Making a penny rug is an American technique that dates back to the colonial times in the 17th century. It regained popularity in America during the Civil War in the mid 1800s. Although people call it a rug, a penny rug was never intended to be walked on and was a decorative piece used as a wall hanging, a table cover, or a lap robe. The term penny refers to the fact that women often used pennies as templates for cutting the wool circles. The rug makers cut circles, which were about the size of 20th-century US half dollars, from felted wool scraps and appliquéd them to a background.
Before the 1860s, American pennies, called the coronet large cent, were about double the diameter of later one-cent pieces. Even though the pennies were the most common objects used for templates, some people apply the term penny rug to any decorative piece of the era that features small, repetitive pieces of appliqué. Several museum pieces feature small squares instead of circles. The technique for all of these pieces of needlework was similar.
Makers of the penny rugs cut circles from felted wool scraps, using a penny as a template. During the earlier centuries of American culture, women needed to be very frugal. Historians say that they never threw away any scraps and that utilizing the penny-sized scraps appealed to their frugal nature. They felted the wool by pre-washing it, which caused the wool to shrink. This step was important to ensure that the wool pieces would not shrink and pucker after the penny rug was finished.
After they cut the circles, the rug makers appliquéd them to the background. Usually the rug maker used a decorative stitch, such as a buttonhole stitch. Sometimes people adorned the circles with appliqué or embroidered designs before attaching them to the background.
The backgrounds for the penny rugs often showed as much attention to frugality as the wool scrap circles. Most backings were made of wool, but some were made of coarsely woven cotton. Sometimes women used what they had on hand, such as old Army blankets.
Penny rug designs were simple. The rug makers did not use fancy, intricate designs. Often the borders were just as plain and consisted of simple binding. Others borders that were very popular included large tabs that created a chunky, fringe-like effect. Frequently, the maker embellished these tabs with one to three of the penny circles featured in the rug.
In the 20th century, there has been a revival of penny rugs. Several craft shops and Internet-based companies sell kits so that people can make their own penny rugs. Other sources offer patterns and instructions for the more adventurous rug maker. For anyone who does not want to make a penny rug, some companies sell them ready made.