012: New England Hooked Rug

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From Colonial Times to the Industrial Revolution

It is not certain when or where hooked rugs originated. There are several theories – a fun but unsubstantiated one claims that they were first made by fishermen on long boat journeys, using the materials at hand and fish hooks as their tools. The term “hooked rug” generally refers to the particular construction technique used, but has also come to be representative of a larger genre which encompasses other less common American crafted rugs liked shirred and yarn sewn rugs. Although rugs constructed in these techniques have been found in England, France and Scandinavia, it was in New England and Eastern Canada where hooked rugs truly developed and came into their own.

In North America, folk textiles were a part of early colonial culture with hooked rugs being made as early as the 18th century. They are now viewed as a quintessential American craft and a fine example American folk art but their original purpose was more functional and intended to preserve and reuse clothing and other handmade textiles. The earliest hooked and yarn sewn rugs were usually utilized as bedcovers or hearth rugs which helped protect from flying cinders or sparks. A variety of designs were employed representative of the popular forms of the period and many rugs were often dated. Common designs featured urns of fruit, spring flowers or landscape scenes copied from published illustrations. 

The tradition would really take off following the technological and social developments of the 19th century.  The industrial Revolution and advent of textile mills in New England would make fabric more readily available and much less expensive. With the importation of Asiatic jute and the subsequent manufacture of burlap in the middle of the century an ideal backing fabric was discovered. Burlap was a vast improvement over the loosely woven linen or other homespun fabrics that had been traditionally used as it was durable and usually free since it was repurposed from old grain or feed bags. As rug hooking expanded, most new makers were women primarily from the growing urban and rural middle classes. They couldn’t afford the imported pile rugs from abroad that were popular at the time, so craft rugs were a bright and colorful alternative that could add beauty to dark interiors and warmth in the colder months.

Hooked Rug Construction

Hooked rugs are immediately recognizable in their appearance and unique texture, as they were almost always produced as home crafts, so the hand is very visible. To hook a rug the first thing needed is a backing fabric, most often a burlap base made from jute. Burlap is coarse enough to pass the fabric through, but fine enough to allow the creation of an infinite amount of designs. Narrow strips of fabric – often cut from old clothing or rags, and yarn in more modern times – are passed in and out of the burlap using a hooking tool. The hook is usually an implement that has a wood handle with a metal hook at one end which helps keep continuous movement and flow as the fabric is pushed in and out of the ground material. The loops can either be cut or kept intact depending on the effect the hooker wants to achieve. The front and the back of the rug will look almost the same with the design is visible from both sides. 

Hooked rugs are usually made as small mats and can be oblong, oval, or rectangular in shape. Large hooked rugs are much rarer to find. In terms of imagery, there are three broad categories of hooked rugs:  geometric patterns (like our featured rug); floral rugs (such as this one), and pictorial rugs which usually depict animals, scenery and patriotic or fraternal imagery (like this one and this one)

From Commercial Patterns to Contemporary Art

Rug hooking would fully blossom and capture the national imagination with the commercialization of rug patterns. One of the first to create and sell pre-drawn patterns was Robert Frost Sands, a tin-peddler from Maine. The story goes that one day Frost was watching his wife hook a rug on a pre-made pattern and thought he could create a better design than the one she had bought. So he set out to do just that.

Although Frost wasn’t the first to create stenciled rug patterns, he was the first to produce them in a serialized manner. He sold them door to door and before long his business was thriving. By 1876 he had created over 750 stencils and his sales expanded from New England into neighboring New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. During his travels, Frost encountered many original designs hooked by farm women, which he would purchase and use for his own catalogue of designs.  Although one could argue that these kits inhibited imagination and spontaneity, they did broaden the appeal of rug hooking and provided both the novice and less ambitious hooker a guide to follow. The patterns were traced and colored in, much like a paint by the numbers, though of course the hooker could always pick her own color palette if she preferred. Frost, along with other purveyors of these hooking ‘kits’, also worked to innovate the tools rug hookers used, thus making the process a little easier. In 1881, Frost advertised a hand-held “Embroidery and Ornamenting Machine for Rug Patterns”, while Ebenezer Ross, another purveyor from Ohio, would create the “Novelty Rug Machine” which could be adapted to use cut rags or yarn interchangeably, and could be considered an early version of the modern punch hook. By the 1890s rugs were being hooked in every state in America, thanks in great part to these efforts to popularize the craft and make it accessible to everyone.

By the early 20th century the process became more standardized with the formation of rug hooking guilds and the development of a small cottage industry. One of the most famous producers of rugs in this manner was the Grenfell Mission in Maritime Canada. Their rugs are highly collectible and famous for their fine hooking, nautical themes and use of repurposed and locally dyed silk stockings as fabric. Production would peak by the Great Depression and never truly recovered afterwards, but Grenfell and others were responsible for formalizing guidelines and promoting the study of rug hooking. It is a lasting legacy for a North American tradition that continues as both a craft and fine art to this day. In the 21st century hobbyists are still active, kits are widely available online for novices, and some contemporary hookers are even represented by prestigious art galleries.

Hannah EpsteinYou’re Tearing Me Apart, acrylic, polyester & burlap, 2019

We sourced our information from: American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot by Kate & Joel Kopp; American Rugs and Carpets: From the Seventeenth Century to Modern Times by Helene von Rosenstiel; tidbits from back issues of folk art magazines like The Clarion; and as always Hali Magazine.

Thanks for being part of our Heirloom community!

You can check out this rug on our site, as well as more of our hooked rugs here.
 – Zach, Lynn, Nathalie & Sam

*New England & Maritime Canada map illustrated by Lynn Hunter

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