If you’re a strong advocate for recycling, you might be surprised to learn that the concept has its roots in the textile industry. Textile recycling, you may know, started in the 19th century with the rag-and-bone men, who would forage for unwanted secondhand materials and sell their wares to merchants. It also took an early (and a bit more creative) form in the making of rag rugs.
Created from discarded scraps of fabric, rag rugs are resourceful, unique, and eco-friendly alternatives to purchasing brand-new floor accessories for your home. For these reasons, the demand for rag rugs remains high among consumers today.
As a company who prides itself in creating innovative ways to reuse secondhand clothes, it’s only fitting that WOVIN inaugurates our new Artists & Makers Spotlight series with the story of a family-owned company that has been in the textile recycling business for over three decades.
The Vermont Rug Farm has mastered the art of creating beautiful rugs out of old, leftover material. And the company’s history is just as colorful as the rugs they create.
“I was unemployed with two children and a wife,” says Hal Issente, who founded the rug farm along with his wife, Wyfy. “We had recently moved to a rural farmhouse in Vermont. My car had broken down, which made it difficult to find work,” he explains.
So Hal made a trip to the Department of Employment Security in Woodstock, where he was met with little optimism from the department staff. “I had had 16 jobs in the previous three years,” Hal says with a laugh. That kind of job history did not make for a promising job candidate back then. But, the department was piloting a special program - one that would pay for all of his vocational training.
Though the popular training programs - to become a mechanic, electrician, or plumber - were filled, the department gave Hal another option: pick what you want to be trained in and we’ll pay for it.
Hal left the office, packed a sleeping bag, jungle hammock, and his dog to camp on a mountain near his home. For three days and two nights, he thought about this offer. “I was a bit of a hippy then,” says Hal. “I was also a part-time yogi, and knew about fasting and solitude.”
When he returned, he exclaimed one word to his wife: “Weaving!” And with that, the seed of the Vermont Rug Farm was sown.
At this point, neither Hal nor his wife had ever seen a loom. But Hal had always had an interest in crafts, taking pottery and silversmith classes in college.
With the department’s approval, Hal received training at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen in Vermont - and two years later, Hal began teaching his craft at the South Woodstock Country School.
“I learned more while teaching at the school than on my own,” says Hal. “With fifteen students, all doing different things and using different techniques, I picked up ideas from my students and adapted them in my own weaving.”
Hal began to master the craft. In time, he was able to invest in another loom and taught his wife to weave. He continued teaching workshops at the South Woodstock Country School (until it closed in 1980), as well as private classes.
In 1976, Hal and Wyfy took the plunge. They started weaving full-time, selling at various craft fairs and essentially, and as Hal puts it, essentially “winging it.”
Their hard work paid off. Not long after, the couple met the owner of a well-known Boston rug shop at a craft fair. One large order from him turned into more orders and led, in time, to even more accounts, including a stream of upscale, custom design stores - like the Kellogg Collection in Washington, D.C.
The Vermont Rug Farm products aren’t like any others on the market. Though the rugs are made of reused, older material, there are no odors or added gases/chemicals that are typically found in carpets. Their rugs are also hypoallergenic for customers who are sensitive to pet hair. And of course, they are all unique; no two customers own the same rug.
To begin a rug, the couple first makes a color board of fabric swatches.
Once the colors are chosen, they weigh the fabric (a certain amount of fabric is needed for different rugs) according to the colors.
The fabric is cut into strips and sewn into a sequential pattern for the project.
As their material source is mainly discarded fabrics, the Vermont Rug Farm’s inventory is constantly changing. In the past, for instance, they sourced denim and wool to make their products. But now these materials, especially fleece, are harder to come by.
Currently, the rags used to make the farm’s rugs are fabric remnants, or leftovers from textile companies. Additional fabrics are closeout purchases from retail stores, as well as recycled materials.
“Rags used to be cheap,” says Hal. “Like $0.30 a pound (35 year ago).” Now, the going rate is more in upwards of $3 per pound, he says. Expenses of trucking and the transportation of materials adds to these increases in prices.
The Stuff Rag Rugs Are Made Of
- Recycling centers and thrift shops. “We got materials from places who were going to recycle those fabrics anyway,” says Hal. “And we returned our leftover material to the recycling centers.”
Manufacturers. “We would get bales of cloth leftovers from manufacturers of drapery, sheets, and other clothing,” says Hal. “They would come in 750-pound bales delivered by truck, and what we couldn’t use we recycled. We ended up saving about 50% of what we purchased.” American textile mills also used to supply Hal and Wyfy with smaller 125-pound boxes of cloth.
Quilters. “Often, they have what is called a ‘stash’ or hoard of fabrics,” says Hal, who explains that quilters were also a source of rug material for them in the past (though not as common now).
Hit/Miss sales. “We would frequent ‘bag sales’ at places like drug addiction treatment centers, where we’d buy hundreds of bags for about a dollar each,” says Hal. He calls this practice “freelance recycling.”
Nowadays, there aren’t many textile mills left in Vermont. “The only time you can get cheap cloth is for things like overruns, where the customer ordered too much or can’t afford to pay,” says Hal. But with all the efficiencies in production now, he explains, that rarely happens.
While their rugs aren’t currently made of recycled clothing (larger scraps of fabric are preferable and more cost-effective), clothing is becoming more attractive as a source of material. “We have to be as efficient as possible,” says Hal, “so if we are looking for clothing, we usually go to local rummage sales or bag sales, where they are practically giving the items away.”
When a fellow craftsman told Hal about Etsy, the couple was still busy with local craft fairs and farmers markets in high-income affluent areas on the northeast. But in January 2012, they decided to refocus their efforts online.
By creating a presence on Etsy, Hal and Wyfy were able to sell their rugs to customers all over the world, from New Zealand to the Netherlands and beyond, and to movie set stylists, interior designers, and many others.
Etsy also allows Hal and his wife to focus on the weaving part of the business. They no longer worry so much about running the operations side of their company, and are able to be selective about their clients and projects. Occasionally, they will even make custom orders for quilters and drapers who supply their own fabric.
It’s admirable how a company like the Vermont Rug Farm can continue to adapt and evolve, while at the same time, stay remarkably true to their values and history.
Vermont Rug Farm + WOVIN
We are excited to partner with the family and celebrate their business in the first part of our Artists & Makers Spotlight series.
Support small, family-owned business and treat your home to a unique, recycled work of art. Make a purchase at the Vermont Rug Farm and receive a special WOVIN discount! The Vermont Rug Farm is offering a 10% discount to WOVIN readers on all rugs (except 8x10 sizes and custom orders) valid until Feb 29. Use code WOVIN10 at checkout.
Interested in being featured in our next Artists & Makers Spotlight series? Contact us for more information.