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From Pennies to Hundreds of Dollars

By Jami Wilmarth, 05/01/2019 - 18:58
Large Star Shaped Penny Rug

This large star-shaped penny rug has been my favorite since I've had it. It's complex and it's beautiful, thus, its price tag. (SOLD.)

I grew up an athlete who played basketball for her coach dad … a guy who was well-known and respected in his field of Texas High School Girls Basketball.

I laugh now, because I can hear my dad getting after many players over the years who weren’t paying attention to happenings on the court — “If you don’t want to be here, I can sign you up for basket-weaving!” (And, of course, I meant that to take "the easy way out.")

He clearly knew nothing of basket weaving or sewing or anything textiles-related that were instrumental to the beginnings, growth and success of this country. Neither did I. Then I became interested in antiques and have quickly learned to admire and appreciate the long, tedious hours involved in such activities, especially when the artistry stands out.

I haven’t just come to appreciate it, though; I’ve become enamored with all of the textiles and badly wish I had learned these sewing and weaving skills as a kid. (Trust me, it never would have happened ... I shoved those Barbies under the bed at the first sign of Dad coming home.)

One artistic endeavor that has stood out to me as especially fun is the making of the penny rug, or the penny mat. These rugs are colorful, even when they’re created mostly in muted colors: They’re logical, useful, artistic and whimsical … and they look so easy to create. But I’m pretty sure they were not nearly as simple as Etsy has created for today’s Penny Rug comeback, where the patterns and shapes can be bought ready to go. (Trust me, though; I'm still not equipped for that.)

As of today, I’ve posted nine fresh antique penny rugs in my inventory to TinCats.Com. In all, however, I’ve listed a total of 18. I would encourage you to go back to those, in addition to today’s most recent ones, after having read this blog posting, especially if penny rugs are new to you. All you have to do is click on the “penny rugs” option on the “collections” page.

Although the name implies these mats were to be used on the floor, they were not. Fabrics were much too expensive and valuable for a long while to be trampled upon. So, for awhile, these rugs or ruggs, were primarily coverlets for beds. However, they also adorned tables or covered wooden boxes or chair seats. Women back then were no different than we are today: We want our stuff to look pretty and colorful … and so did they. And women did what they could to make it happen. Penny rugs were one option.

Penny rugs were also called button or spool rugs, named after the template used for a circle back then. Pennies on rugs are graduated circles sewn on top of each other with the blanket stitch. They were made with whatever leftover scraps of material women had in their bags back in the day … nothing was thrown away! Common scraps were wool, cotton and felt.

But circles weren’t the only geometric designs used; anything significant to life was used, from birds to trees, to various animals, plants and flowers. Penny rugs with primarily circles were made around the end of the Civil War. They were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The more ornate penny rugs were made throughout the Victorian Era. Then when textile factories emerged, penny rugs took a backseat to factory-made items. Only now are we seeing a resurgence in this fun type of artistry. (Maybe I’ll have my chance!)

When it comes to buying antique penny rugs, consider a few things. First, there were no rules in creating penny rugs. They could be as simple or complex as the seamstress/artist wanted to make them. Of course, common sense tells us today that if it looks complex, it probably was. If the shape looked difficult to cut, more so than a circle, then it probably was. The seamstress could use any fabric she wanted or that was available to her at the time, and some fabrics were more expensive than others. She could use any combination of fabrics and/or shapes. She could use whatever colors suited her … but remember, she probably stuck to whatever colors and fabrics were most popular at the time, too, so this helps a little when dating a penny rug.

And think of the penny rugs as we do other sewn items we encounter: We place values on the sizes and number of stitches, as well as the evenness, just as if we were evaluating quilts.

And how well has this penny rug stood up over time? Is it falling apart? Is it in almost mint condition? Does it need a little work to make sure it remains a valuable piece of history? Can you give it a little grace in how it’s holding up if it’s clearly much older? (Of course, you can, if you are reasonable!)

But probably most important of all is how much a piece, or pieces, mean to you. "What does an individual piece speak to you? Most things are only as valuable as the value you place on them. Don’t be afraid to ask a dealer what makes one penny rug more expensive than another. Maybe he or she knows something you aren’t aware of. Or maybe that dealer paid quite a bit for a certain piece because he or she thought it was especially worth it. Maybe it’s a combination of reasons.

I have several more exceptional penny rugs coming to my site in the weeks ahead. I’m excited to bring them to you, as well as to branch out in discussing braided mats and other rugs, not to mention QUILTS!

It’s an exciting world to discover out there! I hope you’ll follow me AND contribute your own thoughts, as well.