From Rags to Riches; A Book Recording Memories of Mat Making in the North East Also Proves Its Worth as a Fascinating Social History, as TAMZIN LEWIS Discovers

Article excerpt


THE completion of a hooky or proggy mat must have been such a magical

moment that children would shout: "I'm firsty on the mat!" And in that moment of glee, they would take turns to roll on the finished mat in a ritual called hanseling.

Placed on a bare floor before the hearth, the mat was like an icon; a practical piece of folk art made by many hands and then admired, played or sat upon, often until it was worn out.

Also known as proddy, peggy, stobby or tabby these mats were symbols of gold standard recycling. For the raw materials were worn-out clothes, ancient blankets and even old uniforms which would be cut into clippings as part of a thrifty cottage industry.

The whole family, and neighbours, would be involved in the making of mats, which is thought to date back to Tudor times in the north of England. Mat making became a dying art in the 1950s when fitted carpets became cheap and fashionable and rag mats outmoded. However, a decade later, the Cumbrian-based artist Winifred Nicholson led a revival of the sociable craft and proggy mat groups sprang up around the north.

One such group, the Wallsend Hooky and Proggy Circle, was set up with the help of community artist Ali Rhind in 1976. She says: "I first saw a proggy mat when I went to a leek show and a prize for a mat had been won by a lovely elderly man. He told me that his wife used to win the prize regularly, but she had recently died. He invited me to see some of her mats and showed me their worn down horn proggers (tools) which represented all the mats that they had made side by side over the decades.

"Once he started to tell me about the mats, then everyone else's stories started tumbling out and led to the group. It was useful for community development as it is a collaborative way of working with neighbours and families."

In 1998, when Ali was being teated at the Northern Centre for Cancer Treatment, she brought a mat frame into the waiting room, inviting anyone to help out with the process of making. She found that the level of anxiety was eased and when the mats were complete they could brighten up hospital walls, "softening the hard-edges".

The idea led to the Room For You project being founded in 2001 by Ali who works with a team including Rachel Phillimore, whose background is also in community arts. They would spend one day a week in the radiotherapy area with mat frames which is when stories about mat-making started to spill out.

Ali says: "People have very fond memories of making mats. The stories are symbolic of a particular way of being together, which to some extent has been lost. The strength of community and companionship that people had in simple ways is not so easily come by now."

She adds: "The fondness held for mat making was fairly universal and when we used it in the hospital it was to reach 'people' rather than 'patients'. …


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