Who will pay $50 for your rags?

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Editor's note: This column originally was published June 9, 1991.

Rip, rip, rip! That's the sound of tearing cloth. I'm the tearer. Jean the Ripper! No kin to Jack.

This is not an old biblical tearing of cloth at some outrage, sorrow or sin. It is a sort of coming full circle in a certain facet of my life. I'm making carpet strips. Ever hear of 'em?

Back in my "pioneer" days, every smidgen of cloth was used until there was nothing left but a hunk of ravelings. Even these went to the harness room to rub oil into leather.

Old sheets, worn out pillow cases, shirts, pants, dresses, underwear, flour sacks -- anything made of cloth was cut or torn into half-inch strips, sewn together, end to end, and crocheted or knitted together into rag rugs. Even the big cedar crochet hook was hand hewn.

I would sit at Grandma's feet and she would make a scissors clip in the old sheet, or whatever it was I was to tear, and let me rip away. I thought it great fun. I wonder now if some psychiatrist would think I was ridding myself of some pent-up frustrations by gleefully tearing into the old pieces of cloth.

I can remember no frustrations at all unless it was learning to tie the knot at the end of a sewing thread, for I was allowed to tack the ends of the strips together. Perhaps it was my first sewing lessons. I have since tried to teach little ones this trick of moistening your forefinger, wrapping the thread around the finger, rolling the threads together, slipping the loop of the finger and pulling it down into a knot. It's not easy -- the teaching, that is.

At first our rag rugs were rather dull in color -- faded blue work shirts, unbleached domestic sheeting, tattletale gray this, that and the other. But one glorious Saturday Mama came home from Langdon's store with a package of red Rit. We gathered round to hear the directions read.

Into a wash boiler on top of the kitchen range went the water and red Rit and an old sheet. Stir, stir, bubble and boil! It was better than anything an old witch might brew.

Thereafter, we had the brightest rag rugs you could imagine. Blues, reds, pinks, greens and yellows appeared to be little spots of melted rainbows lying in front of the fireplace, in front of the rocking chair, the kitchen cot, under the small tables, etc. For days, after they were freshly crocheted and laid on the floor, we carefully avoided stepping on them for fear of depositing some barnyard dirt of leaving a grass stain.

So what am I doing now, ripping up old sheets and skirts and dish towels? Casting out frustrations? No! No! Crocheted rag things are back in. Thumbing through a recent copy of "Country Sampler" I saw a wall hanging of crocheted strips of cloth. My first impression was, "What? That old stuff again!" But the more I looked at it the more I liked it. Rustic. Homey. It was about two by four feet with self fringe at the short sides. And it was $50!

I thought of the bags and dozens of old things Lauren and I have about exhausted our patience with. We've made dozens of little pillows, smaller sachets, aprons, collars, doll clothes, etc., and still there are rags, rags, rags. Why, in terms of crocheted wall hangings I bet there might be three months' summer utilities bills worth!

So, rip goes the old stuff. Rit goes in the boiling pot. Single crochet. Chain two and turn goes the hook. If I'd had a suitable length of cedar I may have made a hook. But like Mama's discovery of Rit, I've found the necessary big hook in a store. If the swing doesn't break down, the creek don't rise and all that, I'll soon have a wall hanging for free, practically. Not even paying postage and handling charges, whatever those are.


Jean Bell Mosley is an author and longtime Cape Girardeau resident.

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