The braided rug makes a colorful return

Your grandmother would be delighted: Braided rugs are making a big comeback in American home decorating. They're showing up in the hearthside photos of catalogs that carry practical items, as well as in the artful pages of upscale catalogs.

Capel, a rug company in Troy, N.C., that supplies high-volume customers such as L.L. Bean, JCPenney, and other major catalogs, reports a 40 percent increase in braided rug orders during the past year.

The homey braids have been part of American life since the mid-19th century, when three factors combined to launch the craft:

1. The invention of the power loom in 1839 and the production of carpets for the wealthy generated an interest in rugs among the less-wealthy, too.

2. A large number of women had been braiding straw bonnets and floor mats in cottage industries.

3. Woolen cloth was readily available from New England mills.

The first braided rugs were made from scraps of wool and old wool garments, resulting in the traditional "hit or miss" design. By the 1900s, refinements in design, shapes, and styles began to appear. Although inexpensive commercially made carpets eventually obviated the need to "braid your own," some hand braiders carried on the craft.

Gertrude Shaw of Tilton, N.H., was one of these craftswomen. As she sat braiding in her living room one day, her son-in-law, George Jurta, became fascinated by the repetitive motion - right strip to the center, left strip to the center. Couldn't that motion be duplicated by a machine?

For 15 years George tinkered, hoping to make "Grammy's" work easier for her. In 1968 he took out a patent on his invention and opened Country Braid House in the barn behind the family's home.

The neat little device, which is no bigger than a TV, is still producing miles of braid indistinguishable from braid made by hand. George's son and daughter-in-law, Wayne and Janice Jurta, run a thriving business based on his invention. A few skilled employees lace the braids into rugs of varying designs and sizes. Hand "lacing" - a method of binding the braids together without exposed stitching - renders the rugs reversible. They are also exceptionally long-wearing, because of the invisible stitching and the fact that they are made of 100 percent wool.

Terry Dorr, a major supplier of wool for hand-braided and hand-hooked rugs, points to a braided rug in the foyer of his Dorr Mill Store in Guild, N.H. "That rug has been there for 35 years," he says, "with sand and salt tracked onto it." The rug shows very little wear and remains a beautiful work of art.

There is still a niche for hand-braiding, he says. "The concept of the rag rug is out, but the artistic rug is in."

Jan Jurta shares this sentiment. She feels there is growing interest in high-quality rugs with customized colors, sizes, and designs. One of her rugs was featured onthe cover of the August issue of House and Garden, for example. And some striking, very contemporary designs by Country Braid House are scheduled to appear in the January issue of Better Homes & Gardens.

So why are braided rugs suddenly the rage again? Marianne Bradford of L.L Bean sees them as "part of this whole cocooning trend, which started well before 9/11, but has obviously increased since then."

" 'Country' has been popular for a long time," adds Jurta, "but designers are looking for new ways to interpret it. And today's braided rugs come in a whole new range of shapes and color designs. So designers have begun to say, 'Let's take a second look [at them.]' "

Capel, a third-generation family venture, is doing its share to give braided rugs a fresh interpretation. The company has its own spinning facilities and is experimenting with new fabrics. They are also combining yarn and fabric braids for a patchwork look. Referring to the new forms braided rugs are taking, Kea Capel Meacham says, "They've been lifted out of a Grandma connotation."

But not completely. And therein lies the rugs' warm and enduring appeal.

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