Shaker-Inspired Carpet

A few months back, I left a weaving guild meeting energized and agonizing over the fact that there were 25 miles between my weaving room and me. I was just that inspired by Shaker scholar, and accomplished weaver and spinner, Roben Campbell’s presentation on Shaker textiles. Thank you to Roben for providing the inspiration for this article, as well the historical information I’ve included. Thank you also to my friend Diane Howes who was kind enough to provide me with some photographs of similar rugs she took on a visit to Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The Shakers follow a mystical tradition based on feeling divine presence within, defined by light and love. Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, was born in Manchester, England in 1736. After being imprisoned several times and wanting to avoid further persecution, she left for America in 1774 taking a group of followers with her. In the early 1780s, a period of religious revivalism in America, Mother Ann went on a missionary tour to gather new recruits to the Shaker way of life. While the seeds were sown for many Shaker communities throughout New England, she was again persecuted, and died in 1784, weakened after enduring harassment for her beliefs. From 1820 to 1850 there were 4,000 to 6,000 Shakers, though numbers began to dwindle after the Civil War. The Shakers regarded all humans as equal regardless of gender or skin color, with Brethren and Sisters sharing leadership.

Diane Howes Shaker rug photo

Photo of Shaker Rug by Diane Howes

While the Shakers may have numbered relatively few over the years, their influence on American design is unmistakable. Their woven textiles were usually created using plain weave with little embellishment. Roben shared many beautiful samples of Shaker textiles from the Fruitlands Museum collection (http://www.fruitlands.org/) during her presentation.

Melissa's shaker rug

Melissa’s Shaker rug

What struck me as most interesting were the carpets. After mostly restricting myself to the speed limit on the way home, I tore through my stash looking to see to what I had on hand, for I had decided to weave myself a carpet runner inspired by Roben’s examples. They showcased an interesting technique where clockwise and counterclockwise twisted yarns were woven in alternating blocks creating a zigzag effect. I should point out now that the carpet I wove is a long way from being a faithful replica of the carpets woven by the Shaker Sisters. It is instead inspired by the simple brilliance of these carpets.

Don’t let the idea of spinning your own weft deter you from this project. It took me less than 30 minutes to spin up about 140 yards of weft yarn, half clockwise, half counterclockwise. The twist direction is also often referred to as s twist or z twist, as the angle of the twist can be represented by one of the letters: z for a clockwise twist and s for a counterclockwise twist. If you don’t have access to a spinning wheel, and/or you are not a spinner, chances are you can find someone who is through your local yarn shop or maybe even Ravelry. This could be the perfect time to take a spinning lesson! Or you could hand twist the weft. Each weft section uses about 8½ yards of yarn, and you can always alter the size of each section to use a shorter length of weft. Get a friend and a fringe twister to help out! You will want to wind the yarn into a skein and wash it to set the twist. Here is a good description of how to set twist (http://www.joyofhandspinning.com/yarn-setting-twist.shtml).

Diane Howes Shaker rug photo

Photo of Shaker Rug by Diane Howes

Diane Howes Shaker rug photo

Photo of Shaker Rug by Diane Howes

During the time period of Shaker carpet production, the 1830’s through the 1940’s, madder (red) and indigo (blue) dyed yarns were the preferred colors. Green yarn, dyed using copper kettles and over-dyeing indigo, brown yarn, dyed from butternut trees, as well as natural white yarn were also used.

To create my Shaker-inspired carpet, I selected several Valley Yarns 5/2 cottons in red, blues and white to create a sample weft. Using five strands, the resulting multi-colored yarn was thinner than the weft yarn I was looking to create. I decided that this would make a good hem that could be folded under to create nice edging, so after washing to set the twist, I set it aside.

I wanted a good carpet yarn weight that would also be soft underfoot, so I turned to some slightly heavier wools. Choosing worsted weight yarns in a

deep red, a deep blue and some of my beloved natural white Southdown, I was able to create a weft yarn with more loft and heft. You aren’t creating a perfectly balanced yarn; you are trying to create a visual effect.

Earlier warp threads were natural white or dyed with indigo. My indigo dye vat had a bit more color to give before being retired to the basement for the winter, so I set out to dye my warp. I selected an 8/2 wet spun, undyed, unbleached linen. As my vat was on its last leg before needing to be refreshed, the resulting yarn was a pale, earthy blue. I decided that surely the Shaker Sisters would have found this “waste not, want not” approach acceptable.

I liked the look of the twisted weft sections combined with the wool strips, but didn’t have any wool on hand that would fit the bill. I found some hand-dyed, pre-fulled wool yardage for rug hooking online at the Moondance Color Company (http://www.moondancecolor.com/). I selected a half-yard (16” x 54”) of the duck egg blue and a half-yard of the homestead red. I had four 1” x 27” strips left when my rug was completed, so this turned out to be the perfect amount. I cut the strips using a rotary cutter and a large square.

In Shaker carpets, the wool strips were a medium weight wool flannel, cut to 3/8″ – 1/2” wide and folded twice (also used in braided rugs from the same time period). I did not fold my wool strips, so they are a bit less tidy looking. One thing I think I would do differently would be to cut the last 3” at the end of each strip at an angle so there would be less bulk when they are woven back in. The overlap in my rug creates its own visual effect along the edges.

I encourage you to be creative with this project. There are so many ways to combine color and texture to create your own personal Shaker-inspired carpet.

Melissa's rug on the loom

Melissa’s rug on the loom

The Project

Loom: Baby Wolf or a floor loom able to weave your desired carpet width

Warp yarn: Valley Yarns 8/2 wet spun, unbleached linen – 390 yards

Warp length: 108” (3 yards)

Width in reed: 26”

Ends per inch: 5

Total ends: 130

Weft yarn A: 70 yards z twist yarn made by plying three strands of worsted weight yarn in various colors

Weft yarn B: 70 yards s twist yarn made by plying three strands of worsted weight yarn in various colors

You could also use sport weight yarn and increase your yardage.

Weft wool strips ~¾” x 27” – I used 66 total strips

Weft header: Enough thin (5/2 cotton, for example) to weave about 3” at each end

 

Cutting strips of wool weft

Cutting strips of wool weft

This rug is woven using a combination of the following:

12 sections each of 12 picks of z twist followed by 12 picks of s twist weft

6 sections of wool strips woven red-blue-red-red-blue-red

5 sections of wool strips woven blue-red-blue-blue-red-blue

Finished and unfinished hems

Finished and unfinished rug hems

To weave:

Hem – 3”

12 picks z twist weft

12 picks s twist weft

6 wool strips red-blue-red-red-blue-red

12 picks z twist weft

12 picks s twist weft

6 wool strips blue-red-blue-blue-red-blue

Repeat four more times

12 picks z twist weft

12 picks s twist weft

6 wool strips red-blue-red-red-blue-red

12 picks z twist weft

12 picks s twist weft

Hem – 3”

Finishing the hem

Cutting strips of wool weft

When putting the wool strips in place, I grasped them at either end and stretched them taut. This elongated each strip and caused them to curl just a bit so that they were neater in appearance in the weft. Once the carpet was off the loom, I used my sewing machine to zigzag stitch the ends secure and trimmed the warp ends down. I then folded the ends over twice to enclose the cut edge, and hand stitched in place.

I washed the carpet using the wool setting on my front-loading washing machine. If this setting isn’t available to you, or you’re nervous to try it, hand washing in lukewarm water with a bit of gentle detergent is also a good option. Once you have rinsed your carpet, roll it up in a towel and press to remove excess water.  Lay flat to dry.

Pre-wash dimensions: 23” x 61 ½”

Post-wash dimensions: 21 ½” x 60”

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Melissa Ludden Hankens

You can find Melissa designing weaving projects for the Schacht newsletter and teaching at the Creative Warehouse in Needham, Massachusetts. Website - melentine.com Twitter - Melentine (@Melentine) Instagram - melentine on Instagram