Artist of the Month: Lou Morgan Weaves Mennonite Rag Rugs
Mennonites are a religious group known for living simply. They’re also famous for their colorful, handmade quilts - usually made with patterns that have been around for generations. But less well-known is another craft Mennonites make out of fabric scraps - throw rugs.
Lou Ann Morgan of Climax weaves on a cast iron loom. It’s been in her family for more than a hundred years. Her rugs will be on display at Sarkozy Bakery in Kalamazoo for two months starting in March.
Morgan isn’t Mennonite herself, but her dad’s side of the family is. When she was little, she would wear a dress to visit them out of respect for their culture:
“Climbing trees in a skirt was always challenging I thought - that’s one thing I remembered. But there were also some very beautiful things. They didn’t own a television, so in the evening you would gather around a piano or an organ and sing. And there were just some wonderful times like that.”
Morgan says weaving rugs out of rags and clothing scraps is a pretty common Mennonite hobby. She says they don’t like to let anything go to waste. Morgan says her grandpa even had his own rug business in the early 1900s.
“He did farming in Michigan in the summer, but he wanted a winter source of income," she says.
To make the rags into a kind of yarn, Morgan cuts them into strips, ties the ends together, and rolls them into a ball. She feeds the rag thread into a fly shuttle - the part that you weave in and out of the stretched loom - and then it’s time for this hundred year old loom to work its magic.
Morgan says the fly shuttle is automatic - which means it will shoot the rag thread back and forth across the loom all on its own. Almost like when a typewriter resets.
“So I can kick along and weave pretty quickly. And you do get a workout as you weave,” says Morgan.
Morgan says setting up the loom takes several hours - and usually requires two people. But once all the threads are set in the loom, she can weave a standard size rug in about two hours.
The rugs Morgan makes are sturdy and thick - about the width of a pencil. She says Mennonite rugs can be pretty simple - usually with two stripes down either side. But Morgan says she likes to experiment with different designs and materials. She even made a throw rug entirely out of plastic grocery bags from Meijer.
Morgan says her grandfather liked to make his rugs fancy - sometimes with a checker pattern.
“He would enter his rugs in the county fair and in the state fair so that he could win ribbons and then he could tout that these are award-winning rugs,” she says.
Morgan says one of her favorite techniques is called “hit and miss.” That’s where you throw a lot of different colors together in a box and pull scraps out of the box at random and sew them together. Morgan says she did this when she made a hallway runner for her daughter:
“I used the color scheme in her wool area rug that she had in the living room which is right next to the hallway. I picked out like five colors in that rug and then I went and collected those colors over the course of six months.”
Morgan says there’s a lot of nostalgia in these old rags. Some of the balls she has on her shelves were made by her grandmother. Morgan remembers weaving with her mother and finding familiar fabrics:
“I’d outgrow a pair of shorts and a shirt - and same thing with my brothers. And then as we would weave along from a hit and miss ball - which is all multicolored - it was like, ‘Oh, I remember that pair of shorts!’ And weave it in there.”
You can see Lou Ann Morgan’s Mennonite rag rugs at Sarkozy Bakery in downtown Kalamazoo. She’ll have them up for the next two months, starting with Friday's Art Hop.