I made my first penny rug about 2006. This was a piece of black wool felt cut into a circle, maybe 8 inches in diameter. On to it, I blanket-stitched smaller circles in a variety of colors, in a circle. The blanket-stitching was purposely very visible in black thread atop the bright colors.
This penny rug was the first of many, many penny rugs I made. They are called rugs, but they are usually decorative table mats or wallhangings. Each one was entirely hand-cut and hand-stitched, all by my own design. They were all very colorful, and often created in a family of colors – say, blues or browns.
I was inspired to make the first penny rug after a trip to Indiana, during which I toured a historic home. It contained many original furnishings. Among them was an actual small floor rug, created penny-style, very faded and worn. I had never seen one before, and I have never seen another quite like it. I could not get it out of my mind.
I came home and did a little research, discovering that penny rugs were a Civil War era phenomenon. Old wool clothing and blankets were repurposed to create the rugs. The penny part came in supposedly as pennies were sometimes inserted to weight the rug. I’m not buying that part of the story. If you’re repurposing your old wool clothing, you’re pinching those pennies, too. Besides, wool lays down all by itself just fine.
A more likely explanation is that pennies could have been used to trace the smallest circles.
I’m not sure I buy any of the explanations I’ve read. No matter. For whatever reason, I became driven to make these things (and still struggle with the urge, complicated now by my vegan views!)
Through the years, as I labored over these creations, I’ve given much thought to their design and materials. It’s all very simple stuff, really. Mostly solid colors and circles. Mostly carefully chosen, repurposed textiles. That’s pretty much what you’re working with most of the time.
But the more I worked on these things, the more symbolic they became to me. In later years, I titled them. I gave much thought to what the circles represented, how they related to each other, and the space around them. I carefully considered textures, stitches, colors, and the repurposed history of the textiles.
In the end, it became obvious to me that they comprised a metaphor for individuals and communities, a subject very dear to me. Each circle was like a person, and there it was fixed in place in a community of other circles – a panoply of colors that worked whether they were randomly placed or carefully selected by tone. Together, they all danced.
And then within the array of circles, that original circle was overlaid by two or three other, smaller circles, a small unit of its own, a tribe or a family, if you will, within the larger community – creating its own history.
I suppose it seems silly to imbue this much meaning onto my lowly craft, but, it is, in fact, there when I look at, or make one of my creations. There are always deeper significant nuances to each particular work, as well.
The very lone circle itself – it is both finite and infinite, isn’t it? Like each of us.