Monday, November 4, 2013

Rug Hooking: Choosing the Right Backing for Your Next Project!

I’ll admit choosing which backing to use for your rug hooking project can be daunting.  Rug hookers use all types of backing materials with names like burlap, Scottish burlap, monks cloth, linen and rug warp, and to further complicate things, some terms used to describe the backing materials are used interchangeably.  In the beginning, I didn’t know what all those names meant, and with some backings costing upwards of $25-$27 a yard, I didn’t want to make any mistakes!  In addition to my confusion over different weaves and levels of coarseness, I also became confused by the multitude of colors that backings come in, ranging from white to tan and gray, as well as the words used to describe those colors, such as bleached, natural and unbleached.  I worried I might not be using the “right” backing and my work would look amateurish.

So, I scoured the internet and books on rug hooking, ran polls on Facebook, and even emailed rug designers to ask what everyone was using.  Do you know what I found?  There’s no right answer!  That’s right, you’re not doing anything wrong by picking monks cloth over linen, or picking rug warp over Scottish burlap.  There are pros and cons to each type of backing, including how much you invest and where you intend to display your finished piece, but there are no hard and fast “rules”!

Scottish Burlap in Tan and Gray (Foreground) and 100% Linen (Background)

So where do you begin?  How do you choose?  Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the most popular types of backing for your hooked rug:

Burlap, Natural Burlap, Angus Burlap, Root Ball Burlap:  Many rug hookers begin with this type of backing because it is inexpensive (about $3 to $6 a yard) and can be found at Walmart and other department stores.  It is made from jute and is nearly identical to burlap used for feed sacks, which incidentally, colonial women often used for backing material.  There are several different grades; for example, angus burlap is made with a flatter fiber and has a more uneven weave and Scotch or Scottish burlap is woven with a rounder fiber and is more consistently even.  Burlap is often used for primitive hooking (meaning hooking with wool strips that are at least 1/4” wide).  It is very coarse and rough to the feel, and the threads, sizing, space and coloration are often irregular.  Obviously, since feed sacks were not designed to last forever, rugs made with burlap backing sometimes disintegrated over time and as a result, very few of the rugs hooked during colonial times are still around today.  If you are making a rug you want to last a long time or which will receive considerable wear, you may want to choose a different backing material.

Burlap; Natural Burlap; Angus Burlap; Root Ball Burlap

Scotch Burlap, Scottish Burlap, Premium Scottish BurlapAlso made from jute but much better quality than angus or root ball burlap, this backing is usually available in 48” and 60” widths and is easy to use and economical (approximately $15 to $17 a yard for 60” widths).  The threads are pretty much uniform and it is a stable backing.  This backing is popular with rug hookers and works well for primitive hooking (hooking with wool strips that are at least 1/4” wide), is rough to the feel and "sheds" little fibers.  It comes in colors ranging from light tan to off-white and gray.  If you are confused as to whether you are getting Scottish burlap, ask your supplier about the feel and texture of the backing--it should be somewhat rough to the feel and “shed” little fibers.  

Scotch Burlap; Scottish Burlap; Premium Scottish Burlap

Monks Cloth:  Made of cotton, this backing is very popular with rug hookers because it is good quality and economical.  It stretches more than burlap, so you can pull it tightly across your rug hooking frame.  If you hook without a frame, this backing can be more of a challenge for the beginner.  It is stronger and more durable than burlap, and is soft and pliable.  It has an even weave and is available in widths from 72” to 144”.  It does not “shed” little fibers as you work.  Unfortunately, huck weaving cloth is sometimes sold as monks cloth, but you can tell the difference by the “grid” thread woven at regular intervals in monks cloth (see the white line woven into the monks cloth in the photo?).  With monks cloth, it is essential to give your piece a good iron steaming when finished so it lays flat, particularly if you pack your hooking a little tight.  You can use monk's cloth for fine or primitive hooking and it sells for approximately $15 to $17 a yard.

Monks Cloth with its Characteristic White "Grid" Thread

Rug Warp, Rug Warp Cloth:   Woven with single strands of tightly twisted 100% cotton, it resembles woven string.  Rug warp is one of the heaviest backings available for rug hooking, which can be a disadvantage, especially when working on a large piece.  It enables you to hook with both wide and narrow strips of wool or yarn, and suppliers state it allows you to hook without skipping spaces.  Although rug warp is a good quality backing and exceptionally strong, it is heavy.  Some rug hookers prefer the weight, as they claim it won’t allow their rugs to buckle or ripple.  Rug warp usually comes in 60” widths for about $20 a yard.

Rug Warp; Rug Warp Cloth

Linen, Scottish Linen, Natural LinenLinen is the most expensive of the backing fabrics and can be found bleached (off-white) and unbleached (tan or grayish).  It is usually sold in 60” widths for for $25 to $27 a yard.  It is an even-weave material that enables you to hook with both wide and narrow strips of wool.  It is very strong, soft, flexible and easy to work with.  You will notice a quality difference immediately if you place it against Scottish burlap, and many rug hookers refuse to hook on anything but linen.  Most experienced rug hookers claim it will probably outlast other backings.  In my experience, good quality linen is very soft, does not shed a great deal and has a slight “sheen” to it  (if your linen is not soft and relatively smooth, you may have received an inferior sample or the supplier has it confused with Scottish burlap).  Linen can “beard”, meaning small fibers may poke to the top of your work while hooking, which is especially noticeable when hooking with darker wools.  These fibers may be simply trimmed with scissors or picked off with a pair of tweezers.  Do not store linen folded, as folds can weaken and split the fibers over a period of time (it is best to roll it on a tube for storage).

Linen; Scottish Linen; Natural Linen

I hope this helps clear the muddy water so you can choose the right type of backing for your next rug hooking project.  Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, or leave me a comment if you'd just like to say "hi!"  In the meantime, Happy Stitchin'!  xoxo--Melanie


  1. What an awesome, awesome blog post!! My personal experience is that it's a personal preference. I can hook on linen or monks-cloth. I do notice that most my customers ask for linen. Melanie- great, great job on this post!!

    1. Thank you, Yvonne! I hook mostly on monks cloth, but have also noticed most of my customers ask for linen.

  2. Thanks so much for this information. I found it very informative and took the confusion out of choosing a backing.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ellen. I hope this helps you choose your next backing. :)

  3. Great article Melanie- This will become a permanent part of my library.

  4. Very timely post as I am just starting out and the choice of backings/strip width is confusing. This has helped a bunch.


  5. Hey "Anonymous", thank you for commenting. I'm glad the info is of use to you. :) --Melanie

  6. In a few weeks I am taking a class on rug hooking, it doesn't say what to bring so I'm reaching on I am Very new to thins and know noting at all except what I read above can you suggest what material is best for a beginner will I need anything eles do or will I need a frame or strecher (not even sure what it is called) ect. I do know we will be working with wool pieces but that's all I know. Thanks so much for your input

    1. Hi Anonymous, thank you for posting a question on my blog. Sorry for this late response; I was in the hospital for a bit, but all is well now! I'm very pleased you are learning rug hooking. Congratulations, you will love it! To answer your question, you will need a frame or a sturdy (round) quilting hoop. Quilting hoops are less expensive than frames, so many beginners use them until they are sure they are going to like rug hooking. However, they have distinct disadvantages, as they tend to let the foundation cloth slip, etc., and they aren't as sturdy as a rug hooking frame. If you stay with rug hooking very long, you'll find yourself investing in your own rug hooking frame, much like as is described in my article above. You will also need a rug hook, and they are also described in my article. I personally use a Hartman hook, but they are a bit spendy ($30 to $40), but last a lifetime. There are less expensive hooks you can find all over the internet. For your beginner class, I imagine you will need a medium-size hook suitable for a #8 cut of wool (meaning the strips will be cut into a 1/4" wide strip). You will also need a pattern, foundation cloth (linen, burlap, monks cloth) and wool to cut into strips. I suggest you contact the person providing the class and ask them if those materials are provided as part of your class fee (they often are provided). You will also need a wool cutter to cut your wool into strips, but that can be purchased later. I am sure your class instructor or the other people in your class will be happy to help you out in the beginning, as you will find rug hookers to be very generous and giving people! Please feel free to drop me a note if you have more questions, and always-always feel free to email me at Happy hooking! --Melanie

  7. Hi, I am interested in getting started in rug hooking and am also shopping around for the right backing. One question that I never see asked, is what weight of linen or other backing do I look for? There are different ounce weights for the different fabrics.
    Does it make any difference or am I just going to pay more? The higher the ounce the stiffer the fabric? That's my thought.
    Thanks for any help you can give me with this.
    -Kimberly :)

  8. Another newby who's accumulating supplies and opinions. Thanks for your compare/contrast post (which came up first in my google search). Do you have local suppliers or do you order on line? My in town guru supplies linen at $30/60"yard...and is very convenient! I wish I could find a cutter on sale, and that I knew what size cuts I preferred. I've worked with 4, 6, and 8 and yarn. So much to explore!