Nora Chin thinks about rugs all of the time. “I fall asleep at night thinking about rugs [that] I want to make and new things I want to try,” she says. The lifelong Chicagoan was raised by artists. Spending her childhood figure skating and some of her early 20s skating professionally for Disney On Ice, she’s dipped her hands in various mediums after attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Working in photography, drawing, painting, and ceramics, she says that “humor is important to me in my work and I try to use it to tap into ideas of nostalgia and as a way to access more difficult or serious themes like the pain of growing up and millennial anxieties.” Ultimately, she landed on rug-making during the pandemic.
Chin isn’t alone in this newfangled desire to create something from which she derives comfort. The draw of some pandemic hobbies—like puzzles, rollerblading, or sewing—takes us back to simpler times. Folks have been feverishly searching for distractions, excuses to log off and escape their blue screens. People are reading again. People are making things. DIY has stolen the show. Whether it’s sewing your own face mask, taking up weaving, embroidering small objects, domestic art—particularly fiber arts—are exploding into the quarantine art scene.
In my personal social media bubble, I started to notice an influx of rug-making during the beginning of quarantine. I even got into the hobby myself. While sitting in my living room, staring at all of my objects, spending more time with them than ever before, I started picking apart what I wanted to change. I also longed to create something physical, something I could hang on my wall. Redecorating became an obsession of mine. After hours of scrolling through 1970s-themed rugs for my living room that cost hundreds of dollars, I realized I have all of the time in the world. I purchased a latch-hook kit from eBay for $30 and made my first rug. Doing something with my hands felt good and it conveniently distracted me from the pains of what was going on in the world.
Rug designs were originally rooted in a person’s tribe, village, or town. The design signified their identity, their city of origin, and their home. In 1848, the power loom was invented for carpets, and in the 1940s, manufacturing switched to tufted carpets, which still dominate the carpet industry today. A rug is still considered to be an interior statement piece. It can tie a room together or it can pull it apart.
In the past few years, the 1970s aesthetic has made its comeback in fashion, typography, home decor, and music. Burnt oranges and mustard yellows are infiltrating our lives. With this comes the shag rug, a popular rug that gets its name from the deep pile of yarn and that gained prominence in the 70s. Originally inspired by Flokati rugs from ancient Greece, the shag rug isn’t just something that lies on the floor. Wall hangings—which are really just large rugs—also started to become popular in the 70s. Symbols like mushrooms, owls, flowers, and warm colors can be found on DIY vintage shag wall hangings. Shag wall carpeting even made its way to interior design when folks decided they wanted their walls to be a bit shaggy, too.
The resurgence of interior design has influenced how people are redecorating or what they are looking for in a future home. Industrial design like concrete, steel, and cement are out of fashion. The outdoors—including warm colors, plants, outside patios—are hot on the market for folks looking at new spaces to rent and live. Fast Company wrote in a recent article that the 70s are coming back because so much of the design is rooted in nature. Being trapped inside, we crave the natural world. Why not decorate our insides like the outside?
Now that so many people are working remotely, their space at home is incredibly important. I used to come home to eat dinner, watch Netflix, and sleep. Now, I don’t leave my apartment for a week straight. Staring at my walls, my plants, my furniture, and my floors dominates my mind. I want my home to be comfortable, to be warm, to be the best place I want to be. It’s no surprise then that this type of design is coming back to inspire folks in their everyday lives, but also their creative lives, too.
Most everyday folks weave, hang knot, or buy a machine to make their rugs. Tim Eads, a Philadelphia-based artist and founder of Tuft the World, is quite literally selling out of his equipment and materials for rug-making. In 2018, Eads founded an online community for tufters and then began selling yarns and guns for interested rug-makers. Most folks find their equipment through his website, and since COVID-19 sprung into our lives, his business has bubbled over with orders. The tufting gun—invented in the 1930s—has been brought to the everyday consumer by Eads and he has found his gun orders skyrocketing since March. They are currently on preorder only.
Not only are we seeing sold-out rug supplies, we also see the incredible growth in popular TikTok videos in the #rugtiktok community where you can find time-lapse videos with millions of views. While perusing the app, it’s interesting to see the wide range of folks making rugs. Their styles all differ and their followers seem entranced. Between this and the Instagram surge, it seems that while everyone’s separated and quarantined, this new tufting circle has united folks from all over the world to unplug and create.
This method uses a tufting gun creating a much faster and easier production of a rug. Makers stretch a foundation cloth on a frame and then use the gun to shoot loops of yarn from the back to the front.
This method is when a maker pulls yarn from the back to the front of a foundation cloth using a rug hook tool.
This type of rug-making process requires no foundation cloth as the maker makes the foundation and pattern at the same time with a loom machine. They are typically smoother in texture.
Persian, Tibetan, and Indian rugs typically use this labor-intensive technique. The method requires a loom and weaving weft where they warp strands and tie small knots one at a time. This is a much slower process for high-quality rugs.
In the modern era, machines are able to loom, weave, hook, and tuft. These automated loom machines are used in factory settings and can create intricate patterns with technology supplied by a computer.
I first discovered Joanie Faletto’s work in 2020 when I learned about her rug-making collective with her partner, Myles Emmons, called Zoi Zoi. Although Faletto has been making rugs since before the pandemic, she used the time to really dive into the practice. In 2019, she made a doormat-sized rug with a punch needle which took her more than two weeks to finish. She decided she needed to invest in a rug tufting gun, which is basically a handheld sewing machine. The machines are quite an investment—the price ranges between $300 to $800—but they made her two-week rug projects something she could create in an afternoon. Faletto, a painter, says that some people call rug tufting just painting with yarn. However, she tends to disagree. “My process for each is completely different, and so is the end result. Just like painting, rug tufting with yarn is its own medium.” After a month of trial and error with her new machine, she learned how to create large-scale designs.
Faletto quarantined with her mom in Lemont where she set up a makeshift rug-tufting studio in her basement. During the pandemic, Faletto says that her new hobby was a big distraction from the news cycle and a way to spend her alone time. “It was kind of freeing to work in this way; living in quarantine there are no deadlines, and that took the stress out of needing to finish a project and finish it perfectly. There is virtually no pressure when you’re looking at an unending timeline,” she says.
Faletto begins with a colored pencil sketch of a design. After the design is made, she gathers the yarn she needs, stretches backing fabric onto a wooden frame, and then she draws the image onto the fabric with soft vine charcoal. She then fills in the design with her tufting gun, line by line.
Since the pandemic, Faletto’s rug work has changed. She explains that her COVID work takes a “detour into a joyful escape from reality.” She sees her rugs as a “ticket out of the pandemic for even a minute.” Her designs are colorful and loud. Zoi Zoi launched during the pandemic with their collection of work called “Clubhouse,” which focuses on nightlife and how it’s forever changed due to the pandemic.
“I think the idea to pay homage to nightlife subconsciously transpired,” she says. “Dancing and dance music is really important to both of us personally, and is one of the main things that brought us together in the first place. The collection is both celebratory and mournful, but has a thread of hope that dancing until the early hours of the day aren’t gone for good. Fingers crossed.”
For artists like Faletto and Chin, rug-making is a way to cope. Learning a new process like tufting has been beneficial for Chin, who lost her job and “a lot of control” in her life during the pandemic. Engaging with rug-making has been a distraction and a way to gain back the confidence that everything will be okay.
“It’s also given me a small source of income that makes a huge difference. Financially the pandemic has put me in a somewhat precarious spot, so every time I sell a rug I feel so grateful. Thank you to everyone who has bought a rug from me and to anyone who is supporting independent artists during this time,” she says.
Chin’s works are currently smaller as she’s working from home. She finds the beauty of working on a smaller scale as it helps her decide what works and what doesn’t—she’s still experimenting with the process. “I like the intimacy of them, being able to hold them in my hand and really explore them up close. Larger rugs are like another body in the room with you which [is] kind of the opposite. Now the rug is holding you! I want to experiment with all sizes. Since I’m still relatively new to tufting I’m still kind of finding myself in the work so I’m definitely doing lots of experimentation,” she says.
Like any creative practice, rug-making is meditative. For these two artists, creating a physical object is absolutely essential during the massive changes happening in the world. For some TikTok followers, just watching the making of a rug is entrancing. Whether it’s by hand or with a gun, creating a drawing with yarn has taken storm during the pandemic. Whether it’s our yearning for domesticity, looking to make extra cash, or just being an artist, there’s no doubt that this new medium is here to stay. v
To purchase Joanie Faletto’s rugs, contact her through her Instagram or Zoi Zoi’s Instagram. You can also e-mail her at email@example.com. To purchase rugs from Nora Chin on her Instagram, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.