If you were the artistic wife of a sailor back in 17th century France, you didn't let modest means deter you from decorating your home in style.
You transformed your husband's old sails into beautifully painted floor coverings that rivaled those in wealthy homes. British sailors started bringing them back as souvenirs, and a fad with impressive reach and longevity was born.
The heavy canvases -- called "oilcloths" in Britain and "floorcloths" when the art came to North America -- would be painted with simple or elaborate designs depending on the skill level of the artists (often house painters) and the financial status of homeowners. The term "oilcloth" probably refers to the oil-based paints and linseed oil coatings applied to the canvases.
Waterproof, insect resistant and sturdy, floorcloths became just as popular in American homes. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams had floorcloths in their homes; you can still see one at Mount Vernon -- a solid green, as Washington sought to simulate the grass outdoors, inside.
Near the start of the 20th century, the advent of mass-produced linoleum sent labor-intensive floorcloths out of style, but in the `60s and again more recently, artists have rediscovered the craft.
Julie Biggs of Pickerington, Ohio, paints hers with contemporary designs like polka dots or naif flowers in hues of pink, turquoise, yellow and charcoal gray. A green polka dot rug would look fresh and young in a child's room.
She's playing with other ideas, too.
"My favorite technique right now is a layered, worn look, which includes several layers of designs on one floorcloth," Biggs said. "Once I'm finished painting each layer, I sand off some of the top to let the sub-layers peek through. It gives the floorcloth a warm, loved look that's very charming. Recently, I've been inspired by the colors and designs of modern fabrics and quilts."
Weathersfield, Vt.-based Lisa Curry Mair crafts her rugs in a 200-year-old farmhouse adorned with many of her creations. She brings a love of history, children's book illustrations and mathematics to her designs.
A mariner's compass, an artichoke and a woven, cane-like pattern are among her best-sellers, and she does custom designs. The hardest thing to get across, she said, is how durable the pieces are, and that's largely due to the number of "hobby" crafters producing inferior product.
"They use lightweight canvas, cheap paint and finishes. A floorcloth in a high-traffic kitchen should stand up to dogs, kids and all kinds of abuse," Mair said.
A good heavy floorcloth should lie flat with no bumps or ripples, she said. "When I make floorcloths for museums, they must stand up to 30,000 visitors a year walking on them."
Lucia Blum of Wilmington, N.C., gives rugs a folk-art look. "Cat Nap" features a black and white cat surrounded by the stuff of cat dreams: goldfish, birds and mice. "Bunny" romps on a green field circled by carrots and radishes.
Artist Faith Wilson, who will be showing at the American Craft Exposition in Evanston, Ill., in August, takes a painterly approach to her often haunting, evocative canvases. Gingko leaves, conifers and little black birds inhabit softly hued, sepia-washed backgrounds.
If you're interested in trying your hand at the floorcloth craft, HGTV's website offers instructions. Mair's website also has a how-to video plus a supplies shop.
www.etsy.com/shop/thelimeloft - Julie Biggs floorcloths, $100 and up;
www.topdrawerart.com - Lucia Blum's floorcloths, $165 and up;
www.canvasworksfloorcloths.com - Lisa Curry Mair's work, $20-$50 per square foot; how-to CD and supplies;
www.faithwilsonart.com - Faith Wilson's floorcloths, $150 and up;
www.hgtv.com - floorcloth making instructions.