From Rags to Riches: Stories from a Mennonite Childhood

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Great Grandma Snyder, family collection

My great-grandmother Snyder seldom threw anything away. For her, turning one item into another had all the energy of the resurrection itself.

So, it’s fitting in this Easter season to remember Great-grandma and her skill of transformation using needle and thread.

She darned socks, turned frayed collars from one side to another, sewed patches on knees and elbows, and, finally, made rugs out of any good cloth that remained in used dresses, skirts, shirts, and petticoats.

In her old age, Great-grandma did not go into a retirement home. Instead, she visited her four children for several months at a time. She didn’t “retire,” she just moved from being the executive of the kitchen and dining room to being the helper.

Like many other elderly Mennonite and Amish women (and some men), she found delight in braiding rugs.

I remember entering the den of my Grandma Hershey’s house at the time when Great Grandma was staying there. She wanted to show us her latest handwork.

Great Grandma Snyder took old wool coats collected from family, cut them into strips, and braided them and sewed them into a large oval that fit the floor of the den. We oohed and ahhed. It was a major work of art as well as a sturdy, useful item.

The process she used can easily be learned by following the instructions on this Talina Norris-Ryder Youtube.

Another Mennonite practice is making rugs out of used clothing by using looms. My mother-in-law would gather up our rags and take them to Old Order Mennonite territory in Dayton, Virginia. On Christmas day, she would pull out rag rugs from her closet.

I still have many of these sturdily constructed rugs in my home. She even gave them to her grandchildren. They last for decades.

The Ephrata Materials Resources Center of the Mennonite Central Committee
continues this practice. Retired men and women make and transform items to sell. The proceeds are used to donate funds for worldwide relief. This verse serves as their motto:

I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me…
Matthew 25:35

One of my friends purchased a rug made of old neckties at the center above!

Recently, as I was preparing to give a talk in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I went to the handmade walnut desk where I store linens.

Photo credit: Lisa Heft. Necktie Rug from the Ephrata Material Resources Center

Photo credit: Lisa Heft. Necktie Rug from the Ephrata Material Resources Center

There in the third drawer were two braided rugs with such small braids they might have been used as hair on a doll.

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Braided rugs come in many sizes.

Opening that drawer was like a resurrection. Even though Great Grandma Snyder died in 1964, fifty years ago, she still lives in both my memory and my house. I own two of her rugs.

My cousin Anita said she thinks these were made using old nylon stockings with runs in them. Now that’s recycling!

Is making braided rugs a lost art? Well, I have to admit that I haven’t made any rugs of my own – yet.

A former student of mine, Diana, however, has taken her own Lancaster County Mennonite heritage to the next generation. She made a braided rug with her step-daughter:

Kiara and Diana, rag rug

Photo credit: Diana Zimmerman de Pescione with Kiara.

Diana has inspired me to save a bag of old clothes, either to donate to MCC or to make a rug with my grandchildren.

Great-grandma Snyder, your legacy lives on!

What do you do with old clothing? Do you claim another kind of legacy from your great-grandma?

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Shirley Showalter (9 Posts)

Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up in a Mennonite farm family and went on to become the president of Goshen College and a foundation executive at The Fetzer Institute. She is now a writer, speaker, blogger, and consultant living in Harrisonburg, VA. She recently released her memoir, "Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World."


Comments

  1. I just spoke with my 87-year-old Aunt Jane on the phone and got a little more information. The very small rugs, actually mats, made by my great-grandmother Snyder, and pictured side-by-side above, were not made of nylons. They were made from rayon stockings, probably in the 1940’s. before the days of nylons. Aunt Jane thinks that they were dyed to get the colors shown.

    Also, the large braided rug for the floor probably wasn’t made with many old coats. Instead, Great-grandma got wool (scraps? ends?) from a factory.

  2. This reminds me of my Grandma Erma (Buchtel) Lash…She made braided rugs out of scrap material. She and my Aunt Donna would display fabric from shoe stores. Grandma even braided plastic bread and buns into braided rugs. What a lady.

  3. Susan, I think a lot of Grandparents, especially those who grew up in the depression or struggled through it as adults, learned how to “make do” and “make over” whatever they had. Now everything we buy comes in packaging we are encouraged to throw away. The best way to honor the older generation is to remember and try to practice some of their habits. What I admire most is the artistry in all that time with needle and thread.Thanks for your comment and good luck with your own version of creative make overs!

  4. Shirley,
    This reminds me of the comforters my Grandmother used to make from leftover fabric from sewing and used clothing. She helped me make one when I went off to Goshen College. I’m still using it today. I agree that much of her “make do” and “make over” came from her experiences in the 1930’s depression era.

    The MCC Etcetera Shop in Newton, Kansas still makes rugs, repurposing used clothing, ties, etc.

    • Yes, exactly, Kathleen. Those comforters are so well-named, aren’t they? When we draw them up around our bodies, we still contact the love that went into them. Love, and memories, and blessings, and the joy of being useful. I think that last joy is the one we miss out on when we waste instead of take the time to make and make over.

      Thanks so much for visiting here. Perhaps you can guide some Kansas reader to Newton and perhaps some lucky readers will find your blog.

  5. I remember making rugs with my Grandma when I was a young girl. Now I make them myself. I have made quite a few out of old blue jeans. I made some of them as memory rugs. The widow would give me her husbands olds jeans, and I made rugs (wall hangings or such) out of them. One had me make 3 one for herself and her daughters each got one.

    • Marianne, this is wonderful! I do so much better at weaving stories than at actual rug braiding.

      And what a gift it must have been for a widow to receive back from you a rug full of memories, with the blue jeans as a practical, tangible reminder of love.

      I never thought of the grief dimension of these rugs, but of course they are powerful visible reminders of the invisible love of family and faith.

      Thank you so much for this comment. Your generosity moves me. I know it will move others also.

  6. Charlene Fahnestock says:

    One of my prized possessions in a handmade oval braided rug made by my Grandma Becker. It is approximately 7′ X 9′ and is on my dining room floor. Grandma made the rug in the winter of 1961/1962. My Grandpa died of a heart attack in the beginning of November in 1961. Grandma braided the rug that winter to keep herself busy and to have something to do. She used Grandpa’s wool suits and other wool fabric we bought at used clothing places. The rug was a gift to my Mother and eventually made it’s way to my home. Because of all the black in the rug (from Grandpa’s suits) it is probably not the prettiest rug you would find, but I’m not going to part with it. The memories it brings each time I think about it are too special!!!

  7. Charlene, your Grandma and my Great-grandma must have been making those rugs at almost the same time. I thought the wool in her rug came from coats, but my Aunt Jane told me that most of it came from a factory, so it was less black.

    I love it that you treasure the rug. If you were like me, you shrugged off its meaning as a young girl, thinking it nothing out of the ordinary. Now, as a grandma ourselves, we so easily identify with the love woven into such artifacts.

    Thanks for this story. Hoping it will bless many others.

  8. Thanks for including my video in your post. I really want to figure out how to make a loom rug now!

  9. Hi Talina, thanks for creating a wonderful video that inspired all of us reading this post. Not sure where you live, but if you are close to a Mennonite community, you can probably find rag rugs made on looms in their Mennonite Central Committee or Ten Thousand Villages stores. The tie rug pictured above came from Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Thanks for stopping by, and all the best with your rug projects.

  10. I’m a Snyder too (though not in name). I didn’t pick up the quilting bug from my grandma like my mom did, but I can’t throw away fabric scraps. I save leftover fabric from my sewing projects to make baby or doll clothes.
    My grandparents’ house was filled with rag rugs, quilted potholders, and a huge variety of repurposed items. I learned to sew and knit using my grandma’s scrap box.

    • Nessa, you’ve acquired some wonderful skills from your family. And you brought up another memory. I still have scraps from some of the brightly-colored clothing we purchased in West Africa when we were leading a group of college students in a cross-cultural learning and service experience.

      Your grandma sounds a lot like mine and like Great-grandma Snyder. I’m sure she’d love to have her name still associated with re-purposed items!

  11. Heather S says:

    My grandmother used to to put together those blue jean rugs at MCC in Ephrata, PA. Every Wednesday her and Grandpa would go there and volunteer for the day. Grandpa would load the donated clothing up to be hauled overseas and Grandma would sew those rugs. One day I went with them and will never forget walking into the sewing quilt room, with all the ladies sitting around a big circle! My grandmother is in her last days, so this is bittersweet finding this post today, with tears in my eyes.

  12. I have been making a small purse from 1 man’s tie. I taught it to my quilt group in Wy. I am also working on a vest for my grandaughter and jacket for me. I have a book “Daddy’s ties.
    I have gotten so many ties given to me, I wanted to try and make a rug. Just wanted some instructions from someone who already had done this.

  13. Hi, Gerry, a purse made out of a tie would be lovely.

    As for your search — have you tried using Google as your guide? Or searching on Youtube? Here is a blog post that looks like it made be very helpful if you like this kind of rug. All best!http://sewandtellquilts.blogspot.com/2013/01/simple-necktie-rug-tutorial.html

  14. It’s awesome for me to have a web page, which is useful designed for my experience.
    thanks admin

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