Another Form of Rug-Making: Power Rug Tufting

My art life is slowly taking a turn away from the past and from previous activities. While I don’t plan to give up painting and many of my old pursuits anytime soon, I am not doing shows anymore, and I don’t do art for my work anymore.

That’s led me to examine my art activities; I found I had a lot of “should” cropping up in my thinking. It’s hard to shake the feeling of “I should be painting right now” when for decades that was exactly right – art was work and I should be working because it was the time of my life for working.

Now things have changed and life has moved on. Art is just for fun.

Recently I have taken several online art classes and enjoyed the experience. In the process of finding those classes I signed up for email lists at a number of art insitutions, museums, and art centers. Back when I was focused on art for work, I never would have done such a thing. Now I am seeing all the activities I can try out.

Rug-making has interested me since I was young. I made a couple of knitted rugs long ago, but nothing else until I took an online punch needle class at Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh a few months ago. Since then you may remember I’ve made some Barbie-sized rugs:

I like doing this craft and I have plans for more tiny rugs and maybe someday a bigger one.

But I’m here today to tell you about another foray into rug-making – a class I took at Winterthur, in Delaware, on May 15, on the subject of power rug tufting.

First, Winterthur. (And you say it, Winter-tour. Now you know.) It’s a museum, garden and library located near Wilmington, DE. A former duPont family home (yes, those duPonts), it focuses on the collection of Henry Francis du Pont, a well-known antiques collector and horticulturist. The museum features American furniture and decorative arts. The gardens are extensive and beautiful.

The event I attended was part of the museum’s Sustainable Style Fair, which featured workshops on handmaking, recycling, and using nature in home projects. I read the description of the rug class from the museum’s website:

Learn to use power tufting machines to create rugs by hand with the help of internationally recognized artist and designer Tim Eads. Create and tuft your own simple design for a 20″ x 20″ rug or pillow using post-industrial, recycled cotton yarns. Learn how to cut, glue, and finish a rug for use on the floor or as a wall hanging and about other ways you might incorporate recycled materials.  All supplies are included and tufting machines are provided.

…and I knew I had to try it out. Is it possible to make a rug in one morning? So my husband and I took the one-hour drive to the museum on a beautiful morning. Our plan was that I’d do the class; he would explore the gardens (which he did, walking about 6 miles); and then we’d eat a picnic lunch and go home. 

We arrived a bit early and parked right by the classroom building. We took a very short walk around the location. It’s the height of azalea and rhododendron time in our area.

I was a bit envious of my husband’s anticipated walk when I took in this scene but I got very happy when I entered the classroom and saw things set up.

The class was being given by Tim Eads of Tuft the World in Philadelphia. And now, you wonder, what is power rug tufting?

Basically, you use a power tool, the tufting gun, to apply yarn through a fabric to create a fiber piece. I’d suggest looking at the website to see the tool, but it sort of reminded me of a drill in how it looked, though with a rapidly-moving “needle” that, when you press the trigger and apply it to the fabric, a series of stitches are made that result in either a plush surface or a looped surface (depending on which version of the tufting gun you use). Like punch needle, you work from the back of the rug.

Here are the yarns we will be using.

It’s easier to show you the set up than to describe it in words. Here are the frames ready for the fabric to be attached – what I saw when I came into the classroom.

Here is my station. You see the empty frame and the two dowels upon which the cones of yarn will be set. You use two cones at one time, and you can mix colors for a mottled effect or use two of the same for solids.

Here it is with the stretched fabric, held in place by these strips of carpet tacks attached to the frame. Eek! Those hurt if you brush against them. You can also see I have two colors of yarn, red and yellow, on my dowels.

We learned how to thread the tool. The tool had an on/off switch, of course, but for good measure I unplugged it every time I re-threaded. I know myself and my tendency for accidents with power tools.

Then we learned how to use the tool. Basically, you press it firmly to the fabric, squeeze the trigger, and move the tool upwards in a steady motion.

Yes, that is it.

You can see on my blank fabric I have drawn in the area to be worked. Tim suggested marking a section to be used for experimenting (read: the area where you try things and mess up so you don’t spoil your rug). The other members of the class drew designs on their fabric to follow. I did not do this – I figured I’d just get it as I went along.

As usual I got very caught up in the process and forgot to take many photos. But essentially, here’s how it goes. You can only run the tool in one direction: up. You can go in any direction as long as the tool thinks you are going up – in other words, you can make a horizontal line, but you just can’t scoot the tool sideways. You have to turn it and run it in that direction. Tim suggested that since we are beginners we use the tool only in the up direction.

So, to make a circle, say, the best way is to draw the shape and then make a series of staggered-length lines to fill it. It’s not hard to do this – because of how the tool works.

Somehow it knows how to make the stitches and cut them into individual tufts every single one of them. So when you stop, you just pull the tool away. The mysterious scissors inside this thing has cut off the yarn, of course, ready for another tuft. You just move the tool to where you want to go next and press the trigger and you’re off!

Anyway, I was more interested in all the colors and trying combinations of colors. I just started making lines. Here is a view of the back at some point in the process.

Every so often I would walk around to the front and get a glimpse of what I was making. Here are a couple of process shots.

Why I had so many long tails in front, I wondered – Tim said it was where I had hesitated or slowed down. No matter, they will trim off even. (You’ll see!)

Eventually, I finished my work. I covered not only the “official” part of my rug, but I also incorporated my “practice” area. You really can make a rug in one morning, it turns out.

We took it off the frame (more ouches from touching those darn tack strips) and I trimmed the back. Here are some of the scraps.

We discussed the finishing of our rugs. We will need to put a glue on the back to secure the stitches and then turn under the fabric edges. I don’t plan to use my rug as a floor covering (though I don’t know what I will do with it!) so I think I will also put a fabric backing on it just to make it look nicer. The finishing will take place at home with instructions from a video Tim made.

Now you want to see the rug. OK, here it is. Remember, it still needs to be finished as I said above, but you can now see the plush look of it. I can tell you, it is very soft!

Here it is just off the frame, before I trimmed this side (which I did later at home). I have the rug in the position in which I worked on it.

And here is the trimmed version. The “practice” area in this shot is the 1/3 to the left – I usually did a couple of lines to test out the colors before I went to the “official” side. Later, when I saw I was going to have enough time to cover the whole fabric, I filled in the gaps.

Well, that’s the story of me and my introduction to power rug tufting. Here’s my take on the whole thing: I loved doing this project, and I would sign up for another workshop in a minute. Now that I feel I have a good handle on how things work, I have some ideas I would like to try…

Do I want to have my own tools and set up and so on? No, I don’t. To me this is clearly one of those activities that I’d like to dip into at intervals. It fits right in with my desire to explore new fields without feeling I have to become proficient or dedicated to them. I do see how the craft could grab hold of you, though. There are so many possibilities with color as well as experimenting with mixing loop and plus textures. And I also learned that the tool can be adjusted to make longer or shorter plush or loops…hmmm…

So I would say, what a great experience! And thank you to Tim and my fellow classmates. We had a lot of fun doing this activity. I’ll end with a quote my husband found on a sign out in the garden. I think it fits.

31 thoughts on “Another Form of Rug-Making: Power Rug Tufting

  1. Leonie Andrews

    I am really kicking myself now because when I was studying in the early 2000s we had a tufting gun in our workshop and I never even tried it out!

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      I have a feeling that if you look around you could find a workshop or someone who’d give you a teaching session who does it themselves. It was easy to learn and not hard to get acceptable results as a beginner ( my definition being the rug holds together and I didn’t break the tool). I think you’d enjoy it, it fits with a lot of your other work, I think.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      I enjoyed doing this but it’s too much for an at home hobby for me. Howver, I’d love to do another workshop. There is something very soothing about just running the tool and the colors come out!

  2. Pingback: Finishing the Power-Tufted Rug | Claudia McGill and Her Art World

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