Meet Monique. She learned how to weave using an antique barn loom that she obtained from her friend’s grandmother. She watched videos online and learned from her sister how to use the loom. Now she’s recycling old t-shirts and fabric in a new way on a handmade heirloom that has a new life. This is her story.
Monique loves crafts. She always has. Ever since she was young, she’s been knitting, crocheting and sewing. When she learned that Eilene, her close friend for over 40 years, had an old barn loom in her garage that she was trying to get rid of, Monique enthusiastically jumped on the opportunity to have it.
The loom belonged to Eilene’s mother Lily. Lily’s father built the machine in the 1940s for her mom (Eilene’s grandmother) to make ‘rag rugs’. Rag rugs were made out of old t-shirts and fabric. Instead of throwing their clothes out when they were stained, ripped or ratty, people would instead turn them into homemade woven rugs. “We would use our own clothes,” says Lily, “or my mother would go to the landfill and find clothes that she washed and cut up to make rugs. It was worth a lot of money to make them into rugs”.
Lily used to spend hours watching her mom. “She taught me how to use it when I was about 15,” she says. “I remember one summer, for the whole summer, I made rugs. I sold them and made over $100. I would have been 18 at the time and that was a lot of money back then. If someone wanted a certain colour in their rug I would charge more because some colours were hard to get. I would usually charge $6 but it depended on the length. I think the largest one I sold was about $8. Mostly they were between $4 and $6. At the time they were hard to sell because so many people had those machines”.
Lily: “Some people would sit and knit at night, but my hobby was cutting t-shirts and making rugs. I had blisters from cutting so many shirts”.
For many years Lily would make rugs on her machine in her basement, but when it came time for her to move, she put the machine in her garage. “While it was in the garage,” she says, “it got moved around so much that I couldn’t remember how to put it back together. I had it a certain way so I would remember how to set it up but I wasn’t sure if some of the pieces were missing. Once the pieces were all over the garage I gave up. So I just left it there”.
Lily’s grandson brought the loom to Eilene’s house with the intention of restoring and selling it but they couldn’t figure out how to put it back together. Years later, Eilene was cleaning out her garage and wanted to make some room by giving it away. She mentioned it to her friend Monique whose sister owns several looms. The thought of owning the machine piqued Monique’s interest but she had never tried it herself before. She knew she could count on her sister to help her so she decided to take it. Monique says, “it was an heirloom from my friend’s grandmother so I wanted to keep it. I’ve known my friend almost my whole life and her grandmother had become my grandmother”.
Lily says: “I’m glad that it’s now being used and wasn’t just thrown away”.
Renewed Life & Learning
Due to the large size of the loom (about 6′ x 6′ in size), Monique had to find space in her house for it. “My husband looked at me and said ‘where are you going to put that?'”, she jokes. “I told him I would figure it out and I did”. Monique made room in the corner of her sewing room in her basement where it fits just perfectly.
Once it was all set up properly, the next step was to learn how to use it. “I watched a lot of videos on YouTube for the first two months,” she says. “Then my sister came over to show me how to use it. It would probably take about a weekend to learn how to use it if someone is there to show you”. As Monique continued to watch videos and read about techniques online, she would share this with her sister. “I’ve showed her things that she didn’t know. So it’s helpful that we’re sharing knowledge and getting better together”.
The most complex part of learning how to use the loom was threading it. Depending on the pattern, there are often several hundred strings that need to be threaded in a certain order through the machine. One mistake could mean having to re-thread it all, which could take hours or even days. This was something that Eilene’s mother Lily struggled with. “She didn’t know how to thread it,” says Monique. “There used to be a man in their neighbourhood who would go around threading everyone’s looms back then. But now I’ve learned how to thread it by watching videos on YouTube, and there’s different ways to do it”.
Cording is threaded through the heddles
Monique uses wallpaper to separate the threads as she rolls them out
Hundreds of threads are used to weave a rug
A reed (left) and weaving comb (right)
The ratchet turns the roller as the rug gets larger
Foot pedals (treadles) are used to move the heddles up and down which hold the threads
She explains: “first you have to prepare the thread (aka cording). It has to be set up in a certain pattern to be able to weave properly. Then you have to thread it into the machine in that same order. Once you get the cording through the back of the machine, it has to be threaded through the reed and then it has to come around onto the roller. Once that’s done you can start with your fabric using the wooden tool to weave. As you are weaving, some threads are up and some are down so you pull the fabric through those threads. After you thread one side, you need to push the foot pedals to switch the direction of the strings. What was up is now down and what was down is now up. That’s how you weave the fabric”.
To make the fabric strips, Monique uses old t-shirts just like Lily did. “I use a rotary cutter to cut the t-shirts into strips. Instead of throwing them out when they’re stained or ragged, I get to use them – and my husband, Ron, gets the leftover pieces to use as rags in his garage!” “I always liked these rugs,” she continues, “I had one years ago that Lily made on this very machine. I had it for many years. I always thought how great it was to recycle old clothes. I like taking old stuff and recycling it”.
Monique using a rotary cutter to slice an old t-shirt into strips
She leaves a border at the top
The t-shirt is now in strips
She uses scissors to cut the strips on an angle
She stretches the fabric into one long strip
Stretched fabric helps weave a tighter rug
She rolls the fabric into a ball
This t-shirt is now ready to weave
Balls of synthetic fabric cut from old t-shirts
Wooden shuttles, each with a strip of t-shirt fabric on them, ready to weave
When preparing to make her rug, Monique keeps similar fabrics together. “Right now I have separated all my fabric strips into synthetics and cottons,” she says. “You should try and keep the same materials in a rug because when you wash it, if you have a mix of cottons and synthetics, it will shrink in some spots but not in others. If I have a bunch of cotton t-shirts, the whole rug will be cotton”.
Now that she’s comfortable using the machine, Monique says that making rugs can still be time-consuming. “In a night you could probably do about a 2′ or 3′ section depending on how thick your fabric is,” she says. “You can buy tools that make it go faster but I prefer the long way”. Despite the time it takes, Monique benefits from her newfound hobby: “I don’t enjoy reading at night like some people. I would rather sew, knit, crochet and now I do weaving. My husband was always out of town when he was working so my evenings were filled with things like sewing and knitting. I don’t like to sit idle so this keeps me busy. Instead of watching TV it helps me to relax. I lose myself in it. It’s a de-stresser”.
There are also physical benefits to using the loom. To weave, you need to use the foot pedals and pull back on the large reed to set your fabric into place. Monique says, “it’s actually a good workout because you’re using your arms and shoulders quite a bit. I have an injury in my shoulder so I have to keep it moving. Using the loom helps with stretching. I use it like therapy for my shoulders”.
Watch How Monique Weaves a Rug
Monique has some advice for those interested in pursuing weaving as a hobby: “You definitely need a lot of room in your house and a lot of storage!” Often you can find looms on Kijiji or by asking around in some of the more rural areas. “It’s much easier to buy a machine like this than make one yourself. They’re not cheap though – some can cost up to $15,000. Those ones are usually more complex, they may have twelve shafts where mine only has two. Those are for making a lot of patterns. I don’t do patterns right now, that’s a little too intricate for me. A machine like mine is probably worth about $2,000. I could put four shafts if I wanted to but two is good for now as I’m still learning”. Monique’s sister, who owns five looms, is much more advanced. Her looms are all different sizes. “She’s been buying her machines from Kijiji so she’s getting a lot of deals,” says Monique. “There was one valued at $3,500 and she got it for $500. You’ll see a lot from estate sales too because people don’t know what to do with them or how to use them. If you want to, you can find one on a budget”.
As for learning how to use it, you can reach out to different crafting groups in your community. “My sister goes to the weaving guild in Sudbury and she’s learning a lot from them such as making patterns”, says Monique. But for those who like to be self-taught, her advice is: “YouTube! There are all kinds of ‘how to’ and step-by-step videos. There are even courses online but I found a lot of free stuff. I’ll watch the same video over and over again and each time I pick up on something else I didn’t notice before”.
Monique: “I’m learning from old traditional ways and new online ways”
To obtain supplies, Monique visits local yard sales where she’s found great deals on fabric, cording, wool and yarn. She says with different types of fabric you can weave different things such as tea towels, scarves, table runners and more. The width of what you make depends on the width of your loom. “I’ve already been looking at a bigger machine,” she laughs.
Monique says of her machine: “I’m trying to restore it a little bit but I want to keep it mostly original. It has all of the original parts on it when Lily’s mom used to have it in her barn. There’s still the old ‘L’ clamps that were homemade and hand-welded. They call these barn looms because they were so big that people had to put them in their barns. They make good rugs that can last anywhere from 30 to 50 years”.
“The loom is about 80 years old. I love it because it’s an heirloom and it’s functional too”.
For those interested in making money, Monique advises, “I would probably sell my rugs if I was doing it full-time. Most people sell them for $25 a foot nowadays. I wouldn’t sell them for that, that’s a bit pricey. Maybe $15 or $10 a foot. It’s a lot of work though. Just doing the threading takes a long time but once that’s all set up you are good to go”. She says the rugs could sell up to $50 a foot depending on how intricate the pattern is and how large the rug is (that’s a lot more than the $4 – $8 Lily was selling hers for!)
Monique has already made two rugs and she’s starting on her third. As a memory for Lily, Monique has made one of those rugs for her. She made it using the old bedsheets that Lily had wrapped the machine in many years ago while it was being stored in Eilene’s garage. Monique explains, “I washed the bedding, cut it into strips and made a rug out of it. I’m hoping to give it to her soon”.
Get in Touch
If you also weave, are interested in learning or have questions about how to get started, Monique welcomes you to contact her via email or leave a note in the comments below.