From Palmy to Shetland: Pictures of a rug.

21 MarCollections


Photographing a rug is no small feat when that rug is more than 150 years old.

Last week our collections team worked with photographer David Lupton to capture an early ‘taatit’ (tuffed) rug – one of only two now remaining in New Zealand.

Dr Carol Christiansen, curator at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, Shetland, has been researching these rugs for a future book. Te Manawa is photographing our rug which was bequeathed to Te Manawa by Mrs Marion Tetley in 2008.

Mrs Tetley brought the rug to Manawatū in the 1940s upon her marriage to John Tetley of Massey Agricultural College – Now Massey University – in Palmerston North. It had been in her family for six generations, having originally been made in the Shetland Islands by Mary Brown in 1852 for the wedding of her niece Mary Abernethy to Lawrence Tait, and passed down through the daughters in her family.

Although described as rugs, the “Taatit” is more accurately a large decorative bed cover. They were used in box beds in croft houses in Shetland until the early 1900s and Dr Christiansen says that rug making in Shetland was traditionally part of a wedding ritual.

“The families of the bride and groom each made half of the complete rug, then the rug was seamed in the middle. Since each taatit rug is unique in design content, the families would have to agree on colour and design before the rug making started.

A taatit rug was a warm, heavy bed cover. Well-constructed, they lasted for many years and were often handed down to the next generation. The heavy weight of a taatit rug required the two halves to be separated for washing. The rug was usually the largest textile object made for a household and was highly valued. In 1774 taatit rugs were recorded as “coverlids to beds” and were sold for 18 shillings to two Guineas, depending on quality. By the mid-1900s they were placed over resting chairs or used as bed quilts, sewn inside cotton covers. Rug making was revived in the early 1900s when attempts were made to develop it into an industry. At the time there was less demand for knitting, an available workforce and an excess of wool. However the project was abandoned through lack of supply, the construction method was too slow. The making of taatit rugs declined as traditional box beds were replaced by lighter furniture and imported bedding became available.”

Dr Christiansen’s book will also look at the similarity to Norwegian rya rugs given that the Shetlands were part of this kingdom until the 1400s and the ongoing links between the two regions.

Te Manawa Collections Manager (Humanities) Cindy Lilburn says that Dr Christiansen’s work has found only 100 taatit rugs in the world – 40 of which are held by the Shetland Museum and Archives.

“Surprisingly none have been found so far in either Australia or Canada where Shetlanders also settled, so out taatit is a precious treasure indeed!”

For more information: http://www.shetland-museum.org.uk/news/current/071113_ResearchGrantAwarded.html

(Pictured: Te Manawa Collections Managers Toni Edmeades and Cindy Lilburn work with Photographer David Lupton to capture the rare ‘Taatit’ rug, the back of which is shown here. It would have been used on the bed with the shaggy, warm side down).