May 25, 2018
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From rags to riches — Lincolnville couple weaves rugs from recycled clothing

By Katie Day, Special to the BDN

One day in the late 1970s Diane and Wally O’Brien bought a loom for $100 dollars at an auction. At the time it was “just a pile of lumber,” but they figured out how to put it together and Diane began learning how to weave. She couldn’t afford to buy new yarn and fabric so she used recycled clothing. Now the O’Brien’s have turned these “rag rugs” into a business called Sleepy Hollow Rag Rugs, located in the couple’s barn and home in Lincolnville.

“It’s hard to make any money when you buy all the material,” Diane O’Brien said. “Old clothes seemed like a good answer and that’s what we did.”

The O’Briens still use that same Maine-made loom from the auction, which has been around since the 1820s, but they have added to it, making it more functional and updating the construction. The loom rests in the center of Diane O’Brien’s workspace, a large barn room lit by several large windows.

“This was my business until my husband [Wally O’Brien] retired from teaching a few years ago and then he started weaving. I don’t weave anymore,” she said. They work together to cut the material into small strips and then her husband weaves the pieces with other materials and colors to make the one-of-a-kind rugs. She finishes the edges with her sewing machine to create the final product.

The couple uses a variety of materials, all recycled. The most common material used in the rugs is cotton, but Diane O’Brien said that they use almost anything from denim to sweaters. If it’s recycled, they’ll take it.

“People always have clothes that they’re throwing out,” she said. “We’ll come home and find bags on the doorstep. Just bags full of clothes.”

The O’Brien’s make a variety of rugs from their fabric collection, but also make customized rugs upon request. Some customers will come in and choose fabrics from their collection while others bring the material with them.

“Someone just sent us all the fabric from her family and she wrote me a wonderful letter explaining what each thing is and what it means.” Diane O’Brien said, pulling out the letter that told stories of picnics, Halloweens, new babies and even the addition of a son-in-law.

“I thought it was just a great little piece describing how bits of old fabric can have meaning,” she said.

The weaving may be time consuming — it takes around four hours to make a small rug — but it’s something that the O’Briens have thoroughly enjoyed. Diane O’Brien had been a teacher for several years until she had her first child. When she was pregnant with her second, the couple bought the loom. She never went back to work; she spent her days home with her children and weaving. Now that the business is in her husband’s hands, he makes approximately one rug a day in the summer and up to two a day in the winter. He works on them during his spare time, after odd jobs and outdoors work is done.

Diane O’Brien used to go to craft shows and wholesale markets, but later decided that all she wanted to do was stay home and weave. So she put a sign out by the driveway and let customers come to her. Sleepy Hollow Rag Rugs has been featured in local artist tours and brochures. They also have a website where they post pictures of the rugs they’ve made.

Currently, the couple is also working on the local beach, cleaning up trash. They arrive at 6 a.m. every morning and work to make the beach beautiful before people arrive. Diane O’Brien uses those mornings on the beach to scour for hidden treasures. She has a small collection of odds and ends that she has recovered and she uses them to make beaded cuffs and necklaces, which she displays along with the rag rugs.

“We love it.” Diane O’Brien said. “I knit, I do beads, anything I feel like doing, I do. And I put it out. It’s just fun.”

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