“Burlapped” Wainscoting in Arts & Crafts Homes

A common design element in Arts & Crafts homes of the 1900 – 1914 period was a natural – sometimes ‘rustic’ – appearance to interior decoration.

This was seen in the use of heavy timbers, naturally stained woodwork, rough boulders for fireplaces (and exterior porch piers), and brick fireplaces unadorned with tiles. Accessories like Navaho carpets and hand-woven Indian baskets added to the attractive, almost hand-made, overall appearance.

As part of this aesthetic, applying fabric on walls became very popular during this period.

Primarily used in rooms with wainscoting, such as dining rooms, dens and hallways, the fabric was used to cover the bare plaster between dark-stained vertical wooden strapping of the wainscot. The fabric gave a warm, cozy texture to the lower walls of a room and added rich colouring in a natural material, which was appropriate to Arts & Crafts homes.

Dining Room with ‘Burlap’ applied as a fill for the wainscoting – seen at right. The framing in this house was Douglas fir baseboard, vertical strips and a plate rail at the top. The wood would be stained and varnished in a semi-gloss finish.

Often called “burlap”, the fabric used for wainscoting bore little resemblance to the rough, open-weave material we associate with wrapping the roots of trees! Rather, the “burlap” that was frequently referred to, was actually a finer weave fabric, usually in colours of deep green or shades of red or burgundy, though sometimes other soft, natural shades were also used.

Samples of original "burlap" that have been found behind the mouldings of some Arts & Crafts homes that were being demolished. Colours included red, burgundy, and dark green in these examples. It should be noted that burgundy and dark green were also the prevailing colours used for fireplace tiles at the same time, so that the tiles and wainscot colours were meant to coordinate, along with the natural wood tones used throughout the room. Other ‘earth’ tones would also be suitable – golds, soft greens, browns – if they coordinate with other design elements in the room.

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