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The American Tradition of Rug Hooking
Rug hooking reached a creative peak in early nineteenth-century America (in both New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces), although both skilled and unskilled hookers were handicapped by a basic lack of materials and had to rely on their own ingenuity. Before the widespread availability of burlap (after 1850), feed sacks-after they were washed, stretched, and pieced-were frequently used as the foundation material. The fabric to be hooked into the foundation came primarily from clothing no longer usable; the otherwise-worthless woven materials were washed, sorted, and then colored in homemade dyes extracted from local plants (yellows were obtained from golden rod, marsh marigold, sumac, oak, and sunflower; greens from mint, ash, and smartweed; reds from cranberry, sumac, bloodroot, dogwood, alder, and elm; blues from grape, sycamore, and larkspur; browns from walnut, butternut, and alder). The dyed materials were then cut into narrow strips to be worked into the foundation using hooks fashioned from nails, bone-handled forks, or whatever else was readily available.
For some, creating a design was most likely a difficult task, although husbands and children undoubtedly took a keen interest in the planning of the current "mat" design, contributing ideas and suggestions. Others adapted bits of embroidery or a treasured piece of decorated china. Most early rug hookers, though, relied on their surroundings for inspiration. Houses, barnyard scenes, a cat frolicking with her kittens, dogs, horses, hens, roosters, a horseshoe for good luck, and the always beloved flowers from the summer garden-these, recreated in simple form on the burlap, became abstractions of the real blossoms, beautiful in their own way.
No fancy methods of transferring the designs for the early rug hooker-she took a piece of charcoal and drew directly onto an old feedsack or other foundation material. This freewheeling method accounts for the simplicity and naive charm which characterizes so many of the old rugs. Many a strange-looking animal was the result of a freehand attempt to portray some barnyard creature or favorite pet. Often, most unlikely objects were combined in these primitive designs-such as horses, birds, trees, stars, and crescent moon-with no attempt to show proper size relationship or perspective. But as amusing as these early designs are, they all clearly reveal the personality of the creator; they were truly a means of self-expression for the maker and as such have great charm and individuality.
Rug hooking was a craft confined not only to women. Sailors frequently hooked rugs on their long sea journeys; they used canvas as the foundation material and short strands of yarn or rope. Full-rigged ships, anchors, and whaling scenes were favorite designs. It is easy to imagine the sailor's wives or sweethearts, inspired by these efforts, taking to the craft with enthusiasm.
Geometric patterns have always been popular with rug hookers-primarily because they are simple to design. Early rug hookers used the burlap mesh as guidelines, drawing directly on the burlap with charcoal or using everyday objects as templates. The kitchen plate, for example, was a popular designing aid; it was drawn around as many times as necessary for an overall design (the circles side by side or overlapping) or it was used as a stencil to provide interesting borders. The antique rug on page vii, from "Beauport," in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a stunning example of how effective a simple circular design can be. Geometric designs were not only comparatively simple to design, but could also be very attractively hooked with what rug hookers call "hit-or-miss": multicolored leftover materials hooked in without further dyeing. Frequently, the different colors and assorted textures of leftover wools created a fascinating effect despite an otherwise dull, uninspired design.
Oriental rugs, found only in the homes of the wealthy in early America, provided inspiration for many hooked rugs in more modest homes. The intricate motifs of oriental rugs were enlarged and simplified for the loosely woven burlap of hooked rugs. The paisley pattern, for example-a motif well-known from paisley shawls (named for the town in Scotland where they were woven) as well as from oriental rugs from which the motif was originally adapted-was used frequently in repeat designs or combined with floral motifs in early hooked rugs. As with geometric patterns, the paisley could also be effectively hooked with hit-or-miss materials.
During the middle 1800s, Edward Sands Frost, an enterprising man from Biddeford, Maine, contributed to the development of the craft into a home industry by creating stencils of tin and then selling them from his peddler's wagon to the grateful housewives along his route. During his travels around the New England countryside, while visiting in the homes of his customers, he had seen firsthand the sometimes crude and unsuccessful attempts that were made to design attractive rugs. His own wife was working on a rug, using a poorly made hook. To quote Frost in the Biddeford Times in 1888:
I noticed she was using a very poor hook, so, being a machinist, I went to work and made the crooked hook.... I got interested in the rug. I "caught the fever" as they used to say. So every evening I worked on the rug. After four evenings ... I told my wife I thought I could make a better design.... So after we finished our rug I got a piece of burlap ... I wrote my first design on paper and then put it on the cloth.... I got orders for twenty or more patterns like it within three days. So you see I got myself into business right away. There was not money enough in it to devote my whole time to the business, and as the orders came in faster than I could fill them I began, Yankee-like, to study some way to do them quicker. Then the idea of stencilling presented itself to me.... I went out into my stable where I had some old iron and some old wash boilers I had bought for their copper bottoms, took the old tin off of them and made my first stencil out of it. I began making small stencils of single flowers, scrolls, leaves, buds, etc. each one on a small plate; then I could with a stencil brush print in ink in plain figures much faster than I could sketch. Thus I reduced ten hours labor to two and a half hours. I then had the art down fine enough to allow me to fill my orders, so I began to print patterns and put them in my peddler's cart and offer them for sale. The news of my invention of stamped rugs spread like magic ... I at once became known as Frost, the rug man....
Frost's business became a great success, but it had the unfortunate effect of stifling the creative efforts of many. It is the earlier rugs, usually inspired by daily surroundings and frequently intense expressions of personality, that we cherish especially; but the gifted could take a printed pattern and by an unusual choice of color, use of textures, or interesting deviation from the stenciled lines, create a personal work. The lion rug on page 45 is an example of an unusually freewheeling adaptation.
Frost sold his business in 1876. The metal stencils, nearly four tons of them, were eventually sold to Charlotte K. Stratton, who used them in her pattern business for a number of years before selling them to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Today the museum prints the old designs from the stencils, and sells them through their handsome catalog. Each summer Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum hold a hooking bee and exhibition stressing the type of hooking similar to that done during the nineteenth century, in an effort to preserve the old methods.
About the same time that Edward Sands Frost was beginning his pattern business, another veteran of the Civil War worked as a dyer in a small woolen mill in the northern Maine town of Foxcroft. Local housewives, some of them rug hookers, begged him for dyes for use in their own homes. Wainwright Cushing sensed that the time was right for a complete line of chemical "mill-type" dyes to replace the time-consuming task of vegetable dyeing, and in his spare time at home began to develop such a line. His first colors were turkey red and black, but he eventually developed the complete spectrum, selling them by mail. The Cushing Company, now owned by Craftsman Studio. Kennebunkport, Maine 04046, thriving to this day, still counts rug hookers among its most enthusiastic customers.
By the end of the nineteenth century, with the growing demand for low-priced machine-made carpeting, the popularity of hooked rugs declined. The once-prized rugs which had graced the front parlor were often relegated to the kitchen and from there to the woodpile. Or they were rolled up and tucked away into the far corners of dusty attics and barns. For decades, hooked rugs were sadly neglected and ill-appreciated-except for a few farsighted individuals who recognized hooked rugs as a valuable part of our past to be preserved. Ralph Burnham was one such man. Hooked rugs were brought to his business in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to be cleaned and repaired. In one of Burnham's advertising booklets, he stated that in 1928 more than 5,000 rugs were repaired by his "corps of experts" (his words).
Wanting to preserve the old designs, Burnham copied the rug designs as they passed through his hands and thus began a superb collection. He began to print the old patterns on burlap and made them available for sale. In one of his 1937 advertisements, he said, "These are, for the most part, taken from famous rugs of the past. Over the years we have collected examples of American hooked rugs. When we found one which showed great merit in design our artists made faithful copies thereof and from these we have distributed them throughout the country as a part of the heritage of the past."
It has only been recently that rug hooking has received the long-overdue recognition from museums, galleries, and the public it deserves as a rich part of our heritage. But more important, not only is appreciation growing for hooked rugs made in the folk-art tradition, but the craft itself is being enthusiastically revived as a means of self-expression. That is what this book is all about.CHAPTER 2
Fundamentals of Rug Hooking
Many people have long seen and admired hooked rugs without having the least idea how they are made. Traditional hooking is the process of pulling up (in loops about "1/8-¼" high) narrow strips of wool fabric through the mesh of a foundation material. The loops, pulled up many times close together, form a pile. A hook (like a crochet hook set into a wooden handle) is used to pull up the loops-hence the term "hooking."
Burlap is commonly used for the foundation, although monk's cloth and certain other materials are used to a lesser extent. For the purpose of this book, the foundation will be called burlap. Today's burlap does not bear much similarity to the old loosely woven hessian feed bags of our great-grandmothers' day. It is more correctly called "jute cloth" by the manufacturers in Scotland, since they no longer use the coarse outer layers of the plant, but instead use the stronger, fine inner fibers.
Almost all weights of wool can be used in hooking. The heavier the wool, the narrower it should be cut; conversely, the lighter-weight wools should be cut wider. The ideal weight is closely woven 100% wool flannel, which is soft and pliable.
Loosely woven wools and tweeds are hard to hook because they tend to pull apart when cut into strips. You can sometimes shrink them enough to make them usable, and it's well worth the effort because they are lovely when hooked in, lending their subtle colors and textures to your hooking. To shrink loosely woven materials, break all the usual rules for washing wools. Wash them in hot water and detergent, in the washing machine preferably, rinsing them in hot water and then cold.
Wool jersey and knitted material are not good to use, except possibly here and there in small amounts, because they tend to mat down and lack the natural "springiness" of regular wool weaves. (Exception: jerseys work well in wall hangings. In fact, since durability is not a factor when choosing materials for a wall hanging, use any fiber you like: yarns, cut strips of fur, velvets, cottons, silk, etc.)
Today, wool often has a percentage of some of the man-made fibers-this is all right as long as the percentage is small. You may notice when you dye this wool that the man- made fiber may not take the dye as well. This will give some textural interest to your rug and is not objectionable. It is a little more difficult to cut than 100% wool.
Above all, remember this is a handcraft. Different weights and thicknesses can, and should, be used in the same rug. If you are insistent on using exactly the same weight and texture throughout your rug, then you'll produce a uniform, almost machine-made look which is certainly not the purpose of a handcraft. The most appealing hooked rugs result from wool strips of different colors and textures being worked into designs.
How to Cut the Wool
The wool, to hold together and not pull apart, must be cut on the straight of the material. If you look closely at your wool strip, it will look something like the sketch (fig. 7). The long fibers are what hold the material together; if it is cut even slightly on the bias, it will pull apart as you try to hook it. So be careful about the cutting.
The first step is to tear the wool into narrow strips about 3 or 4 inches wide. The length is a matter of choice. I suggest you make them about 12 inches long. The torn edge should be absolutely straight and will then make a perfect guide for cutting. A cutting machine is highly recommended. Although it is not essential to own one, it is a big saving in time and effort. They come with various interchangeable blades for cutting different widths from less than " up to ¼".
Again, let me emphasize, whether cutting by hand or machine, keep the strips on the straight of the material. The tweeds mentioned earlier generally are difficult to tear, but you can carefully cut them with your scissors using an easily seen thread as a guide, then cut them with your cutting machine to the desired width.
The purpose of a frame is to hold your burlap firmly taut. Many kinds are available, varying greatly in price. All are good and each variety has enthusiastic boosters. My personal choice is the oval hoop (18" × 27") which can be removed from its base and used with or without a stand. For the beginner, round 14" hoops are available very reasonably, and even an old picture frame on which to thumbtack the burlap can be successfully used. The important thing is to get started-better and more efficient equipment can be acquired as time and money permit.CHAPTER 3
Basic Hooking Directions
Traditional hooking is a craft that allows great freedom and flexibility. There is no one right way to hook; hooking is like handwriting in that all rug hookers develop their own individual style. The loops of wool are pulled up through the burlap to a height that looks and feels right to you. Some people tend to hook high and some low. The average height of the loops is about 1/8". You will find that the wider the strip of wool is cut, the higher the loop will be; for some primitive-type rugs, if the strips are cut by hand ¼" wide or wider, the pile may be ½" high (these rugs naturally require more wool). And of course, when the wool strips are cut wide, you will be skipping more meshes so that the loops are not too packed.
The hook is held in the right hand, above the pattern, and the strip of wool, which can be any desired length, usually about 12 inches long, is held in the left hand, underneath the pattern. (If you are left-handed, these positions are reversed.)
Push the hook through the burlap and slide the smooth side of the shank down between your forefinger and thumb (the tip of the hook will touch the thumb) and let the tip catch hold of the wool strip (which is between the other thumb and forefinger). See Figure 9. Pull the end up to the top side to a height of about 1 inch. (All ends are pulled through to the top side, not left hanging underneath, and later cut off even with the top of the other loops. They become invisible in the pile.)
Now put the hook through the next hole and pull up a loop to a height of about 1/8". Working from right to left, keep pulling up loops as evenly as you can, occasionally skipping a hole in the burlap to keep the loops from being packed too tightly. When the end of the strip is reached, be sure to bring it through to the top side and trim. If the wool is cut very fine (less than 1/8"), hook into almost every mesh. When using wider strips, skip as many holes as is necessary to have the loops comfortably touch each other. If you try to pack too many loops into the burlap you may strain it-yet if you have the loops too far apart the rug will not wear well. The surface should be firm but not packed.
Excerpted from The Complete Book of Rug Hooking by Joan Moshimer. Copyright © 1989 Joan Moshimer. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted October 21, 2011