Backstage at Lehmans: What You Don’t Know About Our Durable Denim Rugs

The loom at MCC Connections where denim rugs (and other types of rugs) are made.

The loom at MCC Connections where denim rugs (and other types of rugs) are made.

You may know that our Tough Woven Denim Rugs are made at our local MCC Connections Thift Shop. But do you know how those rugs happen?

They’re woven by hand on a vintage two-harness loom the size of a Smart Car, by volunteers like Lavern Yousey, who’s been at the shop for 2 years. “Everything starts back in the sorting area, where the donations come in. Folks drop things off, and we even get things mailed in.” (More on that mailing-in thing later.)

Seams, pockets, and zippers are cut off of the jeans and used for other projects.  Very little of the denim is thrown out.

Seams, pockets, and zippers are cut off of the jeans and used for other projects. Very little of the denim is thrown out.

After the donated denims are sorted, the ones too tattered to sell go to Lavern and his team. The whole garment is pulled onto a giant rotary cutter, and is split up the side seams to yield flat pieces of denim. After that, pockets are ripped off, zippers cut out, and the waist band removed.

The separated pieces don’t go waste, though. The zippers go to an student art program in Cleveland, Ohio. The seams go into rugs of their own, although Lavern feels that they don’t weave as evenly as the denim strips. “Those seams hold the warp threads differently. They’re sure durable though.”

The flat pieces are cut up into squares to make denim comforters.  The extra "scraps" are then cut into strips for make the rugs.

The flat pieces are cut up into squares to make denim comforters. The extra “scraps” are then cut into strips for make the rugs.

The flat leg-lengths of denim go to another station, the measure/cut board. Each piece is evaluated and measured. Volunteer Marvin Krabill cuts the good sections of denim sized pieces for the quilting teams that are set up on the opposite side of the brightly lit, spacious workroom. He wields a large, handheld rotary cutter with the air of a pro. Many of these sized pieces will be worked into the quilts that are auctioned at the big MCC Quilt Auction every summer.

This little machine makes cutting the denim into strips quick and easy.

This little machine makes cutting the denim into strips quick and easy.

Finally, the last remnants of the denim jeans are cut into strips on a strap cutter, and those are the denim pieces transformed by the weaver’s skills into Lehman’s rugs.

Each rug is woven using continuous lengths of thread as the warp, which gives the rugs their tight texture. The weft–the material that passes through the warp threads–are the strips of denim. The warp threads feed off a large vertical board, through the reed (the long metal comb-like assembly) at the rear of the loom, and are tied to the two harnesses on the loom.

Once the strips are cut, they need to be sewn together in one long piece to weave.

Once the strips are cut, they need to be sewn together in one long piece to weave.

To prepare the weft, the denim strips are sewn together end-to-end into a continuous strip. The stitching runs perpendicular and along the bias, to hold the pieces fast. On the day Country Life visited, Vernice Bixler, a retired dairy farmer, was commanding the sewing table. “This is a 1940s Singer machine. Although it’s electrified, it can be worked as a treadle machine too.” Although his mother was an avid quilter, Vernice didn’t start sewing until he’d started volunteering at MCC Connections “12 or so” years ago.

Denim is wound around a shuttle in preparation for the loom.

Denim is wound around a shuttle in preparation for the loom.

Vernice’s narrow, multi-blue denim strip is wound around a shuttle once he’s sewn a sufficient length together. (Think of the shuttle as a long, skinny wooden bobbin.) The weaver then passes the loaded shuttle through threads, trailing a length of denim. The weaver then opens and closes the harnesses on the loom in a pre-determined order, and the first ‘row’ of the rug is woven.

After the rug is finished, it is cut off the loom and finished off.  Here they cut the threads to a specific length for the tassels at the end.

After the rug is finished, it is cut off the loom and finished off. Here they cut the threads to a specific length for the tassels at the end.

“The longest one we did here was a 23-foot long rug,” says Lavern. That particular rug was a custom order. In general, the weaving team does rugs that are approximately 2 ft. wide and 4 ft. long for Lehman’s. “After the rug is finished,” says Lavern, “we cut it off the loom, and knot the warp threads. The cut warp threads are the fringe on the rugs. We comb them out so they don’t get tangled up, and knot the threads in bundles of six.” Martin alternates between cutting and combing when finished rugs land on the edge of his cutting area.

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Bins full of strips lay in wait to be sewn together and woven into a rug.

In the work area for the weavers, there are bins full of denim: flats waiting to be trimmed into strips, strips waiting to be sewn together, sewn strips ready to be wound onto shuttles, shuttles loaded with sewn denim strips. A large shelving unit holds denim scraps in various stages too, as well as enormous cones of cotton threads that are strung onto the warping board as the weaving process progresses.

Because of the random nature of the donated denims, each of the woven rugs are one of a kind. There’s no set pattern. The volunteer weavers just use every single inch they can salvage, turning out gorgeous handwoven pieces.

After knotting the tails, the rugs are ready for purchase.

After knotting the tails, the rugs are ready for purchase.

Suddenly, there’s an announcement that a big donation requires extra hands back in the sorting area. The weavers look at each other, and grin, knowing that more material is coming their way. And they go to help.

Editor’s Note: Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a non-profit organization that helps people in need in America and around the world. If you want to help, you can collect and send old jeans (100% cotton denim only) to: (US Mail) MCC Connections, PO Box 19, Kidron, OH 44636; (UPS/FedEX) MCC Connections, 4080 Kidron Road, Dalton, OH 44618.