Tuesday, April 4, 2017

An American Tradition

QUESTION: My grandmother always had several hooked rugs on the floors in her house. I grew up playing on them and grew to love them. As an adult, I’ve learned how to make them and have purchased several antique ones. But no one seems to know anything about antique hooked rugs, other than approximately when they were made. Can you tell me more about these beautiful old rugs? I’d love to know how rug hooking began and how it got to where it is today.

ANSWER: The making of hooked rugs dates from New England in the early 19th century. Poor farmers’ wives, in need of some padding on cold dirt floors, began using old fabric scraps no longer suitable for clothing which they cut into strips and pulled through old burlap sacks to create mats for their floors. And while these original rugs were somewhat crude, the women who made them got ideas for improving the process and for decorative patterns from their friends and neighbors.

For centuries the method of pulling loops of colored material through a mesh of open fabric was well known but the settlers who came to America. The technique of pulling up or hooking rag strips and woolen yarns through a woven fabric base proved to be an economical and undemanding method of making floor coverings for drafty homes. Plus the simplicity the simplicity of the hooking process allowed rug makers the freedom to express their individual creativity.

While the craft began earlier in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1850s, when jute burlap from the Indies, which lasted longer than earlier materials, came into common use for burlap feed sacks, that rug hooking gained popularity. Women would stretch the empty burlap feed sacks onto a wooden frame, draw a pattern with a charcoal stick, and then draw yarn or thread through the burlap. And while the result was usually artful as well as very practical, it look a long time to make a rug. To make a rug with an intricate pattern took nearly as long as it took to sew a full quilt. 

By the 1860's, the art of making hooked rugs had spread all over New England and as far away as Ohio, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

By 1867, Philena Moxley of Massachusetts had begun stamping patterns of horses, dogs and other animals onto the burlap to allow homemakers to then produce hooked rugs without first sketching a pattern. By the 1870's peddlers were traveling from house to house selling stenciled designs on burlap. It wasn’t long before general storekeepers began selling hooked rug patterns and completed rugs.

Ebenezer Ross enhanced the process of hooked rug making in 1886 with the invention of a mechanical punch-hook in Toledo, Ohio. Prior to that time, rug makers used crochet hooks made of wood, bone, or metal. Ross and his company became a major supplier of the punch-hook in both the eastern and central United States, and by 1891 the company also published a catalog of 56 color-printed patterns. Ross’ catalog stated, "every household has a supply of odds and ends, rags and ravelings which can be woven into articles beauty and utility.”

In 1895 the Montgomery Ward catalog featured patterns that included a Spaniel dog with  lake and mountains in the background.

Rugs depicting ships, landscapes, and people required far more skill than the simpler deigns. Those who were unable to purchase a commercial pattern often relied on a talented family member or friend to  draw the design. One or more family members would then hook the rug.

Because pictorial patterns took longer and required more skill, many rug makers chose, instead, to use floral or geometric patterns.

Floral patterns very often involved combinations of trees, flowers, vines, branches, and leaves. One of the most common featured a bouquet of flowers in the middle surrounded by a vine border. They were frequently produced on commercial patterns following the Civil War and into the1920's and 1930's.

Rug makers usually produced geometric patterns—featuring rectangles, squares, circles, and ovals—freehand. They were as popular as homemade patterns as they were commercial ones.

Still, commercial patterns persisted. Among the many innovators was Edward Sands Frost, a disabled veteran, who sold patterns made from metal stencils to the women of New England and built up a business which flourished into the 20th century.

By 1908, Sears, Roebuck and Company joined the many companies offering patterns with a selection that included a pretty flower design, Arabian horse, a large lion, and two kittens playing on a carpet.

During the 1920's and early 1930's, cottage industries of hooked rug making flourished in sites like Deerfield Industries in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Rosemont Industries in Marion, Virginia, Pine Burr Studio in Apison, Tennessee, and the Spinning Wheel in Asheville, North Carolina.

The popularity of hooked rugs peaked in the 1850s and again in the 1890s as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement which lasted well beyond the turn of the century, and as part of the American Colonial Revival of the latter 1920's. They were also popular for a time during the 1950s era of Early American decor.

Because hooked rugs were made in the home for personal use, they can seldom be traced back to their original maker or pinned down to an exact date. Those believed to be over 100 years old command the highest prices. 

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