Getting Hooked on Rugs

Hooked rugs have advanced in the world, from the kitchen floor to the wall as works of art. There’s a new generation of hookers whose work will never see the bottom of a shoe. For an increasing number of hookers (yes, that’s what they call themselves), hooking is like painting. The wool is their paint and the hook is their paintbrush.

Similar to paintings, there is now a wide array of hooked rug designs, from stark modern forms to folkloric scenes, subtle landscapes, and expressionistic self-portraits. But it wasn’t always that way. Rug hooking was simply a way to use scraps of cloth too worn for even rag duty.

Farmers, fishermen and their wives, who emigrated from northern Europe and settled in Canada and along the New England coastline, probably introduced the craft to North America. Originating from Scotland, England, France, Scandinavia and Germany, they brought with them the tradition of handmade rugs, many of which are now considered a noteworthy category of folk art. Then, as now, all that was required was a hook, some rag strips or yarn, and a foundation material attached to a simple stretcher of four wood slats lashed together.

Dating to the early 19th century, these hooked rugs (different from yarn sewn or rag rugs) originated in the New England states and Canadian Maritime Provinces. They were primitive and utilitarian, done with pictorial, floral and geometric designs, often portraying a subject from the maker’s life: a home, farm, barnyard animals, pets, birds and flowers. Wool, flannel, and cotton pieces were cut into 1/4 inch-wide strips and then pulled in loops through a stiff woven backing such as burlap.

While these rugs were made with the same skill as schoolgirls’ embroideries or samplers and fine needlework, hooked rugs were utilitarian, fashioned to hide dirt or wood floors or to be laid before the hearth. They were “the art of poverty,” They weren’t found in fine houses. If a rug was attractive, so much the better, but they were meant to provide warmth, and the women who produced them used what-ever fabric scraps they had and hooked them up quickly. When the rugs fell apart, they were thrown away.

The naive creator-inspired designs thrived from 1830 to 1850, and circa-1860 pattern makers began printing and selling pre-stenciled rug kits on burlap, mass-produced and lacking the freer, less technically correct original motifs. The stenciled rugs were more symmetrical, less fanciful and more realistic, but many women added their own individual touches, and several rugs based on the same pattern could each look very different.

By the late 1800s, patterns were being stamped onto the burlap (showing the hooker what areas to fill in and in which color), allowing more complicated designs to be created and reproduced. Rug hooking became a booming craft industry over the next half-century, especially in the Northeast.

The evolution of the hooked rug from craft to art occurred as hookers began to explore and create more one-of-a-kind works. Today, these rugs have gained appreciation among collectors and interior designers. Hooked rugs dating to the 1800s and early 1900s can now command thousands of dollars. Prices for the oldest and rarest of these 19th-century rugs have now reached the financial stratosphere. Interest and admiration of this craft was dormant until a pioneering 1976 exhibition of hooked rugs, organized by Joel and Kate Kopp (formerly of America Hurrah) at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. Whether as a hobby or a family heirloom, hooked rugs are back in America.

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