Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Slow Pastime: Making Hand-Hooked Textiles

Once upon a time, seemingly a lifetime ago, I was an unhappy biochemistry grad student whose supervisor suggested that, since I enjoyed it so much, maybe I should hook rugs for a living instead.
"Artist at work" by Pat Kight (Creative Commons licence).
I considered it for a heartbeat - longed for it, actually. I loved rug hooking. I loved hunting for wool skirts at thrift shops, then felting the fabric to use as-is or overdye. I loved the half-science-half-alchemy of using acid dyes in a big enamelware lobster pot to alter the colour of a piece of recycled woolen fabric. I loved the moving meditation of cutting the strips with a hand-cranked cutting machine, and of hooking itself: push, hook, lift loop, repeat. I loved my hook, handmade by my great-grandfather for my maternal grandmother, a tangible reminder that I was carrying on a family tradition. I loved the challenge of getting the tension right so your finished mat wouldn't ripple or pull. I loved applying colour theory and choosing textural variations to make a pattern pop. I loved the camaraderie of hook-ins and guild meetings, loved soaking up the wisdom of the inspiring women surrounding me. I learnt to crochet and whip-stitch so I could get a professional-looking finish on the rug's edges.

Neither of these rugs are my handwork; they are antiques from my collection. The naive, coloring-book style is typical of utilitarian hooked rugs made by rural women before World War Two, although these may be later examples from Mennonite colonies where the style has persisted. I love the bold colour schemes of these rugs, and the evidence of reuse: the beiges and peaches in the blue mat are pantyhose, and the white background of the pansy rug almost certainly started its life as long woolen underwear from Stanfield's.

However. I had already done my financial homework: all the hooked rug artisans I knew were operating at a significant loss and being subsidized by significant others with day jobs or substantial retirement savings, despite busy schedules travelling to teach at camps and hook-ins, creating patterns and kits for sale through their fledgling e-businesses and basement workshops, exhibiting and selling their handwork in galleries, and writing books and magazine articles that educated the public and showcased their expertise. They continued their work purely for the love of the craft. These were not isolated stories; I knew many of the leading teacher-designers of the day. The received wisdom was that most fine crafts, like rug hooking, were expensive and time-consuming hobbies even for renowned artisans. 
I told my advisor to get real.
It was 1995, and I was the compiler of the Rug Hooking Frequently Asked Questions file posted to the Usenet rec.crafts newsgroups, editor of the WOOLGATHERINGS e-zine/newsletter, and webmistress of the HOOKED! website and the then-new website of Rug Hooking Magazine. There were no WYSIWYG editors, so coding the HTML by hand for those sites was a considerable accomplishment. My husband spent days rendering a single realistic image of a rug hook for the now primitive-looking Rug Hooking Online logo:

Much has changed in the past 15 years. I completed my degree, worked for several years in biomedical research, started collections of antique hooked rugs and antique hooks, started a family, and switched careers. Like most young rugmakers, the demands of my career and family left little time for hooking, or for maintaining websites, and I gradually drifted on to other pursuits (There is a reason that most hobbyist rug hookers are retirees). Archived versions of my articles and the FAQ  from that time were generously hosted for a few years by Rug Hooking Magazine, but gradually destroyed through server changes and editorial staff switchovers; few remnants of them remain online now. I'm sure I have the original files on floppy disks somewhere; I really should rescue them and give them new life.
The past 15 years have also brought unprecedented changes to the fine craft industry, most notably the ability to directly market and sell your work to the public through online communities like Etsy and ArtFire. Blogs abound with inspirational stories about people who quit their day jobs and followed their passions to become full-time makers. Craft itself has had an extreme image makeover, going from quaint and old-fashioned to young and hip.

Fifteen years later, I'm pleased to see small hooked items and rugmaking supplies selling quickly on Etsy - I created the treasury above to show the variety and depth of the work being sold by emerging rugmakers there.
However, I particularly want to bear witness to the success of Red Spruce, who are using the traditional rugmaking technique to create large-scale rugs with a modern colour palette and design sensibility. (That they're based in my hometown of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia gives me a completely unreasonable feeling of pride in the rave reviews of their recent exhibition at NYDC's Odegard and nomination for a Best of Year Award from Interior Design magazine. As if I was somehow responsible. Heh.) Theirs isn't just a craft success story, though; it's also a story about slow design. They chose to keep the creation of their rugs in Nova Scotia, using traditional techniques and materials. They use the word "terroir" to describe their work in their manifesto. Need I say more?

an abstracted historic map of downtown Halifax and the Citadel. 
Please go to Red Spruce's site and look at their complete portfolio.

These artists' work has me so inspired to pull out my stash of wool and start hooking again. I have several rugs close to completion, and ideas for the designs of several more. Poke me and ask me how they're coming if I haven't posted anything more about them in six months or so.


  1. Hey Deb!

    Merry Christmas. I thought of you when I was at Chapters the other night b/c the front "local interest" table had a book about rug hooking on it. I forget the title - I can try to go google it.

    You definitely should go back to finish your rugs. Someday I'd like to finish Mom's.


  2. Hi Deb. I like the Red Spruce link. It's quite interesting to see the combination of traditional craft with more modern design. Although I recognize the skill that goes into crafting, the traditional styles have never really appealed to me. It's great to be reminded that that's a matter of design and style, and is not inherent to the medium.