Weaving Shaker Rugs by Mary Elva Congleton Erf

Weaving Shaker Rugs: Traditional Techniques to Create Beautiful Reproduction Rugs and Tapes by Mary Elva Congleton Erf (affiliate link)

Erf is an accomplished weaver who has studied Shaker textiles for at least 30 years and has woven many reproduction rugs (and other textiles) which appear in Shaker museums.  Her introduction describes the history of Shaker textile production, provides background on the Shaker Millenial Laws which governed all aspects of Shaker life including the colors used in textiles created in the Shaker villages, and tells how she discovered a familial connection to one of the Shaker communities.

In the introduction, Erf mentions that Shakers used rugs created using a variety of techniques.  However, all the rugs in the second half of the book are “weft-plied rugs.”  This term is never explicitly defined in the book, and I was confused until I got to the end of the introductory material, where she describes the general steps of recreating the rugs.  It means that the Shakers took three (or, more rarely, four) strands of finished carpet wool yarn and plied them together on a spinning wheel, using the newly created chunky yarn as the weft in the rugs.  The three strands were each a different color, creating a barber pole look in the new yarn.  Sometimes the new yarn was plied with a Z twist (spun in a clockwise direction) and sometimes it was plied with an S twist (spun in a counterclockwise direction).  Often, one rug contains both Z twist and S twist yarns.  The Shakers placed Z and S twist yarns next to each other in the weaving, which creates chevron patterns.  Wool fabric strips were used as weft to separate patterned sections of the plied wool weft.  The book focuses on the weft-plied rugs because this style is known to be created by the Shakers themselves not commercially made, the technique is unique, and several examples of original weft-plied rugs still exist.

The second part of the book describes the process of reproducing approximately 20 specific rugs which are part of museum collections.  This section of the book is organized by Shaker community; the rugs represented in the book come from five different communities in the eastern United States.  For each rug, the author starts with a page analyzing the details of the original rug, including the dimensions of the rug, the type of yarn and fabric used for warp and weft, the twist direction of the weft yarns, and any other distinguishing characteristics.  She also includes at least one picture of the original rug.  This analysis is followed by the details of how to reproduce that rug, including which yarns and fabrics she used and which Cushing acid dyes she used to make colors that match those in the original rug.  Many of the rugs are finished with handwoven bias tape; the book also includes analysis of the tapes and instructions on weaving them.

For the most part, I enjoyed reading this book.  I loved seeing pictures of the original rugs and the many marginal boxes containing quotes from the dyeing and weaving journals kept by the Shakers.  I did find the book to be rather repetitive, but a good deal of that repetitiveness reflects an expectation that people won’t read the book all the way through.  For example, in the introduction, at the end of every description on how to create a reproduction rug, and in the Glossary, Erf explains that the finished rugs will need to be pressed with a heavy iron and that she has a dry cleaner in her town who will do this for her.  Even if you’re skipping around in the book, you aren’t going to miss this potentially important information!  Some of the repetitiveness is not so easily forgiven.  The introduction is particularly disjointed.  I think of the introduction in this type of book as one long essay.  In this book, each heading within the introduction is like its own essay, with much repetition of information under other headings, particularly of the Millenial Law quote prescribing certain color schemes, but allowing that “other kinds now in use may be worn out.”

I’m always on the hunt for fiber arts books that are more than just patterns or drafts.  I love books of essays or history and detailed techniques.  Weaving Shaker Rugs has all of this, as well as detailed instructions for making the Shaker-style rugs.  Since following the instructions requires flipping back and forth between the general instructions in the introduction, the pages for the specific rug you’re attempting to reproduce, the glossary, and cross-references in Peter Collingwood’s out-of-print book The Techniques of Rug Weaving, I expect it will be challenging for anyone, especially a new weaver like me, to actually create a Shaker rug using this book.  While the projects are more involved than I’m ready to take on as a fledgling weaver, I did learn a lot about the Shakers and rug weaving.  I enjoyed reading the book from cover to cover and will keep it on my shelf for when I’m ready to tackle a Shaker-style rug!

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