Early American Floorcloths - Functional Artwork with an Interesting History
Early American floorcloth reproduction - Kim Wenger Hall 2016
Floorcloths are a beautiful, decorative and useful art form that has been a part of New England decor for over 300 years. Although few floorcloths remain from that era, artists today emulate their style and use nearly the same techniques to create them.
In 18th-century New England, the floorcloth was used as an alternative to richly-colored, imported “Turkish” rugs. Only the very wealthiest colonists had the means to purchase such luxuries. However, nearly every homesteader wanted to add color and culture to their sparely-built homes. Floorcloths fit the bill: colorful, inexpensive, versatile and even functional, protecting hand-hewn wooden floors from the wear and tear of a frontier family’s boots.Also known as oil cloths, Early American floorcloths were made by troweling thick paint onto large pieces of fabric which then was left to dry for 2-3 months. Wealthier people purchased their floorcloths from professional artisans, but many crafty colonists created their own. Fabric scraps, discarded clothing and spent cotton sails were all used as floorcloth material. Decorations were added by hand, stenciling through cut paper or using stamps from wood, vegetable or stone. We have few examples of these original floorcloths they were used til they were completely worn out.
Hand-painted Floorcloth Runner in a modern style - Kim Wenger-Hall, 2016
In the 1860’s linoleum was invented and took over floorcloths niche. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the floorcloth began to make a larger comeback as homeowners gained appreciation for the art form. Since then, artists like Kim Wenger-Hall have learned the craft, drawing inspiration from traditional patterns as well as incorporating more modern materials.
Hand painted floorcloth - Kim Wenger Hall, 2017
Kim has been making floorcloths for about two years. Recently we talked about her process and what drew her to start making these beautiful works of art:
What drew you to start creating floorcloths?
A client of mine in Merrimac MA was interested in getting two of her antique floorcloths from the early 1900’s restored. So, I offered to take on this project for her. I did a bit of research, then got to work restoring them with paints, glazes and varnish. After she received the restored cloths, she asked me to make two new ones to work with her existing decor
The original project for the client in Merrimac was creating a hand-painted black and white faux marble floor for their historic home. See photos below. This project took about 4 weeks to complete, and was based on traditional faux marble designs from the region’s historic past.
Hand Painted faux marble floor Kim Wenger-Hall 2016
Tell me about the techniques and materials you use when making floorcloths:
I use high-quality heavyweight cotton and flax canvas, prime it with gesso, stretch the canvas and, measure to size. Then, I apply at least two coats of base paint in professional quality acrylic paint, then the design - usually applied using stencils, hand painting or a combination of both, then three coats of VT Naturals Polywhey Varnish.
Where did you learn how to make them?
Internet research; Susan Arnold from Folk Floors in Thetford Vermont http://www.folkfloors.com/ creates beautiful floor cloths in a very different style. I picked her brain, and looked at the floor cloths I restored.
Do you create these by commission or is there somewhere you have them for sale?
Both! I got started by commission, now I have one in Long River Gallery in WRJ. That one is one of my first. I'm now doing a couple more for a private client in Haverhill NH.
What do you find interesting/fascinating about the process or the finished floorcloths?
The finished floorcloths are really durable and feel great to stand on as opposed to bare floor. They add a nice artistic touch to places where you might use a different type of runner or throw rug. Super-versatile in terms of style and colors.