Floor Plan

Painted canvas floor coverings are back in style. Here's a primer on making your own.

Focus On Floorcloths

March 05, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Painted canvas floorcloths, the rage and the rule in fashionable homes from the 1700s to the early 1900s, are enjoying a renaissance today. It's partly because they are prevalent and popular in house museums, and partly because they're as practical today as when they were invented.

Colonial housewives considered any kind of dampness to be disease-promoting, and floorcloths were excellent deterrents. Designs as simple as solid colors and as complex as imitation Orientals filled hallways, protected floors, added color and light to rooms, and gave employment to artists both distant and itinerant who turned out floorcloths to order.

Floorcloths were not as expensive as woven carpets, and the design choices were limited only by the skill of the painter. They were easy to put down and pick up, and as they became worn, they were cut up and recycled into other uses -- as table mats, wall insulation, trivets.

Today they're still handcrafted and perfect for foyers, kitchen, mud rooms, laundry rooms -- any place where ordinary carpet could get soiled, wet or mashed. The custom labor and the artistry make them not as inexpensive as in the past, but they're not hard to make if you have a little talent (and a lot of patience). If you'd like to tackle this traditional craft, here's how self-taught experts Rosanna Moore and Mary Plumer do it.

About the experts

The advent of commercially produced linoleum -- it was patented in England in the mid-1860s -- eventually killed the floorcloth industry.

So it's something of a surprise to find two women in a basement engaged in full-scale production of floorcloths large and small.

It was the house museums that did it. Both Rosanna Moore and Mary Plumer are staff members at Homewood House, and Plumer is also on the staff at Evergreen House, historic properties owned by the Johns Hopkins University. Homewood, especially, is noted for its beautiful, geometric, true-to-the-period floorcloths, especially the black and white marble pattern, called "running diamond," in the foyer.

One day their supervisor suggested the two start turning out small floorcloths for the Homewood gift shop. "You two can do that, can't you?" she said.

"Oh, sure," they said.

There were some initial missteps, but eventually the self-taught Plumer and Moore have become pros. Their early 2-foot-by-3-foot cloths flew out of the gift shop at Homewood. Though they no longer provide floorcloths for the shop, they create them for the museum houses and they will do custom orders of almost any level of complexity. (For information, call them at Homewood House, 410-516-5589.)

They have stenciled gold Celtic knots, drawn serpentine diamonds for a persnickety gentleman who was "in love with the French curve," and filled dozens of other requests. They've refined their techniques, and learned to deal with the imprecision of almost every earthly measuring device with "creative fudging."

"Even the width of the pencil line -- it's called the kerf -- can throw you off," Moore says.

Someday, linoleum too may be enshrined in the restorer's pantheon. But in the meantime, Moore and Plumer are happily proving that good old ideas can still seem new.


1. Cut a piece of heavy (awning-weight) canvas to approximately the size you want. Make it a little bigger than you'll need, a few inches at each end and 1/2 -inch on each side. Prepare the canvas by cutting 1/2 -inch-long slits roughly 1/2 -inch apart on the sides; these slits allow the canvas to lie flat. Apply four coats of flat white latex paint, sanding after each coat. When the paint is dry, use a carpenter's square on the canvas to make sure that the corners are 90 degrees. Transfer your chosen design for the floorcloth from a sketch to the prepared canvas with a soft pencil, as floorcloth experts Mary Plumer and Rosanna Moore are doing, left.

2. Apply the base coat, of acrylic artist's paint or acrylic craft paint, to the entire surface of the canvas (including the clipped edges). You can use pads, brushes or foam brushes; in this case Plumer and Moore used pieces of natural sponge to get a subtle, mottled effect in pale yellow, pale green and sienna. When the base coat is dry (you should still be able to see most of your design lines), apply masking tape to seal off areas to be painted other colors. At left, removing the tape used to mask off the bands of bronze-green that define the floorcloth's panels.

3. If the paint does cover some of the design lines, you may have to draw them again. In this case, the leaves in the central medallion and in the panels were drawn free-hand, left. The "windowpane" of narrow gold bands is masked off. (Some designs, such as diamonds and checks, can be done completely with masking, or you can use stencils to apply a design.)

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