Volume VIII, No. 3, Spring 1981



Story and photographs by Gina Jennings, Color photograph by Mary Schmalstig, Illustrations by Lisa Mestan

Did you ever hear of anyone making a rug with a toothbrush? Maymee Campbell made some. So did several other women she knows about who learned how many years ago.

The oval-shaped rug resembles both a braided rug and a crocheted rug. The rug begins with a braided center strip, but instead of rows of braids sewn together, the rows are interconnecting stitches made with strips of material as in a crocheted rug. However, a needle made from a toothbrush is used instead of a crochet hook.

The needle is made by cutting the bristle end off of an old toothbrush and filing this end 'into a point. The needle's eye is already there on the other end of the handle. The needle can be made from other materials, and years ago people may have whittled the needle out of bone or wood. Before the use of plastic, toothbrushes had bone handles and probably some thrifty ancestor, who hated throwing anything away, discovered that with very little extra whittling, these handles made excellent needles. Today our plastic toothbrush handles work very well, but any material can be fashioned into a needle by whittling and filing.

Maymee Campbell has had her rugs for fifteen years and they still look great. "I wanted rugs in that early American style," she said. "A friend of my daughter's knew how to make toothbrush rugs, and she sent a rug to me. I thought it was very pretty, and I thought that's just what I'd like. So I learned how."

The toothbrush rug is not difficult to make. It has two basic procedures--making the needle and making the rug.

The materials needed to make the toothbrush needle are: an old toothbrush, a pocketknife, some fine sandpaper and different sizes of rattail files. (Ill. 1)

With a pocketknife cut the whole bristle end off of any old toothbrush which has a hole in the handle. Whittle this end to a narrow and pointed shape. File with a rattail file to smooth out the rough edges. Then sand the needle point with fine sandpaper until it is as smooth as possible so that the needle will slide easily through the material.

Elongate the hole at the opposite end of the needle by whittling and then inserting a small rattail file to smooth the edges. File until the length of the hole is about 3/8 to 1/2 inch long and then

In addition to the toothbrush needle, to make the toothbrush rug you need: several yards of fabric, needle and sewing thread, a pencil, scissors and a yardstick.

The fabric used in the rug may be new or used, but if new, the material should be colorfast so the rugs may be washed without bleeding. The fabric should be either all used or all new so that it wears evenly. Also, for a more uniform texture and wear, most people prefer using the same kind of material throughout the rug, whether it is cotton, wool, double knit or other. Cotton is easily torn into strips and also pulls through the needle and the rug easily. Mrs. Campbell suggested using material that is 65% polyester and 35% cotton because it is colorfast, tears into strips easily and does not fray. The amount of fabric to make a rug depends on the size of rug you want. If you use two different colors, you will need about eight yards of fabric for each color. Using this yardage the finished rug should be about 24 by 36 inches.


In choosing the colors for the rug, make sure the colors blend in with the colors in the room. Since the rug will be on the floor, use fairly dark colors which show soil less than the lighter ones. A good rule is to make the center and outside border edge of darker colors than the rest of the rug. Be creative when designing the rug and use more than one color. A more pleasing pattern has odd number of rows, such as five rows of one color and three rows of another color. Another color plan is called hit or miss. A friend of Mrs. Campbell's remembers her mother and aunt making the rugs with small remnants of material and just using whatever color they picked up next, hence the name hit or miss.

After selecting the material and deciding on the pattern for the rug, the first step is to tear the material into strips. Try not to use short strips, for the longer the strips, the less time it takes to make the rug because you don't spend as much time sewing strips of material together. However, strips of more than a yard will be cumbersome to work with. In preparing the material for tearing, lay a piece on a flat surface. Place a yardstick on the edge and mark every 3/4 inch with a pencil. Make sure the marks are straight and even to get uniform strips when you tear. Clip each mark about half an inch or just enough to get the material started tearing, and then tear the material at each mark to get 3/4 inch strips. Fold the strips in half lengthwise and press with an iron to make them easier to work with and give a neater final appearance. It is helpful to roll the strips into balls by color or wrap the strips on pieces of cardboard to keep them untangled. This will also keep the edges from raveling, but raveled edges won't hurt the appearance of the rug. Some people think they make the rug look prettier.

Maymee Campbell whittles the end of a toothbrush to make a needle. (Photo by Mary Schmalstig.)

Ill. 1--Materials to make the needle.

Ill. 2--The finished needle.


Now with the needle made and the strips torn and pressed, you are ready to begin the rug. First form the center with a braid. Start the braid by sewing the ends of three folded strips of material together with a single-threaded needle. (Ill. 3) Pin the ends to something solid like an upholstered chair arm to prevent the braid from moving around and to produce a more uniform braid. Braid a strip one-third as long as the rug will be when completed. If you braid twelve inches, then the finished rug will be 36 inches long and approximately 24 inches wide. When you have braided the desired length, cut off two of the three strips. (Ill. 4) After braiding back any strips which have loosened after cutting, sew the two ends to the third strip. (Ill. 5)

The next step is to make the loops at the end of the braid which form the basis of the basic stitch. Thread about 5 or 6 inches of the end of the remaining strip of material through the hole in the toothbrush needle. Hold the braid between your index and middle fingers at the end just above where the two strips of material were sewn to the third strip. With the thumb positioned at the end of the braid, loop the strip over thumb. (Ill. 6) Put the tip of the needle up through the first loop in the braid on the right side

(Ill. 7), pulling the needle and strip of material all the way through the braid. This step makes a loop on the tip of the thumb. (Ill. 8) We will refer to this loop as loop 1. Once again loop the strip of material over the thumb in a counterclockwise motion behind loop 1. There will now be two loops on the thumb and the second loop will be loop 2. (Ill. 9) Put the tip of the needle up through the same loop in the braid as before, but don't pull the needle all the way through. Leaving the needle in the hole, put the tip under the thumb over loop 1 (Ill. 10) and back up between loop 1 and the thumb (Ill. 11), pulling the strip of material all the way through and pulling loop 1 off tip of thumb. (Ill. 12) Loop 1 has now become part of the rug and we will refer to it now as loop 3. You have one loop left on the thumb. It was loop 2, but now becomes loop 1 as you begin the basic stitch.

From here on up the braid and as you continue around the rug in successive rows, you make a basic stitch which is similar to the one just completed with one addition. To make the basic stitch, with loop 1 on the thumb, loop the strip of material over the thumb in counterclockwise motion behind loop 1 as you did before. This loop becomes a new loop 2. Place tip of needle in the same loop on the braid as before, but don't pull the needle all the way through. These directions to here are the same as the last stitch. But here is the additional step. Put the needle through loop 3. (Ill. 13) Then as in the last step, bring the needle over loop 1 under the thumb, and back up through loop 1 between the loop and thumb (Ill. 14), pulling the strip of material all the way through and pulling loop 1 off tip of the thumb. Loop 2 again becomes loop 1 and remains on the thumb. There will always be a loop on the thumb.

Continue up the right side of the braid with one basic stitch in each successive braid until you reach the end of the braid. When the strip in the needle gets too short to work with, unroll another strip and slip the end of the new strip over the other, folded sides together. Then with a single-threaded needle, sew the ends together with a straight seam. (Ill. 15) Make this seam as close to the edge as possible so the strip will pull through the needle and rug easily without loose ends getting caught. Rethread the toothbrush needle with the strip of material.

About the only problem from here on will be turning the corners or curves. You will need to add extra stitches to keep the rug lying flat. If you do not follow these directions, the rug will cup up. To prevent cupping, when you reach the end of the braid, make two stitches in the last braid. (Ill. 16) Turn the braid over in order to start on the other side. In the first braid on the other side, also do two stitches and then continue on that side making a single stitch in each braid. When you reach the other end, turn the curve as you did the first curve by adding two extra stitches on each side.



The basis of the rug is the single braid in the center. The following steps illustrate how to prepare the braid.

Ill. 3--To begin making the braid first fold and press torn strips of 3/4 inch wide fabric. Begin the braid by sewing together the ends of the three strips. It is ready to begin braiding.

Ill. 4--After braiding the strips the desired length, cut off two of the strips.

Ill. 5--Then sew the two cut ends to the remaining strip.

Ill. 6--Hold the braid in this position to begin making stitches using the toothbrush needle.

Ill. 7--To begin the stitching, pull needle through the first loop in the braid.



The main things to master are preparing the end of the braid for the basic stitch and the basic stitch itself.

Ill. 8--Loop the fabric over thumb, insert needle in the loop in the braid and pull through.

Ill. 9--Loop fabric over thumb, making 2 loops. Insert needle in the same loop in the braid, but don't pull through.

Ill. 10--Put tip of needle over loop...

Ill. 11--put tip of needle through loop...

Ill. 12--pulling the needle all the way through the loop, and at the same time, pulling the loop off the thumb to begin the basic stitch.



Once you have mastered the preliminary stitch, the basic stitch is almost a repetition. With loop 1 on the thumb, put loop 2 over thumb as before.

Ill. 13--Put the needle in the same loop on the braid as before, but don't pull it through. Put the needle through loop 3.

Ill. 14--Bring the needle over loop 1, under the thumb and back up through loop 1, pulling the needle through the loop and pulling the loop off thumb.

Ill. 15--This shows how to add strips as you are sewing. Sew close to the raw edges to let fabric pull through the needle and rug easily.


You must pay special attention to rounding the ends of the braid to prevent the rug from cupping. When you have sewn up the side of the braid to the end where you sewed the strips together, you need to add extra stitches.

Ill. 16--At each arrow on the drawing, make two stitches in each loop of the braid instead of one.

Ill. 17--This drawing shows where to add the extra stitches as you make more and more rounds on the rug.


The second time around, when you reach the curve, put two stitches in a single loop as before. This time there will be two single stitches before you begin the next side and put two stitches in a single loop. Each time you reach the curve, you make two stitches in a single loop and as many single stitches as needed to complete the curve before making two more stitches to begin another side. (Ill. 17)

The stitches should be uniformally tight throughout the rug. They will be loose or tight depending on how tight you hold the strip on the thumb. Tight stitches will make a more closely woven and stiffer rug. Being more compact, it takes longer to make the rug using a tighter stitch. As in knitting or crocheting, each individual develops her own uniformity of stitches. Mrs. Campbell said, "There is a whole lot of rhythm about it."

When you've :reached the size of rug you want, to finish off the stitch, pull the needle all the way through the loop on your thumb. Cut the remaining strip off, and sew it to the rug so that it doesn't show.

A rug made with a toothbrush needle is very durable. With interlocking stitches, it will not come apart, and depending on the material used, it is 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Since it is made of washable materials, it can be washed over and over again and still hold up with no noticeable deterioration. Frayed or raveled ends will wear off, and colors will blend as the rug wears evenly for many, many years. What an ingenious way to use an old worn-out toothbrush!

Maymee Campbell's house is enriched with several handmade rugs like this one. Photo by Mary Schmalstig


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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