Woman, 80, transforms jackets into hand-braided rugs

April 23, 1995|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to the Sun

Johanna Baldwin never has torn apart a Harris tweed jacket she didn't like. That's why the 80-year-old Glenwood resident searches thrift shops for old coats and other wool clothing that she tears into strips to make hand-braided rugs.

"You can make beautiful rugs out of recycled materials," says Mrs. Baldwin, whose wool rugs sell for $20 per square foot. "My grandmother made braided rag rugs from whatever fabric was around."

It's a craft the former New York City schoolteacher learned 18 years ago after taking lessons from a woman in New Market who owned an antique shop.

"I made every mistake in the book," says Mrs. Baldwin, who recalls spending $30 on materials to make just part of her first rug. "She made you pull out every mistake until you got it right."

Today, however, Mrs. Baldwin's work is in demand because of the popularity of country decor in home decorating and the meticulous, time-consuming nature of her craft.

"You can only make so many," says Mrs. Baldwin, who spends from a few hours on a chair pad to several months on a room-size rug. A typical 9-by-12-foot oval braided rug can cost more than $2,000.

The wood floors of her country farmhouse are covered with her handiwork. Some 20 new rugs -- emerald green and topaz, pale blue and mauve, rich earthy tones of brown -- hang neatly over a decorative weaving loom in the dining room.

Mrs. Baldwin's favorite floor coverings are multicolored pieces that "go with any color scheme" and are referred to in craft circles as "hit or miss" rugs.

The living room functions as her studio, its walls lined with shelves of wool fabric neatly stacked according to color and pattern.

Working in natural light that pours through a bay window, Mrs. Baldwin chooses a piece of wool, measures the width of the pieces to be braided, cuts a small slit at each designated section and then tears the fabric into uniform strips.

Mrs. Baldwin clamps the ends of three strips into a wooden holder that is shaped like a duck's beak. The "duck" holds the fabric strips in place while Mrs. Baldwin braids the strips together.

When she has braided the strips together, she coils them into flat circles and ovals. She then sews them together with a special needle in a way that hides the stitches, assuring that the rug is reversible.

Mrs. Baldwin gets much of her business through word-of-mouth and through orders taken at the Maryland Sheep And Wool Festival, held each May at the Howard County Fairgrounds. She also has sold rugs at a sheep and wool festival held in Waterford, Va.

She does not enter her work in craft shows or competitions, however, because rug braiding is not as prevalent as it once was.

"There are so few people who make rugs. If you are entering the only rug, it's not very challenging," she says.

In addition to the many hours she spends working on her craft, Mrs. Baldwin is a member of the Howard County Commission On Aging and volunteers at the Lisbon branch of the Howard County Library. She would like to learn how to weave, but has not found the time.

"You can't spread yourself too thinly," she says.

In the meantime, she is concentrating on her rugs, always searching for the right pattern or color of wool that would make a striking addition to a rug. And she doesn't only look at castoffs.

"I see lots of Harris tweed jackets worn by the men in church, and I can imagine what they would look like in my braided rugs," says Mrs. Baldwin with a laugh.

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