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Floor cloths are coming back

(ran HL edition)

Painted canvas floor cloths, the rage and the rule in fashionable homes from the 1700s to the early 1900s, are enjoying a renaissance today. It's partly because they are prevalent and popular in house museums, and partly because they're as practical today as when they were invented.

Colonial housewives considered any kind of dampness to be disease-promoting, and floor cloths were excellent deterrents. Designs as simple as solid colors and as complex as imitation Orientals filled hallways, protected floors, added color and light to rooms and gave employment to artists both distant and itinerant who turned out floor cloths to order.

Practicality plus

Floor cloths were not as expensive as woven carpets, and the design choices were limited only by the skill of the painter. They were easy to put down and pick up, and, as they became worn, they were cut up and "recycled" into other uses _ as table mats, wall insulation, trivets.

Today they're still handcrafted and perfect for foyers, kitchen, mud rooms and laundry rooms, any place where ordinary carpet could get soiled, wet or mashed. The custom labor and the artistry mean that they are not as inexpensive as in the past, but they're not hard to make if you have a little talent (and a lot of patience).

How to make them

If you would like to tackle this traditional craft, here is how self-taught experts Rosanna Moore and Mary Plumer do it.

Cut a piece of heavy (awning-weight) canvas to approximately the size you want. Make it a little bigger than you will need, a few inches at each end and { inch on each side. Prepare the canvas by cutting {-inch-long slits roughly {-inch apart on the sides; these slits allow the canvas to lie flat.

Apply four coats of flat white latex paint and sand after each coat. When the paint is dry, use a carpenter's square on the canvas to make sure that the corners are 90 degrees. Transfer your chosen design for the floor cloth from a sketch to the prepared canvas with a soft pencil.

Apply the base coat of acrylic artist's paint or acrylic craft paint to the entire surface of the canvas, including the clipped edges. You can use pads, brushes, foam brushes or even pieces of natural sponge to get a subtle, mottled effect.

When the base coat is dry (you should still be able to see most of your design lines), apply masking tape to seal off areas to be painted other colors. If the paint does cover some of the design lines, you might have to draw them again. You also can use stencils to apply a design.)

When all design stages are completed and dry, apply four coats of clear satin poly-acrylic, using a paint pad and long, smooth strokes. Allow to dry 24 hours after each coat. Flip the cloth over and give the back one coat of poly-acrylic to make it water-resistant. Let dry for 24 hours.

Finally, trim the edges of the floor cloth with a sturdy, sharp utility knife. You can use a length of stainless steel underneath and metal rulers or carpenter's squares on top to guide the knife.

Basement industry

The advent of commercially produced linoleum _ it was patented in England in the mid-1860s _ eventually killed the floor cloth industry, so it's something of a surprise to find two women in a basement engaged in full-scale production of floor cloths large and small.

It was the house museums that did it. Rosanna Moore and Mary Plumer are staff members at Homewood House, and Plumer is also on the staff at Evergreen House. Both are historic properties owned by the Johns Hopkins University.

Homewood, especially, is noted for its beautiful geometric true-to-the-period floor cloths, especially the black and white marble pattern, called "running diamond," in the foyer.

One day their supervisor suggested that the two start turning out small floor cloths for the Homewood gift shop. "You two can do that, can't you?" she said.

"Oh, sure," they said.

Custom orders taken

There were initial missteps, but eventually the self-taught Plumer and Moore became pros. Their early 2-foot by 3-foot cloths flew out of the gift shop at Homewood. Although they no longer provide floor cloths for the shop, they create them for the museum houses, and they will do custom orders of almost any level of complexity. (For information, call them at Homewood House, 410 516-5589.)

They have stenciled gold Celtic knots, drawn serpentine diamonds for a persnickety gentleman who was "in love with the French curve" and filled dozens of other requests. They have refined their techniques and learned with "creative fudging" to deal with the imprecision of almost every earthly measuring device.

"Even the width of the pencil line _ it's called the kerf _ can throw you off," Moore says.

The necessary materials

Here are the materials you will need to create a floor cloth:

No. 8-10 canvas (the smaller the number the heavier the canvas; see note).

Latex acrylic paint in flat white.

Brushes or rollers or paint pads for applying primer and top coats.

Sandpaper, fine and very fine.

Masking tape in various widths.

Yardstick, rulers.

Carpenter's square, French curve, protractor or yardstick compass.

Utility knife, scissors.

Graph paper.

Sharp pencils.

Acrylic artist's colors or small cans of acrylic paint.

Variety of bristle and foam brushes.

Artist's or sea sponges.

Rags and paper towels.

Clear satin latex acrylic paint for top coats.

Optional: stencils, faux-finishing tools such as combs or stipple brushes; transfer paper; flat piece of metal for trimming canvas edges.

Note: The canvas is available in awning and canvas supply stores. Widths vary, but the widest is usually about 8 feet. Artist's paints and brushes, as well as French curves, stencils and faux finishing tools can be found at art shops and craft stores. Graph paper can be found at office-supply stores. Everything else can be found at home-improvement centers.

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