Shirred and Swirled

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

In a previous post, I mentioned that sifting through our object records let me find large batches of similar items, and compare and contrast them. When our digital collections go live, you’ll be able to do the same thing – but until then, let’s practice together!

Have you seen any of our Shaker rugs on exhibit before? You may have seen the “GOOD” rug, on display in the East Family Brethren’s Shop, or our “Horse Rugs” (one of which is now on display at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville). However, there are only so many examples of a type of object a museum can show in most exhibits. Sometimes museum curators choose to display an example of an object type that is the most well-known or special; sometimes they choose items that are the most “typical” representation. Either decision involves narrowing down many alternate choices. Using rugs for this exercise, let’s see what information we can gather!

  • What do these rugs have in common with each other?
  • If you’ve seen either (or both!) of our more “famous” rugs, what do these have in common with the ones below? What makes them different?
  • Can you determine one, or several, overarching design themes?
  • What colors are used most frequently? What materials? What is used more rarely?
  • One of these rugs is depicted twice, in two different formats – can you find which one?
“Shaker Shirred Rug,” Charles Goodwin, Index of American Design; Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Can you spot this rug in our photos?
Object 61.3.350; cotton, wool and burlap. Shirring often creates a “shag rug” like texture.
Object 61.4.129; cotton, linen and wool, including knit and jacquard fabric; one of several with organic forms. This one reminds me of a geological formation, like agate or malachite.
Object 62.4.64C; cotton, linen, wool and burlap. The vibrant colors and geometric angles of this rug design are strikingly contemporary.
Object 62.4.61; constructed from a combination of shirring, scaling and braiding.
Object 62.4.64B; cotton, wool and burlap. Constructed in a Maltese cross design, with shirred strips and a braided edge.
Object 61.4.125; cotton, linen, wool and burlap. Organic shapes of shirring stitched onto a “sandwich” backing of lace weave, burlap and a woven rag rug.
Object 61.14.1; cotton and wool. Sewn to a woven rag rug with a corduroy backing. Does this rug look familiar?
Object 61.4.128; cotton and wool. Sewn to woven rag rug with ticking fabric backing. Central design motif is said to resemble an eye. What do you think it looks like?

So, what did you notice? Here’s some context, courtesy of the object notes and descriptions on file:

Many of these rugs are called “dollar” rugs; this is because they are created with scraps of fabric in the size and shape of silver dollar coins. These scraps are then “shirred;” that is, threaded into strips resembling Hawaiian leis, or fuzzy caterpillars. Most are made from scraps of fabric of a variety of materials, many dyed in vibrant earth tones. However, while the phrase “rag rugs” usually evoke either the flat-woven rectangular form or the braided, round or oval form, these have a thick texture and complex forms, either in abstract or figurative designs.