‘Please come in and watch the weaving process.’ These words beckon all who pass the entrance of Claudia Mills Studio in Old City, downtown Philadelphia. It is housed in a four-storey 1918 commercial building; sheet glass windows with narrow structural elements painted mint green frame the entrance. They create a welcoming, light-filled shopfront. Passersby can easily see into the space Mills calls her ‘storefront studio’, a term that describes the space’s roles as a ragrug-weaving and production studio, workshop, and retail sales space.
‘We see a lot of surprised looks,’ Mills explains, ‘because people don’t think about how rugs are made.’ The move to the new studio in November 2020 was a way to directly engage the public with exactly that thought. ‘Before I just had a production studio. The only way to sell my rugs was at crafts shows.’ Visitors can freely wander and watch Mills, Jennifer Clark and Morgan Kuensel weaving at three Swedish-style Cranbrook looms. One loom is four feet wide and the other two are five feet wide. ‘I bought one new more than thirty years ago,’ Mills remembers. ‘They’re really good because you can crank down the tension to make a good rug.’
Traditional rag rugs are her inspiration, but Claudia Mills’s rugs are woven with new yarns and fabric strips (mostly solids but some patterns). Loom beaters compress the fabric strips after which a shot of yarn is passed through the weave. Several rugs are woven continuously on a single set of warp yarns and then cut apart and hand finished. Mills also weaves leather rugs from skins made into strips in a former New Hampshire shoe factory.
All three women design one-of-a-kind rugs for the shop with Mills handling custom orders. ‘Woman power!’ Mills declares. Clark also weaves the Jennifer Clark Collection sold at Claudia Mills. Mills hand stitches rug widths to create custom rug sizes. ‘It’s quite soothing to stitch them together. The selvedge edges are little loops. I use a tapestry needle and each loop nestles between opposite loops to create the pattern join.’
Cotton yarns are organised in chromatic displays on waist-height bookshelves. Cotton fabric strips are similarly showcased. Mills’s choice of colours disrupts the orderly chromatic spectrum of the shelved yarns and fabrics and transforms them into a unique grammar of graphically powerful geometric compositions. Weave patterns are influenced by Anni Albers (‘her books are very well-worn on my shelf’), while Mills’s colour choices are influenced by everything from the 1980s Grace Jones poster on the wall to artwork, interiors, nature, and ‘twenty years’ worth of magazine tear cuts’.
‘I’m such a functional person. My rugs belong on the floor,’ Mills told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007. The intervening years have seen an explosion of interest in textiles as wall art. ‘Oh yes, I’ve changed my view. Our rugs hanging on the walls influence people to do the same at home. I’m very proud that we’re here in this country making handwoven rugs. Visitors can see for themselves what made in America means.’