Backroads: Antique Floorcloths: Reviving a Functional, Old-Time Craft

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Kay Campbell with a pumpkin motif for autumn. Lynn Coffey.

One of the earliest ways people covered bare floors was with floorcloths, which were first produced and imported from England prior to 1754. These decorative rugs insulated floors during the cold winter months and protected the wood from wear in summer when heavy wool rugs were taken up.

Itinerant stencilers created functional works of art for wealthy individuals, painting solid colors or fancy cloths with borders.

The basic procedure for making a floorcloth has not changed through the years. Heavy canvas is prepared and the weave is filled so the cloth can receive the painted design. The paint is applied in layers and then sealed. The result is a carpet that is easily cleaned with a damp mop, tough enough to withstand dogs, children and furniture and customizable in a wide variety of patterns ranging from historic to contemporary.

At least three United States presidents had floorcloths in their inventories. George Washington purchased one from Roberts and Company in 1796. Thomas Jefferson had at least two in the White House and several more at Monticello. When John Adams’ term as President was completed, an inventory listed a floorcloth in his possession.

Popular Williamsburg stencil, “Bump Tavern.” Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Nelson County resident Kay Campbell of Beech Grove got interested in making her own floorcloths after she bought an oriental rug and soon found her cats were clawing and shedding on it, making it hard to clean. Her daughter-in-law mentioned that a friend with pets had switched to floorcloths because of their durability. Campbell had never heard of this type of rug so she went online and noticed that the ones for sale were rather pricey. She looked at sites that offered instructions on how to make your own. She is a confirmed do-it-yourselfer and believes if you have the right tools, you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to.

She began making floorcloths in the spring of 2016, just before she retired from U.Va. Then she had extra time for undertaking new projects. Not that she needed one; Kay and her husband Carl are farm folks with plenty of work to keep them busy, but she has always enjoyed handiwork such as quilting, cross stitch and crocheting. Kay learned floorcloths were originally made from sailcloth that was repurposed from ship sails that were torn or damaged. Although these rugs can be made from canvas, Kay prefers sticking with waterproof sailcloth, which she buys at fabric stores. She gave the following instructions on how she goes about making a start-to-finish floorcloth.

“The first step is cutting the cloth to the size you want with a two-inch seam on the sides and ends by either sewing or gluing.  A friend recently gave me a 1930’s heavy duty Singer sewing machine for stitching but I continue to use glue.  It takes 24 hours for the glue to set up and the entire process of making a floorcloth, regardless of size, takes about two weeks.” In the summer months Kay works in her outdoor studio but during the winter she moves inside to her basement.

A sheep-themed primitive freehand stencil. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

“The next step is putting two coats of paint on top of the cloth. The underside does not need to be painted because the sail cloth is soft and waterproof. I use tan or antique white as my basecoat but any color can be used. Some like a roller but I prefer a two inch brush so I can work the paint into the cloth better.” Another 24 hours between applications is needed to dry properly. Kay uses regular water-based indoor house paint instead of acrylics.

The pattern on the rugs is made with stencils that are taped on the cloth and painted onto its surface. For stencil ideas, Kay looks online and in magazines that feature early American and primitive décor. She also makes her own, which are easily cut out of plastic with a wood burning tool and can be reused.

When the painting and stenciling are done, five coats of polyurethane are applied, with an overnight drying period between coats. When finished, the final product is a thing of beauty as well as a functional addition to any home. Floorcloths wear well and are easily kept clean with a damp cloth.  The only thing that will mar the rugs is a bend in the fabric, which makes a permanent crease, so keeping it flat is essential. Kay recommends a rug pad to keep it in place.

Kay’s hobby has turned into a small business and she can make any size, any color, up to a 5’x7’ area rug. Floorcloths are durable and long-lasting, bringing many years of pleasure to their owners. For more information, Kay can be reached at 434-361-9186.

Kay Campbell puts the finishing touches on a floorcloth. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

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