Health issues don't slow down rugmaker

John R. Pulliam

It’s hard to imagine that Jim McCormick of Galesburg was, as he said, “down in the dumps,” one morning of the Knox County Scenic Drive. McCormick, owner of Rag Rugs, laughed often as he described the throw rugs he makes on a loom.

It would be easy for McCormick to be depressed. A case of COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, forces him to wear a tube so oxygen can flow from a small tank into his body. Doctors pretty much gave up on McCormick being able to ever do anything productive after the 78-year-old former farmer suffered a stroke in 1982.

That didn’t stop McCormick, however. His first craft was making brooms.

“I’ve got a broom in every state in the U.S. and nine foreign countries,” he said.

However, doctors got it right recently when they told him he had to find another hobby. He said making brooms began to cause his hands and arms to swell. He said they told him his heart would have been next.

One woman, obviously familiar with his work, admired the colorful rugs and asked, “How about your brooms? Are you still making them?”

He told her the story of his switch to rugs.

“This is the first show I’ve been to with my rugs,” he told her.

Arcola, in east-central Illinois, is famous for its broom corn. Asked if he made trips there, McCormick said, “That’s where I got all my materials. You can’t get any of it there anymore. They moved (the factory) to South Carolina.”

McCormick recalled his trips to Arcola with fondness.

“I never bought a handle for a broom,” he laughed, thinking back to an especially memorable trip. “They gave me handles. I came back one time and I had 7,000 handles in my truck.”

McCormick also is something of a philosopher. All of his rugs sell for $20.

“But a lot of people say, ‘you’re selling them too cheap.’ The way I look at it, I’m making a little money at $20. You can’t eat the rugs,” he said, breaking into a by-now familiar laugh.

McCormick makes rugs out of what is known as “salvage,” material left over from bigger portions companies do not use. Wearing his bib overalls and white T-shirt, McCormick knows his business.

“This may come in a bag of six pounds, it may come in a bag of 20 pounds,” he said. “Then it’s your job to unravel it. Up in Bishop Hill, if they had this rug there, it would be around ($48).”

He said he recently had a chance to buy a 65-pound box of salvage on sale for $1.09 per pound.

“I said ‘send me two boxes,’” McCormick said.

The rugs have ragged edges on the sides, as well as fringe on the front and back. He said the edge is called “warp.”

“There’s 336 warp strings in a rug,” McCormick said. “It’s cut off the side of something they’ve made at the factory.”

He said his daughter “works up the loom” for him. What initially took her a week, she now does in a day.

“You’ve got to wind out a lot of string,” he said. “Each one of these colors (on the fringe) represents a ball of string, 820 yards.”

McCormick said running the loom is good exercise.

“You’re stomping with your feet, you’re pushing with your hands,” he said.

And, McCormick is happy with his results on the Scenic Drive.

“I was here last weekend and I sold 10 rugs,” he said. “I won’t sell that many this weekend, because I don’t have that many. The best thing you can do is sell all your product.”

McCormick proudly said that a Peoria TV station did a story on him during his broom-making days, so he’s as comfortable with the interview as with making his rugs. And he loves being around people at the sale, one reason he was unable to stay down in the dumps.

“You can’t beat crafters,” he said. “They’re the most wonderful people in the world.”

John R. Pulliam can be reached