Rag Weaving Gimicks and Tricks - Johanna Erickson

March 27, 2004
Johanna Erickson

Johanna Erickson
Rag Rug
Photo supplied by the lecturer

Johanna Erickson has studied and lectured all over the United States. Among other places she studied at the Fiber Arts Center at Marymount with Sister Bianca who still has looms and teaches there. Nowadays she gets up early and goes for a swim in the morning. This is a social activity, it keeps your weight down and it helps the weaving since it can get rid of arthritic pains. Johanna has used rags to produce both rugs for the home and clothing for women. She explained that she is not so interested in repetitions of structure; she is more interested in texture and color and what happens when you break the 'rules' that are supposed to be absolutely essential for great weaving. You can discover that many interesting and unforeseen results can occur and you can have lots of fun and feel more like a child at play. Johanna's clothing designs have been exhibited in Convergence shows and in the Vancouver fabric show among others. She likes making unusual designs, as you must have intuited by now. However she says that the cost of being invited to these kinds of shows has escalated to a ton of money and the process is so detailed and lengthy that anyone who wants do this has to think it over very carefully. She said that one way is to take something that you have woven and hate and make something out of it. In telling this story she showed us a large piece of fabric that she had made and did not like particularly but was much praised and put into a show.

Johanna told us that rag rug weaving began in Scandinavia. Scandinavians use linen for warp. Cotton warp will eventually wear out. You can then reuse the weft and make another rug. Someone asked why if cotton wears out don't we use warp with some more durable mixture. Johanna said that was like using mashed potatoes from a box instead of real potatoes. You just don't do it. To take care of your rag rugs, never fold them but only roll them up. When washing them, scrub in the direction of the warp and then hang them sideways over a round pole to dry, In Helsinki they bring the rugs to the waterfront and wash them by the sea; this, of course, helps the colors to set.

Johanna gave a wonderful slide presentation in which she showed us many different types of rag rugs and many different types of clothing made from rags. One rug from Indiana was an example of a technique that sews individual woven pieces together at the seam but the stripes don't line up. Another variation is when the stripes are lined up but the colors do not match or the designs do not match. There was a very fine rug woven according to an old French technique which can be found in France, all over French Quebec, and in the US in Louisiana. What happened was that many Acadians traveled down from Canada down via the Mississippi River and wound up living in Louisiana. Then came a slide of a Slovak tapestry rug from Czechoslovakia with a diagonal design. Tapestry done with rags is called meet and separate. If the pieces are more than one inch long in a vertical line then you have to interlock them. If they are going diagonally, you don't have to do anything. This type of tapestry weaving is similar to some done by the Navajos. There were several pictures of wagon wheel rugs. There was a painter who spun the rags and then did rag tapestry by doing two picks of red and then two picks of white in weft face. Rags can even be used to make pillows. There were some beautiful Japanese- inspired garments. Johanna also said that they will often use old cut-up cotton obi pieces to make new obis. Rag rugs have been used to make the atmosphere warmer in a large room by covering up a concrete post. A Finish woman hand painted canvas strips and then hand wove a nice rag rug. If you cut rags on the bias, you can use them for knitting and if you cut them on the straight, they can be used to crochet with. Of her own work, Johanna showed us some pictures of rugs and beautiful clothing.

Johanna said that some people are warpers (or designers) and others are wefters (they love to do the weaving). When you are designing it is useful to realize that there can be a lot of colors and few values or a lot of values and a few colors. But it will not be beautiful if you try everything at once i.e. lots of different colors and lots of different values. All colors are beautiful and they all go well together- the secret is in the proportion. There is a hierarchy in the sequence of dominant. There is the dominant, the subordinate, the minor and the accent.

Johanna uses double binding, log cabin and Nantucket hit and miss in weaving. If you do the log cabin, you can have twice as many variations in the color pattern e.g. if you have two colors changing and there are five colors, there will show up ten different color combinations in the weaving! When you are cutting the rags, cut dense fabrics thinner and thin fabrics thicker. A rag rug needs to be tough and stiff. It is generally easier to tie on to an old warp on the loom than to begin all over again. You need a system that advances at a good pace since rags will tend to tighten the warp because of their thickness. You always want equal tension throughout the warp. You would like to be able to finish a piece while you are still weaving in the sweet spot i.e. in the middle third of the length between the breast beam and the beater where the tension is the most even.

Johanna's enthusiasm is boundless. Some mornings she wakes and puts on a robe and goes to her attic and weaves. That's how you get things done, she says. Rise early and skip meals. Remember a real artist will have you wondering when you look at a piece of their work, why is it like that? The job of the artist, Johanna says, is to deepen the mystery. Don't you agree that wonderful creations have an atmosphere of mystery?

Thank you Johanna.

-- Sara Briggs