From rags to riches with Lady Emma’s lovely rugs

Lady Emma Tennant is reviving the traditional art of making rag rugs.

Emma is best known as a painter who creates beautiful watercolours of flowers, fruit and vegetables.

She held an exhibition in 2014 which included plants grown at Chatsworth, the home of her brother, the current Duke of Devonshire.

Yet, when the nights draw in and her garden in the Borders fi nally goes to sleep for the winter, there’s nothing Emma likes better than to take up her hook and frame and indulge her other lifelong passion – rag rugs.

For centuries, women have sat by the fireside on long winter nights making rag rugs out of whatever scraps of material were available, from leftover wool or old clothes to damaged fishing nets. The rugs added a splash of colour to their homes and helped the wives of farmers, fishermen, miners and others working in the countryside to while away the hours.

‘Traditionally, people didn’t waste anything,’ explains Emma. ‘The cotton went into patchwork quilts and the wool went into rag rugs. I prefer only to use woollen materials because I find wool is the most magical stuff – it somehow seems to reject dirt and keep its bounce. Synthetics aren’t quite so nice to work with – they have a horrible feel in your hands and they attract dirt.

‘We’re lucky because we live in the Borders, which is famous for its tweed and its knitwear. People leave sacks of old clothes and cloth for me, most of which I am able to use. You can use anything really, and when I teach workshops people bring along all manner of textiles.’

Emma, whose daughter Stella is a leading Scottish model, creates her own rag rugs during the winter and also produces designs that are then made by a group of her neighbours and marketed under the name Hermitage Rugs. Her inspiration comes from the landscape around her Borders home; from animals and the view from her window to plants on window sills or flowerbeds around a garden gate.

When it comes to her two passions – painting plants and making rugs – Emma believes that they feed off each other, sparking her creativity.

‘There’s a tragic split in art colleges and art criticism between craft and art, which I think is a terrible mistake,’ she says. ‘When designing rugs you have to think big and bold – it’s quite a coarse medium, not like fine embroidery.

‘But you can still get a lot of atmosphere into a rug. Painting flowers with watercolours is as fine as it gets. But I know that these two very different things will feed each other and I think that it’s a great pity that art and craft have become separated because they defi nitely help each other.’

Find out more information about Emma Tennant’s work at

This feature was originally published in 2014.