Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

When Rugs Weren't for Floors

~ the use of blankets, bed rugs and coverlets in Colonial America ~

We know that quilted bedcoverings were rare in early Colonial America. These few beautifully quilted wholecloth quilts were found in the homes of the wealthy. This leaves us wondering what ordinary folks used to keep warm on cold winter nights. The information for this period is sketchy. As every day bedcoverings would have been used until they were worn out we have to turn to letters, journals and inventories for most of our information.

Blankets were available, as they are well known in history as trade items with American Indians. In fact blankets were a common form of bedcovering in early colonial America much as they are now. The blankets of the time were usually woven wool and varied in quality from a twill of rough wool to soft wool brushed into a fine nap. Colors were usually white, blue, green or red sometimes including contrasting stripes across the ends.

find  this book at amazon.com While we all know about blankets few of us have ever heard of a bed rug or 'rugg'. Yet bed rugs were widely used in the1600s. In his dictionary written of 1755 Samuel Johnson defined bed ruggs as "course, nappy coverlets used for mean beds". 1 These rugs are believed to have been knotted shag although we cannot be sure, as there are no surviving examples of these early bed rugs. These bed rugs were manufactured in England using lesser grade wool. By the mid 1700s bed rugs appear to have been owned by rich and poor alike. One wonders if there was variety in quality or if old bed rugs were simply passed on to those in need. Most of what we know has been found through early records of ownership and words on a list don't tell the whole story.

Quite a different type of bed rug began to appear in the late 1700s and continued to be made into the 1800s. A few examples of these hand made rugs can be found in museums today. The transition between the manufactured bed rugs and the decorative hand worked rugs is uncertain but one possibility might be found in the patriotism of many women preceding and during the Revolutionary war. These women were determined to put their hands to work making their own products rather than buy anything imported from England.

Textile researcher Lynne Bassett explains that hand made bed rugs were done with needle and yarn usually on a wool backing. Many were embroidered with a running stitch left loopy on the top. The tufts could be cut giving a shaggy appearance. Others were flat-embroidered in a variety of darning stitches. She points out, "The definitive characteristic, though, seems to be that they were completely covered with stitching of some sort, either in a solid color, or worked in a decorative pattern."

In her article on the Foote Bed Rug 2 Bassett describes its stylized design with leaf and floral motifs on a large scale with the center displaying long flowering stems flowing from a vessel. Although this bed rug was made in Connecticut during the late colonial period it was inspired by earlier renaissance design. On the eve of the battle of Lexington patriot Abigail Foote wrote, "I carded two pounds of whole wool and felt Nationally." 3 Abigal and her sisters Mary and Elizabeth were all involved in making bed rugs. Pictures of Foote bed rugs can be found online here.

click for pictures of this coverlet

The other form of bedcovering we find listed in records from this early period is the coverlet. Coverlets appear to have been mainly decorative and were found primarily in more well to do households. These coverlets were woven with wool, linen and cotton. Inventory records indicate that people sometimes prepared the fibers then paid to have them woven into a coverlet. 4 Another form of bedcovering we find listed in records from this early period is the coverlet. Coverlets appear to have been mainly decorative and were found primarily in more well to do households. These coverlets were woven with wool, linen and cotton. Inventory records indicate that people sometimes prepared the fibers then paid to have them woven into a coverlet. 2 The coverlet pictured on this page comes with a similar story of a woman who had raised the sheep and spun the wool then took the yarn to a weaver. Click here for a full picture of this elegant coverlet.

2002 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author)

References:

1 P19, "Early Colonial Quilts in a Bedding Context", by Sally Garoutte, Uncoverings 1980

2 "Design Influences of the Foote Bed Rug and New England's Wool Whole-Cloth Quilts", by Lynne Zacek Bassett Textiles in New England II: Four Centuries of Material Life, The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 1999. Boston University Press, 2001.

3 P66, I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation 1600-1920 by Donna M. Lucey

4 P66, Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, "Bedcoverings in Kent County, Maryland: 1710-1820", by Gloria Seaman Allen

Read about bedrugs and hooked rugs at "A Few Loops of Hooked Rug History"

For more information go to Colonial Women: Their Quilts and Quilting


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