Penny Rugs: Boot Scrapers to Placemats

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The penny rug has humble beginnings, but the beauty of this textile art has endured for more than 200 years.  Homemakers in the 1800s never let anything go to waste, so old clothing, hats, and blankets would be recycled into mats or rugs.  They would use coins as templates to make circles of different sizes, (hence the name “penny” rug) which were then sewn together in a variety of designs using a blanket stitch.  The name “penny rug” also has roots in the practice of sewing pennies inside the rug to make it lie flat.

19th Century Pennsylvania Penny Rug, Photo from J.Compton Gallery

Initially, penny rugs were used as door mats. Concentric circles were layered in stacks of three to give enough texture to clean the bottom of boots.  Burlap bags or feed sacks would also be reused to served as a backing to the rug to make it sturdy.

However, as time went by the penny rug evolved from a boot cleaner to a beautiful way to decorate the home.  Circle designs became more elaborate and were often fused with traditional folk art images, (i.e. quilt patterns, animals, trees, flowers, etc.).  Penny rugs got up off the floor and started adorning everything from tables, dressers, mantles, and even beds!

I started making penny rugs about six years ago.  They are a fantastic alternative to buying placemats that no one really likes and searching endlessly for a table runner that never truly fits the table!  In addition, penny rugs are a wonderful decorative touch for holidays and changing seasons.

Here are some of the penny rugs I’ve made over the years, (with exception to the 19th century Pennsylvania penny rug):

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While penny rugs look to be very intricate, most are actually very easy to make.  The most traditional layouts consist of nothing but circles, so the most difficult part of the entire process is deciding what colors to use.  Thick wools and flannels come in a variety of colors and patterns.  Raid the closet for fabric scraps or visit a local fabric store for a wide selection of wool felt.

The tradition continues to evolve as penny rugs now come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and patterns.  Modern motifs and folk art mainstays combine seamlessly with the classic penny design. Get those needles out and start stitching!

Penny Rug Wisdom:

  • When using felt, be sure to use 100% wool, (or at least a 70/30 blend).  The acrylic stuff warps easily and pills, while the real thing is incredibly sturdy. Besides that, wool felt has a more traditional look that befits a penny rug.
  • DMC Pearl Cotton #3 is an ideal thread to use for stitching.  It’s thick without being chunky and strong enough to handle the weight of wool felt.  When working with smaller pieces, use 2 strands of DMC embroidery thread.
  • Tapestry needles are perfect for wool appliqué.
  • The only stitch you’ll truly ever need is the blanket stitch. I love this stitch because it’s simple and it hides little mistakes.  Stitch School has a great tutorial on a blanket stitch, here.
  • Always work in layers.  Complete the rug one layer at a time in a way that allows stitches to be hidden and protected by subsequent layers.
  • Always put a backing on a finished piece!  It makes the penny rug more stable and it protects/hides all knots and stitches under the design.
  • Use a tiny dot of Aleene’s craft glue to hold a piece in place prior to stitching. This may sound like cheating to some, but I’ve found it be a lifesaver when laying out pieces. Trust me, it works!
  • The best way to transfer a pattern to wool is to use freezer paper that has one side coated with plastic. Trace every piece of the pattern (if the pattern calls for 26 circles, trace 26 separate circles).  Cut out the pattern pieces and lay them on the wool plastic side down.  Press them down with a hot, dry iron until all edges are completely bonded.  This makes it so much easier to cut out each piece without the pattern slipping.  The freezer paper will peel right off when no longer needed.
  • There’s no such thing as making too many penny rugs!

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c.b.w. 2012

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24 thoughts on “Penny Rugs: Boot Scrapers to Placemats

    • Lol! 🙂 You should have heard the discussion my husband and I had over the title for this piece. We tried every combination of words until this one came out of the blue.

      Sometimes I pre-wash, depending on the texture I want for the piece or whether I’ll be using flannel in conduction with the wool. For a more rustic piece I’ll wash and “nap” the wool, while a more modern piece I’ll work with wool right off the bolt.

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  1. Your interests and skills in crafts amazes me! Very cool thing to make. I have a TON of material that I’m trying to get rid of if you’re interested. All kinds, from silky see-through stuff to heavier upholstery material. I tried, single-handedly, to keep JoAnne Fabrics in business when it was on Cave Creek and Cactus.

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  2. I had never heard of Penny Rugs. this was a delightful read, not only some history, but samples and technique tips as well. Thank you. I’m saving this post as I think this would make a great winter project!

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    • Penny rugs were once a popular craft, but its sad to see they are slowly becoming a dying art. 😦 I intend to keep the tradition going and I love hearing you are inspired to make one yourself.

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  3. Wow! Again I am blown away with your knack for crafting of all kinds! I enjoyed reading the history of penny rugs, something I haven’t come across in my research yet. You have created some gorgeous pieces using the penny rug technique. I am in total awe! 🙂

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    • Aww, thanks! 🙂

      I knew a little bit about the history of penny rugs, but I was amazed at how scant information is about them. It was even tougher to find images of antique penny rugs from before the 20th century. The boot scraping element must have destroyed most of the original textiles!

      Social history like this is what I love to study the most, so I’m glad you enjoyed reading about this tiny part of frontier life. 🙂

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  4. I’d not heard of penny rugs. Very cool tradition that you are keeping alive. I think we would all be better off if we had a bit more of that “waste not, want not” philosophy in our lives.

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  5. sherri kight

    I just happened upon your site and article. Thank you for the wonderful idea. My best friend and I are going to attempt this. Thank you again.

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