THE LOVE OF RUGS
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
"I tell people they'll hate their rug before they'll wear it out," laughs Leisa Kerr of La Grande, rugmaker extraordinaire.
Kerr, who's been crocheting furry looking multi-colored rugs and selling them at craft shows for almost seven years, laughs a lot, interrupts herself to talk to friends, tells children where their coats can be found, describes the intricacies there really aren't that many of rugmaking and keeps an eye on the television as darkness falls outside her home.
And through it all, her fingers keep working in her lap. Making yet another rug.
"I just love it," she says. "I love to do it. It's instant gratification. I have a craft I can do in an hour and it's done."
Actually it's not quite that simple if you talk to Kerr a bit longer.
Kerrrugs! began seven years ago in March, when Kerr visited her sister and admired a small rug her sister had purchased "for a whole lot of money" that didn't look that complicated to make.
Deciding to see how tough it really was, Kerr and family members went to the Pendleton Woolen Mill and bought a bag of selvage scraps.
The mill actually gives out directions for hand-crocheting selvage rugs, but Kerr says the directions are generally bad. Following them, your rug will be a few inches wide and several feet long.
With a bit of calculation, Kerr got the rug she wanted.
Kerr kept making rugs, and by Labor Day weekend that first year had enough to try selling them at the Sumpter flea market.
She went with friends, she says, and set up with them using a small card table.
"I went and set them out, and a couple three hours later I'd sold $400 off a picnic table."
At that point, it started to rain, so Kerr closed up her impromptu stand, but she was hooked.
By the Fourth of July, Kerr had decided to set up her own stand and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kerr can't see quitting anytime soon, and is busy trying to justify not expanding the business beyond what she can do herself in her living room chair as she operates a small daycare operation.
The tough part of making the rugs, Kerr says, is sorting out the bags of selvage.
Kerr has to arrange a pickup at the Pendleton mill, usually by calling the floor manager at the mill early in the morning, then sending a family member over to pick up the bags of scraps. When there were several mills making Pendleton woolen products, it was easier, she admits, but it now takes more coordination.
At 10 to 16 pounds per plastic bag, Kerr generally loads up with 300 to 400 bags of selvage per trip.
Then comes the messy part of the job. The bags are filled with whatever has been swept off the mill floor, no color arranging, no sorting, nothing. This is, after all, the waste from what's been cut off the looms at the mill.
Kerr sits and untangles the yards-long strips of selvage into like-colored balls. Some strips are thinner, but have longer strings of leftover wool on them. Kerr gets rid of those long strings at the sorting stage.
While Kerr likes that her rugmaking requires no tools beyond her own hands, there is one drawback.
"I usually have rug fur all over my house, all over my rugs, all over my clothes," she laughs, standing up to reveal a white shirt and sweat pants liberally sprinkled with colored wool fuzzies.
But wool, Kerr notes, doesn't collect static electricity, so a quick shake and her clothing is free of fuzzies.
Kerr doesn't keep track of how many rugs she makes per year or since she started, but she keeps track of her income.
So far this year, with a few more holiday craft shows to go, she's made $7,500, which by her estimates probably averages to 900 to 1,000 rugs.
"I'd say I make 1,500 a year," Kerr says, but acknowledges that while a room-size rug might take her more than eight hours to make, her pads for dining room chairs, patio furniture and stadium seats can be whipped out in 15 minutes each.
Over the years, Kerr has learned another trick to selling crafts in person. Don't get too involved in what they want the rugs for.
Because the rugs are thick and maintain that thickness, several regular customers use Kerr rugs as saddle pads since they can be cleaned by shaking, hosing them off and hanging to dry. One small size also fits exactly under English saddles, a riding instructor in Idaho determined.
And then there was the Eastern Oregon University student who gave Kerr the exact specifications of a dormitory bed he purchased one of her rugs to give to a very petite friend who always complained of being cold.
"I just went OK'," Kerr says. "I'm never too stressed about what people say or do."
Kerr also is picky about the flea markets and craft sales she attends. You won't see her everywhere, and where you do see her, she will be making more rugs.
"I don't want to have to hire more people, or sell on the Internet," she says, choosing to maintain quality control by doing it all herself.
She also chooses to donate a portion of her work, usually to organizations that help children, including Union County's Court-Appointed Special Advocates and an elementary school in Umatilla County that she thinks does good things for the kids with the money they raise.
Fingers at work, Kerr tells the children where to find their coats as parents arrive to pick them up and head home.
Kerr's smile creeps across her face once more.
"I can't crochet diddley with yarn," she confesses. "I can't follow the directions."
But she really doesn't seem to care. She likes her virtually indestructible rugs. Just don't wash in hot water. And don't, for any reason, add fabric softener.
Hot water turns a wool rug to felt, and fabric softener, she learned as she experimented with things that could be bad, "turns them into a huge dreadlock."
Kerr isn't worried about competition. She's seen too many others come and go, apparently without her love of the craft.
"I think I'll do it as long as the mill still works and my hands still go."
To contact Leisa Kerr about her rugs, call her at 541-963-8086.