I Fell In Love With Carpet
In their two-room workshop in downtown Kingsport, Jerry Machen Sr. and his wife and business partner, Linda Machen, are picking out colors for a custom butterfly rug.
Jerry designed the rug and created a template out of butcher paper. The future rug will be one big butterfly in a mix of pastel colors, with hints of mustard yellow and deep brown. As they work, Jerry tapes small pieces of yarn to the template to see how all the colors work together.
“Beautiful!” Jerry said. “God might hire us to make new butterflies.”
The Machens have owned their business for over 50 years. They named it Agape Carpet and Rug Specialists of America.
“Agape is a Greek word. It means God’s unconditional love,” he said. “I guess the reason why I can create and do the things that we do is His love for us, and me loving exactly what I do.”
Jerry’s love for carpet started in the mid-sixties. He was in his twenties and was working at a furniture store creating custom draperies.
“That was my first love,” he said. “And then they needed help in carpet installation. So I fell in love with carpet.”
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Jerry learned the ins and outs of installing carpet while at the furniture store, but eventually he struck out on his own. With every installation job he did, Jerry always saved pieces of scrap carpet in case his customers needed repair work done. After a while, he had so much scrap carpet, that he rented out an entire house to store it all in. Linda was not very happy about this.
“See I didn’t know about the house for a little while,” Linda said. “That was interesting. He caused a little stir.”
“My wife came in one day and said, ‘Get rid of it all. You’ve gotta get this place cleaned out,’” Jerry said.
But Jerry didn’t want to just throw all the scraps away. He thought he could make use of them. One day, he saw a painting of a mountain scene and he got an idea. He decided to recreate the painting with scraps.
“I said, ‘I can do that in carpet.’ I’d never built one before in my life,” he said. “But in my mind I thought of it over and over again that I could build that.”
Linda came home to find Jerry working in a frenzy on the kitchen floor.
“I walk in from work and my whole kitchen floor is covered with pieces,” Linda said. “And he’s gonna put a picture together. And I’m like, ‘Is it gonna be done before I have to start supper?’”
At this point it was the 1970s, so Jerry was working with pieces of shag carpet in vibrant hues of blues, oranges, reds, and soft pinks. He hand-sewed all the pieces together from the back. And he was surprised by the outcome.
“When I turned it over, I was amazed at how it looked,” Jerry said. “It was actually beautiful.”
After creating that mountain scene, Jerry began sewing one-of-a-kind rugs and wall hangings for customers. He has created hundreds of designs, including horoscope signs, landscapes, animals, and logos. For Jerry, it’s a thrill to bring an idea to life.
“I love working with my hands,” he said. “If you can build it in your mind, you can put your hands to it and you can put it together.”
It’s More Artwork Than It is Work
Over the years, the business has turned into a family affair. Along with Linda, Jerry works alongside his grandson and his oldest son, Jerry Machen Jr.
In the back room of the workshop, the buzz of the clippers rings out as Jerry watches Jerry Jr. shave down the edge of a piece of carpet.
Once the edge is straight and neat, Jerry Jr. uses an air compressor to blow the tiny scraps out of his way. Finally, he sews on a strip of fringe to finish the edge.
Jerry Jr. explains that along with installing carpet and creating custom designs, they also do a lot of restoration work.
“The restoration is a big part of the business,” Jerry Jr. said. “A lot of people have rugs that’ve been handed down from generation to generation. And bringing those back to life is pretty amazing.”
But the Machens don’t just clean and repair rugs that customers bring in. Sometimes, Jerry will find rugs that people have thrown away. He’ll bring them into the shop to give them the new life he feels they deserve.
“I can tell a real good rug, so when I find a good one, of course I’ll stop and pick it up,” Jerry said. “I like to solve it. I like to go and make it whole again. Instead of trashing it and throwing it away, I like to repair it or build it back.”
Much like the custom design work, the restoration work is an opportunity for Jerry to put his creativity and problem-solving skills into motion.
“Everyone of them tells a story,” Jerry said. “There’s not one rug — especially hand-knotted or tufted — that is the same. Everyone is different. So you have to find the method that they used, the knot that they used to even repair it. If not, it’s gonna show up. So it’s a learning process everyday.”
Jerry’s not the only one at the shop who finds creative fulfillment in the installation and restoration. Jerry Jr. does, too.
“It’s more artwork than it is work,” Jerry Jr. said. “It’s more creative. You have a chance to expand your imagination on doing different things. And actually it’s a lot of fun.”
Linda feels similarly.
“I didn’t even know I had any creative abilities,” Linda said. “But I was good with colors and I was good with shapes.”
If You Have A Gift Then The Gift Should Keep On Giving
Jerry continues to teach others about the art of carpet design and repair. In 2021, he was awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Tennessee Folklife Program. Through the grant, he is mentoring Stacy Kimbler on how to create pictorial wall hangings, using a tufting gun.
Today at the shop, Stacy is working on a honeybee design. He stands at a 7 foot tall, wooden frame that has a piece of white cloth stretched over it. He holds the tufting gun up to the cloth, and as he pulls the trigger, yarn shoots into the cloth at high speeds, creating the tufted design. Jerry stands nearby and gives advice on how close together the tufted rows should be.
“Yeah, you can go over top of it, it won’t hurt it,” Jerry said. “Just go and fill it in in the middle. The tighter the better.”
While Jerry values passing down his knowledge of carpet art to others, he acknowledges that there’s always more he can learn, too.
“If you have a gift then the gift should keep on giving,” Jerry said. “I think it’s very important to just keep what we have and learn from it. I don’t know everything and I’ll never know everything. But I’m willing to learn each and every day.”
And after all these years in the business, the possibility of discovering something new is what keeps Jerry going.
This story originally aired in the Aug. 26, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.