The arcana of doing domestic chores by our ancestors are largely shrouded in mystery or at least really hard to discover. Writers were not usually interested in recording details of mundane everyday life – especially when it regarded low-status crafts or housekeeping – until the 19th century. Even then we have very scarce information about rag rug making before the year 1900.
It is worth noticing that in the past rugs were not frequently put on the floor and, especially before the 19th century, served rather as bed coverlets or tablecloths. Finding evidence on the origins of rag rugs presents certain difficulties not only because there are few written records, but also because they were not precious fabrics hung on walls, but utilitarian objects which were thrown out after being worn out. Nevertheless, rag rugs have been an important part of all households, wealthy and poor alike.
Cultures all over the world have always had ways of reusing materials since their production in the past required much more effort, time and, relatively, money than today. Rag rugs are the best example. They were (and still are) made from discarded clothes, leftover scraps or clippings of fabric. Little do we know about the craft before the end of the 18th century. Asia, having the longest and richest history of rug making in general, is safe to be considered the forerunner of rag rugs. Among the countries of the Old Continent, it was most likely Scandinavia to be the first to create rag floor coverings, due to their rug-making traditions being extremely strong and far-reaching into the past. They call them ‘trasmattas’.
For more than 150 years the Scandinavians have been covering manor or cottage floors with rugs produced from all sorts of leftover fabrics and this craft was passed on from mother to daughter for generations. Back then people would think twice before throwing anything away – everything that could be recycled, was. Anywhere in the Swedish countryside you could come across the so called ‘cloth merchants’. They were collecting or buying up old textile scraps in order to resell them later to the paper industry, which at the time was using textile pulp as the raw material in paper production process. In the middle of the 18th century it changed in favor of wood pulp and the demand for discarded textile snippets decreased. It was then when the Swedish rag rugs started to be produced on a large scale.
Primarily, they adorned only the affluent houses, where they constituted a marker of status. There was enough space (and special occasions) for rugs to be displayed both on walls and floors. Peasant girls were hired as maids or help at larger farms and mansions, where they had the chance to see how beautiful rugs can look on, for instance, a kitchen floor. Or they were paid to soap wash trasmattas in early spring, according to tradition, and were mesmerized by the riot of colors of the multimaterial fabric. As it happens with beautiful things, the fashion slowly started pouring into lower class cottages. The living conditions of the average villager in the beginning of the 19th century were humble. Families of 5-6 people could live under one roof in a hut called ‘stuga’, where they slept, ate and kept smaller livestock. There was no wooden floor, but a trodden soil or clay ground. No one would even think of wasting fabric scraps on putting them on the floor, when they could have been put to a better purpose. It changed in the second half of the 1800s’ and even less wealthy houses began having an additional room called ‘finrum’, which served as a representative and leisure chamber. Instantly, trasmattas became a permanent part of the Scandinavian folk culture.
Scandinavian rag rugs proved to be extremely practical, in addition to being decorative. In winter they helped in sealing all the gaps and cracks to prevent drafts; they also made the ground more pleasant to stand on and warmer. Another aspect was cleaning – when put side by side, the floor mats protected the flooring from soil and dirt and there was very little space left between them that required scrubbing after winter. The mats themselves, were, as mentioned before, washed in streams just before the dawn of spring.
The most popular trasmatta’s design was strips. In February women would set up looms (which actually took up most of the space in a common room) and initiated the many stages of the weaving process. There were numerous superstitions and rules concerning the making of rag rugs, like the one that you can not start any new work on a Friday. At the end of the 18th century, powder dyes for rag rugs appeared to enliven their colors even more. Although they were quite popular, the effect lasted through only a couple of washings before fading or vanishing completely.
Nowadays, trasmattas are more popular than ever but many practices and original weaving techniques have disappeared. Fortunately, there still are some interested in cultivating the tradition, however these Scandinavian rugs are being made rather as a hobby, than out of necessity. Nevertheless, the outcome is all the same mesmerizing, because trasmattas amaze with patterns, colors, designs and textures and constitute a perfect addendum to absolutely any interior.