Five years since receiving and test-driving a bunch of new bed sheets , we find ourselves with a glut of ripped sheets. It started as a slow wear, a kind of general softening and stretching, but in the last few months, as if part of a choreographed revolt, the bottom sheets of three original sets have each torn. One of them ripped so dramatically I woke up startled by the rrrrrip of the cotton percale beneath me, my arm stuck through a hole. Another set of sheets—linen—deteriorated more subtly, slowly losing their color and getting more and more threadbare until one weekend morning, I held the sheet up to the light and realized it was virtually see-through and dotted with dime-sized holes.
What to do with a set of worn out sheets (to say nothing of three!)? Mending seems like an obvious solution, but the sheets were worn so thin by the time they tore that the effort of mending something that would rip again so easily felt futile. Adding large patches sounded impractical and uncomfortable. Options for recycling textiles exist, but they’re limited, and our own local textile collection service explicitly forbids depositing bed sheets.
So, I decided to make a rug. I won’t suggest that braiding a rag rug is a quick and easy zero-waste solution to repurposing your used bedsheets. There’s nothing quick about making a rug, and while the actual process is easy enough, it’s a project that demands time and staying power, not to mention some muscles and balm for your soon-to-be tender pinky finger. At the end of many hours, I have one small rug (and still more ripped bedsheets). Still, making a rag rug is an exercise in breathing new life into something old, keeping precious resources in circulation, and learning a new skill. For me, that was reason enough to try.
Along with our torn cotton bedsheets, I decided to incorporate leftover cuts from curtains that I made for the French doors of our bedroom. The leftovers I had from that project were long and thin and difficult to imagine into much of anything else, but perfect for stripping down for braids.
Personally, I liked the classic flat coils of a braided and hand-laced rag rug best, so that’s what I made. I’ve tried to walk folks through my basic process below, but there’s more than one way to weave a rug—from Amish toothbrush rugs, to braid-in rag rugs, to woven beauties made complete with loom and shuttle—so don’t let me be the one to stop you from trying another route.
I prepared my sheets and scrap fabric by tearing them by hand into roughly 2-inch wide strips. For me, the easiest, most efficient way to tear the sheets was to fold a length of fabric in half and cut starter snips along the top edge, two-inches apart. Then, I could tear through two lengths of fabric at once, getting twice the number of strips from the same amount of work.
If your fabric doesn’t tear easily, a rotary cutter and a mat would be helpful, but plain old scissors also work. It should be noted that I did not measure my strips with a ruler or worry about precision. I did occasionally run my fingers down the length of a strip to get rid of shedding threads, but I generally took a laissez faire approach to both my strips and my braiding, not minding if the strips were perfectly the same size or if frayed edges peeked through the edges of the braids.
The main thing to know when braiding is that it’s helpful to have strips of varying lengths to join together so you don’t end up with a lumpy rug. I used a very simple three-strand braid technique, overlaying left, center, and right-hand strands. I started with my braid safety pinned together and later sewed it with needle and thread. To achieve tension, you can pin or tape your braid to a surface while you work. I moved my braiding operation around the apartment, starting in bed in the evening, knees knocked together, braid wedged between them. Then I moved to a chair, cookbooks stacked on the braid. I ended up having the most success standing with my braid draped over the top of a door. It stayed taut that way and I could work with longer lengths of sheet that wouldn’t tangle as I braided. [I’ll add a video of my quirky process to Instagram should you want to take a look.]
The particulars of fabric and braiding tension will mean this varies slightly, but I found that braiding three five-foot strips, yielded about four feet of braided rope. The strips sort of naturally fold in on themselves in the course of braiding and so I made a limited effort to coax them into folding folded edge-out, so the frayed edges tended toward the center of the braid. (Some rug makers iron their strips in half to have clean edges, but I didn’t feel compelled to do so.)
When I reached the end of one length of fabric strip, I added another strip with a simple rug joining technique that uses small slits cut into the ends of the fabric strips. Joining strips one by one means both that you won’t be braiding with too-long strips that get tangled and that you can space out the knots in your braid strands avoid bumps as you braid. Some folks sew the ends of each strip together as they work, but I found the below method to be quick and easy.
To join two strips, I cut roughly 1/4 inch slits in the ends of the fabric strip that’s braided and both ends of the fabric strip I planned to join to it. (Eventually every strip in the braid will need to have a slit in the top and bottom so you can choose to cut the slits all at once while prepping your fabric.)
Next I pushed the end of the new strip through the hole in the base of the working strip, then took the opposite end of the new strip and pushed that end through the hole on its opposite end (the end I had pushed through the end of the working strip).
Finally, I pulled the end of the new strip until the large loop became small a knot formed where the two strips were joined together. Then I continued braiding, incorporating the knots directly into the braid as I went.
When I had roughly 175 feet of braided rope, I began the process of lacing the rug together.
There are lots of ways to go about this, but I chose a method that uses lacing instead of sewing, meaning I used a large, blunt upholstery needle to pull linen lacing through the braided loops, instead of piercing the fabric itself with a needle or machine sewing. I tried a few different threads and strings I had at home before buying a skein of linen rug lacing thread and I’m so glad I went for the real deal. The linen thread is very strong and slides easily through the loops so it doesn’t snap or snag while tugging the braids into place.
I began lacing by forming a tight center coil that I knotted in on itself. [This video and others in the series by wool rug braider Kimberly K was helpful for me to watch as I got started.] From there, I followed a rough guideline of using an upholstery needle to pull my lacing thread needle through every other loop on my outside braid, and back up through every loop of the interior braid.
Once you have the braid and lace in hand, the process is intuitive: pushing the needle first through an interior loop of the braid on the outside of the coil…
…and then bringing the lace back up through an exterior loop of the braid on the interior of the coil. Generally, I skipped every other loop in the braid on the outside and ran the lace through every loop on the interior. I worked with about 5-foot sections of lacing to prevent too much tangling and when I needed to add more, I just double-knotted the new length of lace to the existing one and hid the knot under a braid loop.
I’ve pulled together a number of short video clips through Instagram which may help make sense of this and to fill in what I failed to document in pictures, but I promise, it was very straightforward once I got going.
In the end, my 175 feet of braided bed sheets made one 29-inch round rug. I decided to safety pin the end of my braid to the back of the rug so that I could add more lacing and additional braid should I want to. In that case, I’ll only have to join new strips to the ends of the braid and continue the process of braiding and lacing.
The rug is next to my side of the bed now, a cheerful a little orb of created comfort. It will get dirty. One day it might become so compressed and dingy gray that I’ll no longer want it on my floor. And so then it will be thing that I devoted hours of my life to that I want to relegate to the garbage pile. Of course I devote hours of my life to all sorts of things: watching the entirety of the Gilded Age in week’s time, scrolling through my phone after dark without project or point.
Was it worth it? What’s it worth? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt acutely aware of the hours that passed as I laced these braids together, the linen lace cutting into my pinky. I thought of the emails that weren’t getting answered, the book proposal I still hadn’t finished, the other blogs posts that weren’t getting written in favor of braiding a very small rug that I didn’t even particularly need. But I also kept returning to these questions: How much does it cost me to read a book? To drink a glass of wine on the rooftop as the sun is setting? To spend an hour with a friend or call my sister on the phone. Capitalism would have us separate leisure and work, pleasure and production into separate spheres. If time is money then we should spend ours wisely, outsource our work to someone else in an effort to make our own lives as optimized and efficient as possible. I’d rather make a rug.
If the question is could cheaper rugs be found, then the answer is undoubtedly. But they wouldn’t have used up my old bedsheets or familiarized myself with handling the fabric, or taught me how to pull the lace taut enough that the braids cinch together but not so tight that the rows curl in on themselves. There’s value, I think, in the know-how itself; something to be gained from the process, to say nothing of the pride and intimacy embedded in the finished object.
PS. As for sheets to replace the ones I ripped to shreds, we’ve been test-driving a new set of hemp sheets, generously sent my way from Evenfall. Hemp, as you likely know, is a bit of a wonder material for host of reasons including impact on the environment and strength of fiber. On our bed it feels lovely—pleasingly slubbed and rumpled like linen but lightweight and with less friction that makes it almost silky to the touch. So, if you’re thinking of shredding your current sheets into strips and turning them into a rug, I’d heartily recommend giving Evenfall a try. You can use the code TEALEAVES for 15% off your purchase now through April 4, 2022.
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