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Rug Tufting: An Old Craft That's New Again

Hobby rug tufting is reemerging as a design trend and showing up on TikTok and Instagram

By Rosie Wolf Williams

After the pandemic began, AJ Peterson, who lives in Los Angeles, decided to learn how to make a rug. "My grandmother was a quilter and my great grandmother rug-hooked tapestries," says Peterson. "That wasn't initially why I got into tufting, but I do believe it's part of why I was so drawn to it."

A figure peeks out from a tufting frame. On the frame is a half tufted strawberry.
Tuft the World hosted over 30 workshops for more than 500 people and started online community where people can share knowledge and connect   |  Credit: @tuft_the_world/Instagram

At the time, Peterson worked as a User Experience Designer in the tech field. "I had been following a rug maker online for a while and set on a mission to figure out how they did it. It was in that research that I discovered the tufting machine! I bought it the next day," Peterson says. "Just before it arrived, I was laid off from my tech job, which turned out to be a blessing that gave me time to fully dive into the craft."

"I had been following a rug maker online for a while and set on a mission to figure out how they did it."

Knotted rugs, made from cut threads that stand up from the rug's base, have existed for centuries. The oldest known surviving knotted rug dates from 400 BC, says Tim Eads, co-owner of Tuft the World in Philadelphia. "These were made by knotting silk threads one by one onto a loosely woven base and then cutting all the threads to make an even surface. Hand-knotted rugs can take anywhere from 30 days to 8 years to complete."

"The earliest mentions we've found of tufting as a process to make rugs was in the mid to late 1800s. It appears that a number of folks tried to create a way to duplicate hand knotting," says Tiernan Alexander, Eads' wife and co-owner of Tuft the World. "The U.S. Patent Office holds several patents for early hand-held tufting tools dating back to the 1880s. So we know tufted rugs were being produced, albeit on a very small scale."

Young Catherine Evans had rediscovered the art of candlewicking in Georgia in the late 1800s and began making candlewick bedspreads.

"Candlewicking was an embroidery-like method of decoration where the stitches on the top of the fabric were pulled up to create what looked like little candle wicks sticking up from the surface of the cloth," explains Eads. "Catherine was already a strong needlewoman at 12 years old and she worked on this idea for three years until she came up with a process she called tufting (or turfing) that created her desired result. The first tufted bedspread she completed was a gift for her brother's wedding."

The young woman eventually opened Evans Manufacturing Company with her brother in 1917. They displayed their bedspreads on the fences along U.S Highway 41, and "Bedspread Alley" became popular with tourists traveling to and from Florida. Catherine didn't invent an electric tufting tool, but as numerous machines were being developed, Dalton, Georgia became the perfect place to industrialize.

"To this day, 75% of the rugs sold in the world are produced in Dalton. All because of a young crafter with a great idea," says Alexander.

The Rug Tufting Craze

Eads had been working at The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia while printing fabric and creating canvas bags as a side business. In 2018, Eads and Alexander (who has a master's degree in American Material Culture) became interested in the handheld tufting gun after a friend told them about a tufting gun she had seen at work. They found a manufacturer who was willing to sell them a tufting machine.

Subdued pastels move along the wall organically, bringing life where the walls meet in this tufted corner piece.
Tufted textile art by Jessica Costa  |  Credit: @tuft_the_world/Instagram

"When I first started using the machine and making tufted things, I thought I would be adding tufted elements to bags, etc. We jokingly called them carpet bags," says Eads. "I didn't really know what I was doing at the time with tufting so found it challenging to finish them in a way that was up to my normal standards."

Eads began to post tufting videos on social media, and his posts gained interest and attention. Seeing an opportunity, he launched Tuft the World, selling the machines and other tufting supplies to enthusiasts.


"He immediately realized there was no information online about how to use any of the tools or how to repair them if they broke," says Alexander. "He made numerous how-to videos of how to use the machine, how to build a frame, what kinds of fabrics worked best and more. Each time he discovered a great tool that was not available to individuals, like the tufting cloth, he would find a source for it and add it to our product line."

"If you're looking for a new challenge that will keep you engaged and satisfied, it's the perfect craft."

Soon, viewers were requesting classes. Eads and Alexander taught over 30 workshops to more than 500 people in 2019. "Many folks who took up tufting loved it, and those folks often created their own videos of their techniques, projects and designs," Alexander says. "[Eads] started an online community forum where individuals could share their own knowledge and connect with other tufters worldwide."

The pandemic put a hold on in-person workshops but created an interest in home décor and a need for solitary crafts. "TikTok was awash in mesmerizing videos of rugs seeming to materialize in seconds. Suddenly wild numbers of folks wanted to learn to make rugs," says Eads.

Alexander and Eads have written a book, "Tuft the World: An Illustrated Manual to Tufting Gorgeous Rugs, Decor, and More" that will be published in April 2024.

AJ Peterson found her purpose in rug tufting, and as a result created Magic Carpets Co. based in Los Angeles. 

"As I was teaching myself, I realized there were very few resources out there teaching folks how to tuft. As I learned, I began filming and sharing content online to share what I learned," she says. "In that sense, teaching has always been an integral part of my relationship with the craft. I am now a teaching artist. Alongside my personal practice, I also teach workshops and create online resources for folks who want to learn."

Rug Tufting as a Hobby

For those considering rug tufting as a hobby, Peterson suggests searching for rug tufting workshops in the area. "A lot of cities have tufting workshops at this point – I'd recommend trying it out in that setting before taking the full deep dive in," Peterson says. "There is so much magic to tufting – each line you tuft gets infused with your hard work, patience, and love. If you're looking for a new challenge that will keep you engaged and satisfied, it's the perfect craft. The startup costs for tufting are higher than other textile crafts, so it's nice to be confident before investing the money."

"A lot of cities have tufting workshops at this point – I'd recommend trying it out in that setting before taking the full deep dive in."

Alexander finds tufting to be incredibly satisfying. "I have watched many people who claim to have no artistic talent create gorgeous designs with a tufting machine who would never consider drawing or painting. There's something funny and fun about it that deactivates our self-judgment and lets people play with color and texture," she notes.

"Also it is a very fast process, meaning you can learn it in an afternoon. This gives folks a chance to develop their technique and style quite quickly. If you love a hands-on experience, look for a local tufting class. You'll be supporting a local maker and it'll help you meet other folks in the community," Alexander adds. "If you like to learn from YouTube videos, that is another great way to go. The main things you need are a tufting machine, cloth, a frame and a lot of yarn!"

Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere. Read More
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