North American Hooked Rugs: The Indigenous Folk Art
A hand-hooked oval rug made of wool on burlap in floral design, circa 1940.
Since the middle of the 19th century, the practice of making hooked rugs have come in and out of fashion several times. Each time hooked rugs came back, the advancements in technology—the backing fabric, the yarn, the colors, commercial patterns—gave the finished rugs a definite period look. Today, hooked rugs have a large collectible following.
Unlike today, with the wide variety of floor coverings available today, most Americans do not realize is that the custom of using decorative, heavy, fabric floor coverings in all but the most elaborate American homes was not always the case, and prior to the 19th century, bare floors were the norm. Before 1800, even the word “rug” had an entirely different meaning.
In New England, bed rugs had a base of linen fabric with dyed, woolen yarns sewn through the weave, usually in floral patterns. By 1800, yarn-sewn rugs were also used to cover tables, chests and hearths. In wealthy households, hearth rugs were used to cover hearth stones in summer, but in winter they were used to protect valuable imported carpets from flying sparks.
These early American rugs were made from native raw materials, such as wool and flax. However, these natural fibers needed a great deal of processing before they could be turned into cloth. After the initial carding, spinning and weaving, the yarn or fabric also had to be washed, sorted and dyed with vegetable dyes made from available fruits, flowers, roots and berries. The fabric or yarn was then cut into strips which were sewn or braided into rugs. Because the production of textiles was so difficult and tedious, these hand crafted rugs were far too valuable to be walked upon.
Unusual, distinctive, creative, pattern of diamonds and triangles of undulating lines, finely hand hooked, wool on burlap, circa 1920.
The process of hooking rugs originated in the 19th century. The earliest date found in the design of a rug is June 10, 1850; the date was possibly chosen to commemorate a special event in the life of Ellen McKeever of Merrimack, N. H., whose name also appears on the rug. However, most experts believe that hooked rugs were made as early as 1840 in Maine, New Hampshire, the Maritime Provinces of Canada—Labrador, Newfoundland—and French Quebec.
The process of rug hooking is simple: A small, metal hook, usually with some kind of wooden handle, is used to pull a thin strip of fabric through a loosely woven cloth. The fabric loops that result from this process are usually from 1/8th to 1/4th inch in depth and close together, thereby forming a nubby texture or pile. The base for many early hooked rugs was linen, a relatively close-woven fabric, and hooks were often made from nails, forks or wire. Feed sacks, with their loose weave, were frequently used after being washed, stretched and sometimes pieced together.
Jute burlap, also known as gunny-sacking or Hessian cloth, was introduced to Europe from India around 1820. The strength of jute fiber, combined with the loose weave of burlap, made this a popular backing for commercial carpets. By 1850, British mills were producing jute sacking for commercial use, and Calcutta began exporting burlap. Rug makers in the United States quickly adopted this commercial product for use in making hooked rugs.
Designs were drawn on the burlap backing with a piece of charcoal or the end of a burnt stick. Subjects ranged from simple geometric designs, traced with plates or cups, to imaginative, whimsical animals never seen in nature. Many designs were taken from familiar surroundings. Sailors hooked rugs with anchors, ships and stars. Farm women used barnyard animals for their subjects, and the people of Labrador and Greenland used polar bears and puffins. No subject was too fanciful; landscapes, buildings, quilt designs and portraits of people and pets appear on early hooked rugs. Some rugs even tell stories or commemorate events.
The most popular fabric for hooking rugs was tightly woven wool. However, since many early rugs were hooked with leftover clothing or household textiles, it is not uncommon to find flannel, cotton, linen or paisley as well. Some rugs have braided borders, also made from leftover fabric scraps.
In the mid-1800s, Edward Sands Frost, of Biddeford, Maine, created a series of 750 tin stencils from which 180 patterns could be traced on burlap to make hooked rugs. He sold these stencils from his peddler’s wagon, and his designs soon became very popular. In 1867, a woman named Philena Moxley opened a shop in Wenham, Ma., offering burlap stamped with embroidery patterns that had been adapted for hooked rugs. In addition, Wainwright Cushing started a company that offered standardized dyes to improve the muted and uneven colors that often resulted from using vegetable dyes.
Eventually, many, if not most, hooked rugs were made with standard patterns and dyes. Although the process became more efficient, the products were less creative. Each rug hooker brought an individual style to the standard designs, but fewer of the primitive rugs, with their fanciful creatures and often charming lack of perspective, were being made during the second half of the 19th century.
Traditional floral bouquet framed by scrolling leaves, finely hand hooked, wool on burlap, circa 1940.
During the 1860s, hooked rugs were being crafted all throughout New England, Pennsylvania and the Atlantic seacoast. By the end of the century, the craft had spread throughout the United States. Most of the rugs were made by women, although some men, particularly sailors, also worked at this craft. Most rugs were made in homes for personal use or for display at community gatherings and fairs; however, after 1900 many people began to make hooked rugs at home to supplement their incomes.
Soon, community organizations were formed to sell these hand-crafted products. The most famous is the Grenfell Mission of Labrador, which provided materials for villagers to make rugs with striking arctic designs, hooked with leftover wool and jersey from discarded socks and underwear, as well as leftover burlap strands. Other organizations included the Cheticamp Hooked Rug Industry on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, established by Alexander Graham Bell and his wife; Subbekakasheny Industry of Belchertown, Ma., which offered designs based on American Indian motifs; the Seacoast Missionary Society of Maine; the Society of Deerfield, Ma.; and the Blue Ridge Weavers of Tryon, N.C.
Because hooked rugs were made as floor coverings, many early-19th century rugs were discarded after years of hard use. In 1938, Ralph Burnham, an antiques dealer in Ipswich, Ma., placed an ad in a local newspaper offering to clean and restore early rugs. He traced the designs from rugs that came into his shop so that they would not be forgotten. In 1937, when William Winthrop Kent published a book on the history of hooked rugs, Burnham assisted him by providing some of these designs.
Also during the 1930s, Pearl McGown, a gifted rug maker, inspired a whole new generation’s interest in hooked rugs. McGown designed patterns, wrote books and instructed teachers. McGown also endorsed a hand-operated cutting machine that made uniform fabric strips (3/32nd of an inch wide). McGown discouraged any alterations in her designs, and the rugs made with her patterns are easily recognizable to anyone who has studied her books and catalogs.
A vintage hooked rug made by Pearl McGown depicting a New England scene of snow covered landscape with a horse pulled sleigh approaching a red covered bridge, made of wool on a burlap base. The inscription on the burlap reads: “May the simple joys of life be yours this Christmas – 1951- Pearl M McGown F25.”
In 1968, Joan Moshimer, a student of McGown, opened a studio in Kennebunkport, Me. to teach the craft of hooking rugs, using many of McGown’s designs but encouraging more individuality and creativity. She also purchased the Cushing Company so that she could sell supplies for braiding and hooking rugs. In addition, Moshimer wrote books on the subject.
However, hooked rugs were not popular collectibles until the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1975, Joel and Kate Kopp wrote “American Hooked and Sewn Rugs,” in which they stated that the primitive imagery [of the rugs] often parallels the more accepted forms of folk art, while rarely receiving the same recognition. In their book, the Kopps presented a chronological, visual record of American hooked rugs and gave some guidelines as to which they considered the most creative and artistic.
The best rugs, according to the Kopps, are those with a strong sense of space and color, combined with a feeling of feedback from the emotions and sensibilities of their makers. They chose not to show rugs made from commercial patterns, feeling that the standardized designs stifled originality and creativity. They praised rugs that displayed primitive force and unique naive character.
Most experts agree that the best rugs are those with original designs. Landscapes and portraits are more desirable than floral or geometric rugs, although these are collectible as well. Geometric rugs should be judged not only by their design, but also by their depth and shading; the best of this type have a three-dimensional appearance. Although rugs made from commercial patterns are collectible, they do not command the prices of the early, uniquely personal rugs.
John and Lynn Gallo, antiques dealers in Otego, N.Y., say that condition is very important, unless the rug is extremely old and worth having repaired professionally. A repaired rug must be judged on the quality of the repair, but a well-executed repair should not deter a collector from purchasing an attractive rug. The Gallos look at the subject first and condition second.
Rugs that are dirty or stained can often be cleaned, but the Gallos caution buyers to be aware of the fact that some stains (e.g. blood) can seldom be removed successfully. If the rug is valuable enough, however, the stained portion can be removed professionally and replaced with similar material. A hooked rug should never be professionally dry-cleaned or immersed in water; both can damage the burlap backing.
A hooked rug with a geometric pattern, which appears to be inspired by Native American design, circa 1930.
The best way to clean a hooked rug is to vacuum the front of the rug, first covering the vacuum hose with a piece of sheer cloth and using the lowest setting available. A soiled rug can also be cleaned with the suds of a mild detergent. The Gallos use absorbent fabrics, such as cotton diapers, first immersing the cloth in the suds and then rubbing lightly over the surface of the rug in a circular motion. A hooked rug should never be hung to dry. It should be laid flat on a towel or on a shaded lawn on a mild day. The rugs should never be folded, but rolled, right side out, when stored or shipped.
Hooked rugs can be very hard to date and difficult to assess. A beginning collector would be wise to contact a dealer who specializes in this area. John and Lynn Gallo note that such dealers are listed in antiques associations in many states and can sometimes be found at the larger antiques shows. They also state that a reputable dealer will answer questions, describe his merchandise and offer a written guarantee. Although the Internet can be an excellent source for purchasing antiques, the Gallos caution collectors to ask questions before bidding to make sure that the person offering the product is knowledgeable and offers a return option.
Some of the best examples of early American hooked rugs can be seen in books, at shows and in museums such as the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt. and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Jessie Turbayne, author of “Hooked Rugs,” calls these vibrant examples of folk art a craft born of necessity. Out of the need for warmth and the desire for color in their homes, North American rug hookers created a tradition that has survived for almost 200 years and is now valued as our only indigenous folk art.
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