Fifty years ago, at only 8 years old, Phyllis Hause found another use for an ordinary household object and cloth strips. Now she's been featured on television and in magazines for her creation toothbrush rugs.
She spent several days in the Norwalk area recently teaching classes and working on her biggest assignment a 20-foot by 6-foot specially-commissioned oval rug made up of 200 yards of material for Windham Fabrics, a New Jersey company.
Toothbrush rugs are made up of strips of cotton 2 inches wide and a yard-and-a-half long and, while looking similar at first glance to braided or crochet rugs, are usually sturdier because they have no sewing stitches that can rip or crochet loops that can snag.
They are also very soft and can be thrown into a washer and dryer with no damage. Hause said making toothbrush rugs is "easier on your hands" than other methods because of the simplicity of the moves. She has one rug that she's used in her home for 21 years and shows little wear and tear.
"I've been making rugs since I was 8 years old," Hause said. Her mother said one day she would teach her children to make a rug if they could come up with a "really big" needle.
Hause said she started looking around the house and focused on a toothbrush hanging in the bathroom. At the time, all toothbrush handles had a hole near the end to hang so the brush could be hung to dry.
"I cut off the bristles with wire cutters and then filed it down on an old treadle grinding wheel," Hause said. When she was finished, she had a "really big" needle with the hole serving as the eye and the ground point serving as the tip.
Once Hause and her mother started making rugs with the homemade needles, they would go to Goodwill stores to buy bags of damaged skirts to tear apart for rugs. And she was off on the start to her future career.
That career has included being featured on the "Carol Duvall Show" on HGTV and in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Hause said she sold $40,000 worth of designs and needles in just two days after her stint on the "Carol Duvall Show."
After teaching a recent workshop at Sew Little Time in Norwalk, Hause ended up staying with local quilter Cara Ybarra. The two women first met when Ybarra, whose business Always in Stiches offers quilting classes and patterns, traveled to the International Quilt Market in Salt Lake City last spring. Ybarra suggested Hause put Huron County on her travel schedule this summer.
Hause said Ybarra and her husband Ferdinand were kind enough to invite her to stay in their Milan home and then Jean Dircks, who owns Gingersnap Junction on the square, offered the use of the upstairs in her building to spread out the huge quilt so Hause could work on it.
"It's been fun. It's been so much nicer than a hotel," Hause said. After Norwalk, she traveled to Vermont. She will make several more stops and end this season's tour, as always, at the International Quilt Market and Show held each fall in Houston.
Hause said Ybarra did more than just offer her a place to stay. "One of her gifts is organization," Hause said. Ybarra organized the bags of strips that Hause had left to complete her large rug and even pressed all of the strips. "She's saved me so much time just by getting me organized, which isn't always easy on the road."
Hause started her company, Aunt Philly's Toothbrush Rugs, in 1986 and has spent many of her waking hours since then making rugs and accessories, creating patterns and teaching others the craft. She said she had prepared for the business by refining her techniques and figuring out just the right way to make the rugs hold their shape, be sturdy and remain flat.
With her business, Hause spends several months each year on the road teaching and demonstrating her designs. "I never dreamed it would be this big," she said. She was nervous about ordering 1,000 copies of her designs when she first started out. Now she orders them in batches of 100,000. She shops products around the world from Africa to Iceland.