Rug hooking is both an art and a craft where rugs are made by pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a crochet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage. In contrast latch-hooking uses a hinged hook to form a knotted pile from short, pre-cut pieces of yarn.
Wool strips ranging in size from 3/32 to 10/32 of an inch (2 to 8 mm) in width are often used to create hooked rugs or wall hangings. These precision strips are usually cut using a mechanical cloth slitter; however, the strips can also be hand-cut or torn. When using the hand-torn technique the rugs are usually done in a primitive motif.
Designs for the rugs are often commercially produced and can be as complex as flowers or animals to as simple as geometrics. Rug-hooking has been popular in North America for at least the past 200 years.
History of rug hooking
The author William Winthrop Kent believed that the earliest forebears of hooked rugs were the floor mats made in Yorkshire, England during the early part of the 19th century. Workers in weaving mills were allowed to collect thrums, pieces of yarn that ran 9 inches (23 cm) long. These by-products were useless to the mill, and the weavers took them home and pulled the thrums through a backing. The origins of the word thrum are ancient, as Mr. Kent pointed out a reference in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. However in the publication "Rag Rug Making" by Jenni Stuart-Anderson, ISBN 978-1-900371-53-7 Stuart-Anderson states that the most recent research indicates "...the technique of hooking woolen loops through a base fabric was used by the Vikings, whose families probably brought it to Scotland." To add to this there are sound examples at the Folk Museum in Guernsey, Channel Islands that early rag rugs made in the same manner where produced here off the coast of France as well.
Rug hooking as we know it today may have developed in North America, specifically along the Eastern Seaboard in New England in the United States, the Canadian Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador. In its earliest years, rug hooking was a craft of poverty. The vogue for floor coverings in the United States came about after 1830 when factories produced machine-made carpets for the rich. Poor women began looking through their scrap bags for materials to employ in creating their own home-made floor coverings. Women employed whatever materials they had available. Girls from wealthy families were sent to school to learn embroidery and quilting; fashioning floor rugs and mats was never part of the curriculum. Another sign that hooking was the pastime of the poor is the fact that popular ladies magazines in the 19th century never wrote about rug hooking. It was considered a country craft in the days when the word country, used in this context, was derogatory. Today rug hooking or mat making as it is sometimes referred to has been labeled in Canada as a fine art.
Since hooking was a craft of poverty, rug makers put to use whatever materials were available. Antique hooked rugs were created on burlap after 1850 because burlap was free as long as one used old grain and feed bags. Every and any scrap of fiber that was no longer usable as clothing was put into rugs. In the United States, yarn was not a fiber of choice if one did not have access to thrums. Yarn was too precious, and had to be saved for knitting and weaving. Instead the tradition of using scraps of fabric evolved. Yarns and other creatively used materials have always been used for hooked rugs in the Canadian Maritimes. The well-known Cheticamp hooked rugs used finely spun yarns and the highly collectible Grenfell mats were meticulously hooked with recycled jerseys. Everything from cotton t-shirts to nylon stockings were cut and used.
The modern preference for using only cut wool strips in hooked rugs originated with Pearl McGown in the 1930s, and may have saved the craft from disappearing in the United States. Mrs. McGown popularized strict guidelines for rug hooking and formalized its study. However the Grenfell Mission had previously and as early as 1916 established the same strict guidelines as structured by Lady Anne Grenfell wife of Sir Wilfred Grenfell as indicated in Paula Laverty's book "Silk Stocking Mats".
Rug hooking today
In more recent decades hookers have followed quilters in exploring new materials and new techniques. This experimentation, combined with knowledge and respect for the past, will allow rug hooking to evolve and grow in the 21st century. Rug hooking today has evolved into two genres, which primarily fall into groups based upon the width of the wool strip employed to create a rug: fine hooking and primitive hooking. Fine hooking, in general, uses strips of wool measuring 1/32 to 5/32 of an inch wide. Designs of the fine-cut hooking genre use more fine shading accomplished by overdyeing wool in gradated color swatches. Primitive (or wide-cut) hooking uses wool strips measuring 6/32 up to 1/2-inch wide. The wide-cut hooking accomplishes shading and highlights using textures in wool, such as plaids, checks, herringbones, etc. Wide-cut designs are generally less detailed and mimic the naivety of rug hookers of the past (pre-McGown designs.) There are many well-known designers of commercial rug patterns and each exhibit their own distinct style and techniques. Some designers specialize in animals or whimsical subjects, others use specific and identifiable dyeing techniques, while others adapt antique rugs for today's rug hookers or employ various tools to achieve their chosen subject matter within their designs. In addition to the many commercially available patterns, many rug hookers are creating their own design patterns.
There are countless annual exhibitions around the world displaying rug hooking. A forthcoming one is "Hooked Between Two Islands" The History of the Hooked Rug Between Newfoundland and Guernsey. The exhibition is scheduled for 2011 at the Guernsey Folk and Costume Museum, Guernsey, Channel Islands sponsored by The National Trust of Guernsey and the Canadian Portrait Academy. A permanent collection of hooked rugs by Patty Yoder is currently installed at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
- William Winthrop Kent (1971). The Hooked Rug. Tower Books. ISBN B0006D0DSK.
- Joel Kopp and Kate Kopp (1995). American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1616-6.
- Jessie A. Turbayne (1997). Hooked Rugs: History and the Continuing Tradition. Schiffer Publishing. ISBN 0-88740-370-0.
- Paula Laverty (2005). Silk Stocking Mats: Hooked Mats of the Grenfell Mission. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal. ISBN 978-0-7735-2506-1 ISBN 0-7735-2506-8
- Archived audio interview with a traditional rug hooker from Labrador, Canada
- National Guild of the Pearl McGown Hookrafters website
- North American Hooked Rug Museum - Nova Scotia Canada
- Rug Hooking Magazine
- The International Guild of Handhooking Rugmakers
- Hooked on Rugs - Canadian Museum of Civilization
- How to make Hooked Rugs. (Kindle Edition) Sarah Nickerson