Origins of Traditional Rug Hooking

by Joan Moshimer

NOTE: By the term "Rug Hooking" we mean the craft which employs a simple hook and strips of fabric - the strips cut from worn out clothing, curtains, etc. which was developed to give them new and useful life. The hook in one hand above the foundation material and the strip held beneath in the other hand, the hook begins pulling up loops from the strip which when repeated many times close together forms the surface of a rug.

A distinguished American architect and scholar in the 1920s and 30s, William Winthrop Kent became interested in the hooked rugs of the humble housewives living in the New England states and neighboring provinces of the Canadian Maritimes, recognizing that he was looking at an art form with much distinction and potential.

He wrote three carefully researched, well illustrated informative books on rug hooking - now unfortunately out-of-print. In the first, called THE HOOKED RUG, he set himself the task of finding out just when and where rug hooking began. The earliest evidence of the craft that he could find can be seen in a photograph on page 6 of his book, showing a small mat dating from the 6th century that is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This basic form of hooking apparently was practiced by the Copts from the 3rd to the 7th century AD. The Copts were descended from the ancient Egyptians.

From his description of the Coptic process it seems as if their work was remarkably similar to our present day hooking. They made a fabric "which was based on the appreciation of the artistic possibilities of loops of colored wool left standing above the surface of the basic material"

He surmised that the art was already well established and probably began much earlier. Few examples survive to this day. He believed that the process was continued by succeeding generations and eventually traveled to other places. One of those was Spain where it continued "in certain hangings and rugs" with almost the same Coptic characteristics, until about 1830, when the work was apparently abandoned.

Now the persistent researcher turned his attentions to the British Isles. The year was 1927 when W. W. Kent began corresponding with an English lady, Miss Anne Macbeth, a writer and well known teacher of weaving, embroidery and rug making. He learned that hooked rugs and the closely related "brodded" rugs were common in some parts of Britain. She said that these rugs (not elaborately patterned and more utilitarian than the rugs with which we are familiar) had been made for at least 400 years and that knowledge of the craft may have come from people of Scandinavian descent who had settled in the northern isles of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. She also stated that remnants of hooked rugs have been found in an ancient tomb in Norway.

The general use in Britain for early hooked articles at first was as bed covers in imitation of animal skins. From the bed to the floor is but a short hop and it is easy to speculate that it probably wasn't long before rugs were being made for use on the floor.

Those rugs were used not on clean wood floors, but on the rush - covered dirt floors of small cottages and thus with use became extremely soiled. With no means of cleaning them the people were forced to discard the old rugs and replace them with freshly made ones. Miss Macbeth believed this may be the reason that so few of the old rugs survive today. Every winter a new rug was set up and worked upon.

The early British colonists in New England and the Maritimes must have brought with them knowledge of the basics of rug making, but a question remains. How was it that they carried the artistic possibilities so much further than their cousins in the old country? Mr. Kent had some ideas about this that are worth considering.

He pointed out that the early colonists generally had far less material possessions than their more prosperous English relatives. Their homes were spartan and in need of decoration. I would add that the winters were longer and more severe therefore more time had to be spent indoors. They must have been starved for something of beauty in those long cold months. Memories of the loveliness of the summer garden could have stimulated the more adventurous among them to include a spray of flowers and leaves in the rug they were working on.

Once they began along this thrilling path there was no looking back. One inspired craftswoman might serve to motivate and encourage others. A scrap of wallpaper or printed cotton could provide the inspiration for a dozen rugs. The family pets obligingly posed for posterity, as did the family's barnyard animals and birds. Weathervanes of smartly trotting horses began to appear, and patriotic themes like flags and state seals. The floral or leaf border on a treasured blue Staffordshire platter might be enlarged and worked into a spectacular rug of myriad colors. The drawing may not have been "correct" but in many cases the effect was naive and delightful.

As the American and Canadian rug-hooking tradition grew and expanded over the years, becoming more beautiful and exciting than ever, our friends from Britain, rejoicing with us, began to claim for themselves the joy and fascination of putting more color and design into their own works,often with spectacular success.

In the last 40 to 50 years guilds have sprung into being in the United States, Canada. and also overseas in England, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. There is even an international guild, bringing together many differing viewpoints and talents.

It is my belief that William Winthrop Kent, by researching and writing about the hooked rug so diligently and enthusiastically, deserves a great deal of the credit for the popularity of the art and craft of rug hooking in the 1930s and 40s that has continued to this day. Long may it continue and prosper.


Imported "Hooked Rugs"

Whenever something hand-crafted and beautiful is made, it doesn't take long for cheap and shoddy imitations to appear. How often we see advertisements selling "Hand-hooked" rugs? What they don't say is that these "hand-hooked" rugs are made with automatic speed hookers working from continuous thread from the back of the piece and that thousands of identical rugs are made from the same design.

At first glance these appear attractive but they lack the charm, quality and individuality of the real thing. They don't cost much but don't look too closely. This is a good example of "you get what you pay for".

In order to make the cheap imitation it is necessary to find ways to:

1. Speed up the process

2. Use poor grade materials

3. Use flat, less harmonious colors

4. Use low-paid labor (usually overseas)

5. Convince potential customers that they are purchasing a genuine hand-hooked rug


Copyright 1999 © W. Cushing & Co. All rights reserved

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