November 11, 2009

Making mats: An old Northumbrian art and craft

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

Helen Brown's fireside proggie - made by her mother
(Photo copyright Helen Brown)

History
Ever since humans began living in caves, they have used various natural materials to cover the floor and insulate themselves from the earth's damp and cold. At first it would be grass, reeds, dead bracken, springy branches or heather. Then this would be often overlaid with animal skins or furs.

This practice continued well into the 19th Century but was gradually replaced, especially in the richer houses with woven floor coverings. In poorer houses with a greater need for warmth and protection from the cold, damp earth floor, or a floor covered in flat flag stones, jute sacking came into use.

Even in the poorest of households, the women folk had a keen pride in their housekeeping skills and worked hard to improve and decorate their homes to the best of their ability and within their means. Consequently, the rough Hessian floor coverings were transformed into attractive and artistic mats by the simple process of inserting strips of coloured material into the Hessian weave.

These mats were a great outlet for people's artistic talents seen in their increasingly elaborate designs and colours. They soon took on a regional identity with communities, even individual families, developing a particular style or pattern unique to them. In every village, and often in every street, there was always someone with a recognised talent in making mats ('matting').

Mats versus carpets
In our young days up to the 1950s, carpets were for posh folk who had risen up the social ladder a bit, and working class folk all used mats that they made themselves. In any case, fitted carpets (even if you could afford them) were no good for houses where men came in from dirty jobs with their boots and clogs on, and many like pitmen bathed by the fire each night on return from work.

Taking work footwear off 'ootside the hoose' was not standard practise as most of the year is was 'far ower caad'. Instead, folk gave their boots a good "dad' (clean) with the broom that always stood by the back door, before you came inside. There was a real skill in this, making sure you got the last vestiges of muck off all the way around each hobnailed boot, clog or wellie. There was often a cast iron bar embedded in a flat stone at the back door on which you could scrape the boot sole to dislodge the muck.

Carpets were no good, because if water was sloshed out of the fireside tin bath, or hayseeds fell out of boots when removed by the fire, you couldn't lift the carpet like you could a mat to take it outside for 'a gud shek'. If you did see bits of carpet in a house, it was always an off-cut that was used as a mat.

Carpet sweepers were very rare and again only the posh folk had them. They never worked well on mats because of the uneven pile. There was a 'Ewebank' model that you pushed back and forwards on it's four little rubber-covered wheels. The hand brush and little coal shovel were the standard gear for the rest of us.

Today, proggie mats are laid on top of carpets as features and not to bath on. They are even used as wall hangings

Types of mat
Two distinct types of mats evolved; proggies (also called clippies or stobbies), and hookies. The names described how they were made, and before you decided to 'put a mat in' - (i.e. in the frames), quite a bit of planning was needed to get all the materials together.

The backing


First you needed Hessian for the backing, and buying it was a last resort. Most folk waited till the man of the hoose was able to 'acquire' a good big sack (or poke) from a farm or meal warehouse that had contained wheat, oats, or imported oilseed cake. These bags were big and their tight weave (see the photo on left) made them very strong. There were other big sacs around like those used for flaked maize, but these were too open in the weave.

You needed at least a 16 stone sack to make a decent fireside mat, as a hundredweight (112 pounds) sack would only make a small bedside mat or one for the back door. You really couldn't join two sacks together as the join caused problems. The sack was carefully opened out, shaken vigorously to get rid of the last grains (the shekins 'o the bag) and washed to get it thoroughly clean. The skekins 'o the bag was a term given to a late born from older parents!


Design

In most cases, the man of the house got the job of drawing the design. In the Dalton house, Dad got the job of carefully drawing the pattern on the mat with the handle end of the dip-in pen. We bairns were warned to keep well away in case we 'couped' the ink bottle. Apart from pen and ink, the other essential tool was a long wooden straightedge. I remember Dad regularly being asked to draw designs on mats for other neighbours in Noble Street.

You started by drawing a broad border all around, usually about 4-6 inches wide, and then the pattern went inside that. Circles were very popular as there was always a wide selection of plates of different sizes in the kitchen to draw around. You could use plates to make petals of flowers. Diamonds and squares were the other main feature.

These basic shapes allowed mixing a wide range of 'clippings' to be used, as most mats were a classic example of 'mix and match'. The shapes would be solid colours with the infill around them made up of a mix of all the colours you had available

Sourcing of 'clouts/cloots' for clippings
The 'cloots' to be cut into clippings for the mat came from 'aad claes' (old clothes), long past handing down to younger family members. Trousers, jackets and coats made from hardwearing tweeds or worsteds were best, so navy blue (e.g. Clive's father's old railway uniforms), black or brown were the commonest colours available.

Old army great coats and uniforms were very popular, from those who wanted to forget the past! Clive's father's 1914-18 army uniform that hung behind our front door at No 6 Noble Street proudly went into a mat (along with its memories) when the moths started on it. After the WW11, army and Home Guard greatcoats were the top coat of choice by all who worked outside. The problem was they never wore out, so were safe from the mat for a long time.

Bright reds, yellows or greens were in much shorter supply and would come from worn out 'Sunday best' clothes. Some womenfolk 'specialised' in attending jumble sales with 'matting' in mind, to pick up suitable materials for a few pence that nobody else wanted. All these odds and ends went into the ragbag or clipping bag for the big day. Neighbours would also help each other so nothing was wasted; if it couldn't be worn, then it would end up being walked on.

If you had a special mat in mind, or were really short of colours, then it was well worth a trip to Otterburn Mill on the bus where you could buy tweed offcuts from the mill. This was beautiful cloth spun from the local Scottish Blackface and Cheviot sheep's wool, and then woven into tweeds that certainly lifted the look of the finished mat. Sheep farmers used to send wool from their own sheep to the mill to be made into tweed for their family's use. You could pick them at the mart, as they wore the same coloured suits for donkey's years.

Preparing the clippings
Once you'd got all the material gathered up, the whole family would sit round the kitchen table, carefully cutting each garment into long, 1inch wide strips, keeping the different colours separate from each other. Neighbours would call in and help out at any time of day when they had a spare minute in the busy routine of 'keepin hoose'.

For 'hookie' mats (see later) you cut the strips as long as possible and then rolled them into balls. The material for these was often much less hard wearing and skirts, blouses and even nylon stockings (laddered of course) were used. These were often much more highly coloured than the workaday tweeds and twills, so made brighter and more cheerful mats - often used in bedrooms or bathrooms (if you had one!).

Cutting long strips of old rags with sheep shears to make a 'hookie' mat

You needed a pair of large and sharp scissors to do this, but the tool of choice, if you had a shepherd friend was to borrow a pair of old sheep shears. With these you could slice through the cloth with a long straight cut - as long as they were sharp.

In Noble Street, Margaret Smith lived at No six and her father - Michael Anderson was a famous shepherd, (then retired and living in Woodburn). He generously provided an expertly-sharpened pair of old shears to cut the clippings, when somebody in the street was had plans to 'put a mat in'.

The long strips for hookies rolled into a ball ready
for use, and short cloths cut for proggies.


For 'stobbies' (see later), each long strip had to be cut into shorter pieces about 2 1/2 inches long. You could wrap the strip around a match box and then cut through the material at each end of the box, producing perhaps 6 clippies at each snip!

Picture the scene!
The whole family, including Grandma and a neighbour, sitting round the big, scrubbed kitchen table. The Aladdin lamp hanging on a hook in the ceiling beam, casting its soft glow over the busy workers and even softer shadows into the corners of the room. Maybe there would be a lamp in the middle of the table - which you had to take care not to bump, or turn the wick up so far that it blackened the long glass!

'Fathor' would be sitting on his chair by the fire, his pipe puffing out clouds of blue baccy smoke, occasionally spitting into the ash below the grate, and reading the Newcastle Journal or the Hexham Courant. He wasn't missing any of the juicy bits of street or village gossip! One thing that he was looking forward to was when the mat would be finished, as it would be given high priority and there could be a few 'cowld dinners' before then.

The black cast iron kettle would be bubbling quietly on the hob and the old tomcat curled up on the sofa, keeping a close eye on the Border terrier sitting by Dad's feet. Conversation would be in low and sporadic - for example:

'Oah did ye hear that owld Bella's gittin away?.
'Nivor!
'Aye - fund hor deed in the hoose, cowped ower hor mat frames'!

A feeling of warmth, security, contentment and togetherness would pervade the room as the heaps of different coloured clippings grew, each being put into a separate bag; red, yellow, green, blue, etc.

'Gittin the frames oot'
The next stage was to fetch the mat frames from their summer hidey hole as matting was usually a winter job. They'd be in the built-in cupboard by the fire, in the loft above the pantry, or out in even the coal hoose. They'd need a good wesh to get rid of the coal dust or blow away cobwebs before use.

The frames consisted of two pieces of wood between 4 and 6 feet (1.8m) long and two inches (50mm) square. Each piece had a rectangular slot or mortise cut through at each end, perhaps 3 inches (75mm) x 3.4 inches (19mm). Through these mortise holes you slipped two thinner slats, about 3 inches (1.5m) long, and secured by wooden pegs to hold the two sides apart and keep the canvas drum tight.


The frame, with its canvas sewn in place to the strips of webbing tacked to each main beam, Work then commenced in earnest - but no rush. This was a labour of love and required time and thought.

The Dalton's neighbours in Noble Street (The Davidsons at No 5) owned the Rolls Royce of mat frames. Each side frame was round and about 6 inches in diameter - but the surface was not smooth. Some clever joiner after turning it smooth then must have hand planed about six flat faces on each roller to cause grip on the Hessian to keep it tight.

But that was not all - instead of having tenon holes and end rails, there was a ratchet and pawl mechanism at the end of each frame. So you didn't need to stop, loosen then retightened the frames, you just released the pawl and gave the frame a turn till the Hessien was tight and the pawl clicked back in again. 'Varry clivor'.

Where to put the frames?
Mat frames took up a fair bit of room and in our one-up and one-doon houses, there was not a lot of it aboot! In the Clegg hoose, the frames were stretched between the kitchen table and the back of the sofa. You really needed enough space for two folk to mat at the same time, so your needed plenty of clear space each side.

The other option was to use trestles. They were a great idea but storing them between mats was always a problem. In Noble Street the Davidson's at No 5 had trestles for their fancy mat frames and they used to rest between mats in the loft above the pantry during which time they fed the woodworms.

The method 'Proggies'

"Proggie' mat made by Don Clegg and his tools for both hookies and proggies.

Using your progger (a pointed piece of wood, bone, antler or steel; hand shaped of course), you made the first hole through the canvas. Now, using the progger again, you pushed one end of a clippie through the hole. With your other hand underneath the work you pulled the clippie halfway through.

You then made another hole about 2 or 3 threads away from the first and pushed the other end of the clippie through, pulling it firmly into position from below. Your very first stitch - and only one of thousands before the mat was finished! At the finish when you saw the pile side for the first time, (as up to them you only saw the back side of the mat), some bits of the pile may have needed a trip with to level them off.

Close-up view of Helen Brown's 'proggie' mat showing both sides
(Photo copyright Helen Brown)

'Hookies'
Hooky mats required a different tool and a different technique. The tool used was like a big-gauge crochet hook but with a wooden handle and usually shop bought. In making the mat you held the ball of material on your knee under the work, pushed the hooky through from above, clicked up the material and pulled a loop through to the top. Back through with the hooky, click another loop and pull through.

The middle three tools are for making 'hookie' mats

You then continued in a straight (ish) line until the ball was used up, then progressed to another ball and a different colour. Thus these mats consisted of a series of parallel lines of colours right across the frame. Although they were much quicker to make, they had one big disadvantage. An over-inquisitive child could soon discover that, if you pulled on of the ends of a row, the whole row could be unravelled with a single, steady pull!

Cuttin the mat oot
It was always exciting to get to the last frame and then the great moment when you got a pocket knife or razor blade out to cut the stitching that held the mat in the frame. The gathered family and the neighbours who had helped would stand back and admire (or quietly note errors while keeping thor gobs firmly shut) their work, as the mat was laid out by the fire - brilliant in it's fresh colours and before it had been seasoned by clarts and stains from heavy boots, and imbedded with cat and dog hair.

Art to walk on for years
These hand-made mats were true works of art and lasted for years and years. Many became collectors' items and were eagerly sought after at the 'term' sales in May and November, often making prices far in excess of their true worth. Some farmers' wives even made mats specifically to sell and made a handsome profit to add to their 'egg money'.

Mat making today is in the realms of the art and craft movement. Heritage centres hold demonstrations and workshops. Some makers have turned the simple fireside mat into beautiful wall hangings and simple geometric designs are now country scenes, animals or abstract psychedelic creations, and grace the walls of hospitals and other public buildings.

All in all though, we bet that these modern descendants of the old clippie and hookie mat aren't half as much fun to make, and don't engender the same feelings of 'family' that they did when we laddies were in short trousers.

A good old faithful well-worn proggie


Comment from Helen Brown of Tarset
I used to make mats in the winter months with my Mother. When Dad died she took mat making up again so we now have one in the kitchen. It used to be in front of the fire, but I moved it to the kitchen the following year when Mother made another for the fireplace. Last winter she produced another, and it's in the spare bedroom being kept for best because she says she's not likely to make any more.

Mother would rummage at jumble sales and ask charity shops for old unwanted materials. I had to warn her off the modern 'synthetic ' material, as it's seriously flammable. It's not so easy to find the thicker cotton materials anymore for mats, especially if they're going in front of an open fire. I believe it was tweedy stuff that used to be put in them, which was a good way to use up the worn clothes for sure.

I do occasionally give my mats 'a gud shaek' outside, but have to admit to running over them with the vacuum which doesn't do a very good job, and can pull the bits out if you're not careful.

These mats are coming back into fashion and can make a lot of money at Rothbury furniture sales. But then from the amount of work that goes into them, they deserve to make a lot of money. They'll last forever, but I haven't worked out how to 'wash' them.

6 comments:

  1. From Bill Charlton, Coff's Harbour, Australia

    Clive - I liked the nice fire in Helen Brown's place and the bonny proggie mat. It looks good. We used to make mats in the winter months too. That's where my old Navy uniform ended its days - in a mat. Good reading about mat making on the blog.
    Bill

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  2. This was a most interesting read. It's often forgotten how valuable this craft was to hard-working folk with little money and few opportunities to buy floor coverings.
    I once knew a lady in North West Durham who was a skilled mat maker, both proggy and clippy, and she offered me her frames when she gave up the craft. I often wish I'd taken them.
    I suppose some rug making will still be undertaken by north-east women. The nearest thing to the craft still going on in my knowledge is this lady who has a shop at Kirkharle near Wallington in mid-Northumberland:
    http://www.kirkharlecourtyard.co.uk/shops/shopiw.php
    She 'knits' carpets from cloth strips on giant knitting needles the thickness of broom shanks. She made a bedside rug to order for a friend of mine recently.

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  3. What a fascinating post! Let's hope these crafts never die out...what a shame that would be!

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  4. I have to tell you that "proggies" sell for over $1,000.00 here in the USA-it would be worth it to learn the craft-Emma thanks for the website-I love the big needles and her fashion style-amazing work
    michele.turney
    michele.turney@yahoo.com

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  5. This was very helpful as I am thinking of having a go myself and once I have mastered the art will pass this onto my daughter.

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  6. Having read your article, i have contacted Woodhorn museum, who have leant me some frames which we intend to put a mat in with members of our Scout Group.I will let you know how we progress,Woodhorn colliery have lots of examples they use when showing Children this craft. Ive also learned that my scout leader makes new frames for Woodhorn so the craft seems very alive still in Ashington and Woodhorn.

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