Floorcloths used to be for the fashionable set, used over marble floors in all the best European entries. The finest came from Bristol, England, and Dundee, Scotland, where sailcloth was hand-painted in beautiful detail for the great houses.
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 floorcloths can last for decades. A properly painted and sealed cloth can tolerate daily traffic in places such as 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,” Jones said.
Floorcloths are surprisingly easy to care for – sweep and mop clean – you’re done. And paste wax once a year to maintain the finish.
They also provide an opportunity to pop color and designs into your decor. 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. I 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 $7.16.
Here’s how to make your own:
• 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.
• Measure and cut to size with a box cutter from the back (paper side) of the vinyl.
• Apply at least one coat of water-based primer with a small paint roller. Let dry.
• Use a ruler, yardstick, stencils or freehand sketch your design with a pencil. Use painter’s tape for clean borders.
• You can paint your floorcloth with latex wall paint, craft paints or a combination.
• I chose a freeform design and worked 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.
• Use a paint roller for large areas of color. Use artist brushes or sponges for the details.
• Paint your designs.
• Finish with two to three coats of water-based polyurethane. A final coat of paste wax gives it rich, nice, not-too-shiny sheen.