Hooked on Rugs: What Began as a Craft Born of Thrift and Necessity Has Evolved into an Art Form

By Barger, Theresa Sullivan | The Saturday Evening Post, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

Hooked on Rugs: What Began as a Craft Born of Thrift and Necessity Has Evolved into an Art Form


Barger, Theresa Sullivan, The Saturday Evening Post


Country women, mostly from New England and the maritime provinces of Canada, began weaving (hooking) strips of tattered wool blankets and clothing into the burlap from feed sacks in the mid-18th century. Unlike the more affluent city folk, they couldn't afford to buy rugs, so they sought inspiration from their surroundings--roosters, horses, and flowers--and crafted a new rug while sitting by the fire each winter.

Hooked rugs were mostly a way to cover the cold floors, according to Sally Van Nuys, owner of Amherst Folk Art & Rug Hooking in Amherst, Ohio. They were also used for warmth on the bed and were called bed rugs.

Eventually, craftswomen progressed from making do with available scraps to dyeing their own wools. Today's crafters and artisans create rugs working from digital images they've transferred to the cloth they hook on.

"If you look back over the years, you can really see the evolution," says Virginia P. Stimmel, editor of Rug Hooking Magazine.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

The early rugs were primitive. By the late 1920s, Pearl McGown began designing and selling patterns, according to the National Guild of the Pearl McGown Hookcrafters Web site. In 1930, she began designing patterns and eventually developed more than 1,000 patterns sold around the country.

McGown began offering courses in dyeing wool in the 1930s, so that crafters had more control over their palette. And in 1940, she brought teachers together in Concord, Massachusetts, to share techniques and display their rugs.

By then, rug hooking had become an established hobby across the United States, with florals and nursery rhyme rugs particularly popular.

In the 1940s, artist Molly Nye Tobey broadened the craft, notes Kory Rogers, associate curator of Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Tobey learned to hook rugs from her grandmothers and began selling state-themed hooked rugs from her Rhode Island antiques store. Each rug had a color scheme based on something a state was known for, such as the sandy colors of oat fields in Oklahoma. She then depicted each state's claim to fame. For example, the Vermont rug showcased cheese and maple sugar.

By the 1960s, the interest in hooked rugs had waned when the "modern" look of shag carpet and clean lines took hold.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But over the past two decades, crafters and designers have become increasingly creative so that there are now literally thousands of design choices to meet every possible taste. Some hook in the traditional Early American-style or in contemporary geometrics. Other designers, like Claire Murray, look to the sea for inspiration and go beyond the early sailboat motifs to include shells, starfish, mermaids, lighthouses, underwater scenes, and nautical ropes. And some artists transfer photos from the computer onto a pattern and hook rugs depicting their grandchildren's faces.

Wool sells for $20 to $40 per yard, and the kits to make a 2-by-3-foot rug sell for more than $100. While the craft has evolved into a hobby for more affluent people, there are still rug hookers who shop at Goodwill for wool clothing they can cut up and use for hooked rugs.

Those involved in online hooked rug discussion forums love to talk about their great deals, like the rug hooker who bought a size 24 skirt for $3. It's even better if it's white or camel-colored wool that can be dyed.

In the six years Stimmel has edited Rug Hooking Magazine, she has noticed an increase in the level of sophistication in the dyeing process. Six years ago, most hookers at shows were using strips the size of spaghetti noodles. It can take years to hook a room-size rug with pieces that small. Artisans are now using slightly wider strips and dyeing them in order to get the gradation of color they're seeking.

"Some women and men are hooking rugs today that are unbelievable," Van Nuys says. …

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