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 Burlap: Also 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 Linen: Linen 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