It used to be that floorcloths were for the fashionable set, used over marble floors in all the best European entries. The finest came from Bristol and Dundee where sail cloth was hand-painted in beautiful detail for the great houses.
Here, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson imported their floorcloths from England, while Smith and Baber in Kensington were the go-to producers in the 1700s.
What happened to floorcloths since then? We rarely see them in glossy magazine spreads, never see them in actual homes and there is a good chance that a whole bunch of us have no idea what they are.
Yet they are the simplest of all floor coverings. Made from sturdy duck or canvas, floorcloths are simply painted cloth that covers the floor.
Floorcloth historian Gwenith Jones at Gracewooddesign.com said that floorcloths can last for decades. A properly painted and sealed cloth can tolerate daily traffic in places like kitchens, entries and dining rooms.
Floorcloths were popular for a relatively short period in our history. They were the rage in the 1700 and 1800s, but fell out of favor when linoleum came along. “Linoleum was a wall-to-wall product and extremely durable,” said Jones.
Floorcloths can last for decades and they are surprisingly easy to care for — sweep and mop clean — you’re done. And paste wax once a year to maintain the finish.
They are not only durable; they provide an opportunity to pop color and designs into your décor. While looming a rug to your specification can cost thousands, you can hand-paint a floorcloth in a single day for the change you find between the couch cushions.
And you get the rare opportunity to create a size exactly the way you need it — runner, room-wide or even around a corner.
The historic way to create a floorcloth is to use heavy duck or canvas fabric. My prefer to make a floorcloth by flipping over a piece of vinyl flooring and painting the paper-like backside.
Since I got my 5-by 5-foot piece of vinyl free from a friend, and had some of the paints on hand, my floorcloth cost me a whopping $7.16.
Here’s how to make your own:
1. Gather supplies
Look for a medium-weight vinyl flooring or linoleum with a paper-like backing. Thicker is better and flexibility is key. Unroll your foundation piece and let it warm in the sun to work out wrinkles and roll marks.
2. Get it down to size
Measure and cut to size with a box cutter from the back (paper side) of the vinyl.
3. Prime it
Apply at least one coat of water-based primer with a small paint roller. Let dry.
4. Plan design
Use a ruler, yard stick, stencils or free-hand sketch your design with a pencil. Use painter’s tape for clean borders.
You can paint your floorcloth with either latex wall paint or craft paints or a combination of both.
I chose a freeform design and work where I wanted to place the floorcloth (in my home office) so I had a good feel for how much color I wanted to include in the cloth
Use a paint roller for large areas of color. Use artist brushes or sponges for the details.
6. Final coat
Finish with two to three coats of water-based polyurethane. A final coat of paste wax gives it rich nice not-too-shiny sheen.
• Copy a favorite fabric.
• Use a tea cup or other object for inspiration.
• Paint your floorcloth like a quilt.
• Paint a picture or pastoral scene.
• Use stencils.
• Make a game floorcloth for children’s rooms.
Gwenith Jones of Gracewood Designs in Portland, Ore., specializes in historical floorcloths and was asked to recreate this one as part of the dining room at Hay House in Macon, Ga. The original 1870s floorcloth sample was found under built-in cabinets and was made with burlap.
Jones spent three months developing the stencil patterns and two months painting the actual floorcloth that covered the 1300 square foot dining room wall to wall.