? (Learn more about what I mean by an “open” sett in this post about the Sett Checker.)
We are getting ready to dive into weft-faced colorwork to create mini rugs during the Summer 2020 Weave-Along and while not a floor rug, it will give you an opportunity to explore rug-weaving techniques on an intimate scale and prepare you to size up. In this tiny format, you can be much more experimental with your materials.
Edit to add: I neglected to bring up the issue of managing the extra bulk that comes with weaving rugs. Check out the comments for some tips.