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What is a Penny Rug?

Guest Author - Tamara Bostwick

Lately, I have been having trouble settling into a large, time-consuming project and I enjoy hand-work, so I have been looking around for smaller, portable projects that I can sew by hand and penny rugs might be just the ticket. I can think of a few people in my circle that would enjoy receiving them as holiday gifts.

Penny rugs are small rugs or mats made by sewing wool circles together and while the concept seems to have originated in the 18th century, most of the older surviving examples were made in the mid 1800s, around the time of the Civil War. They were made by cutting leftover scraps of wool or felted wool fabric from clothing or blankets into various sized circles using coins as a template, hence the name penny rugs (19th century pennies were much larger, about the size of a modern dollar coin today). These circles were sewn together into stacks and then sewn onto a background fabric of some sort with a blanket stitch. Penny rugs were an exercise in thriftiness and recycling. The circles could be cut from the smallest of scraps and the backing fabrics were often re-purposed from other items such as blankets or burlap sacks (sadly, burlap is not a durable fabric so few of the ones backed in burlap have survived). Wool was the perfect fabric to use for penny rugs because its fibers felt together and do not fray and unravel like cotton.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
Penny Rug

Penny rugs were frequently used as decorative or protective coverings for furniture or fireplace mantels. There are two types of designs, those composed completely using circles and those that combine circles with appliqued figural and decorative elements such as birds and flowers. The rug edges could simply be turned over and stitched or embellished with additional shaps like teardrops or tongues. The color palette of antique rugs was dominated by dark colors: blacks, browns and greys with an occasional hit of brighter colors such as red or green, so color plays a large role in the design of penny rugs. Geometric designs like diamonds and triangles could be created by the way the stacks were arranged and placed on the background. They are beautiful in their simplicity.

Modern day penny rugs vary widely. Traditionalists, wanting to create authentic looking rugs use wool fabrics in similar colors to those used historically and treat the fabrics with over-dying to create an aged look. Others interpret the designs in a more modern fashion, using modern day felts and bright colors.

Interested in making your own penny rugs? There are numerous free and paid patterns available on the internet. Below, I have listed the free patterns that I was able to locate as well as a few pattern vendors. To avoid a monotonous look, the most attractive rugs use a large variety of wools in various colors and patterns which can present a challenge for a beginner who does not have a large stash of wools. To simplify this process and diversify your designs, you can purchase small pieces of wool fabrics or pre-cut wool circles on Etsy or eBay.

If you use wool to make your penny rug, they require some special care to preserve the wool. To clean a soiled item, it is best to use a home dry cleaning kit or better yet, take your rug to a professional dry cleaner. If you do use any type of cleaning product at home, be sure to spot-test it on the back of the rug in an inconspicuous spot to be sure it won't stain or otherwise damage the wool. When it comes time to put away your penny rug, be sure to store it safely to protect it from wool-eating critters. Click to learn more about the basics of moth proofing.

Free Penny Rug Patterns and Tutorials

Penny Rug Harvest Table Runner
Valentine Penny Rug
Penny Candle Mat
Penny Rug Posy Table Runner
Christmas Tree Penny Rug (link opens a .pdf)
Penny Rug Table Cover (link opens a .pdf)
Hippity Hop
Warm Hearts (link opens a .pdf)
Valentine penny rug tutorial
Snow Flurries
Lighthouse Penny Rug

Basic Penny Rug Tutorials

The Makings of a Penny Rug, by Colleen MacKinnon
Tips and Tutorials
This site has a long list of tutorials on various aspects of penny rug making

Free Penny Rug Inspired Projects

Penny Purse Tutorial
Penny Rug Pincushion, Needlecase
Felt Penny Wreath
Penny Rug Ornament
Wool Penny Coaster Directions
Penny Tea Towel
Wool Covered Magnets

I hope you enjoyed reading about penny rugs! I am looking forward to starting on my first project!

Looking for more penny rugs? Check out these books!

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Content copyright © 2015 by Tamara Bostwick. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Tamara Bostwick. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Cheryl Ellex for details.


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