Hooked Rugs: An American Tradition
Hooked Rugs — American hooked rugs are as quintessentially American as jazz music is. Like the latter, it had a very humble beginning but grew to become a unique American tradition. Dismissed for its rustic and low quality until the early 20th century, handmade hooked rugs are now prized for their delightful folk art quality. Today, a thriving rug making industry had grown around it to meet the demands of a growing number of collectors.
Rug hooking is a rug making technique that involves pulling loops or strips of fabric through a stiff woven base to make a rug. The base or backing material can be made of linen, burlap or rug warp. A crochet-type hook mounted in a handle is used to pull the loops through the base. Originally, both the base and loops were made using any materials available, including strips cut from worn out clothing and curtains; hence their reputation as a craft for the lower class.
According to author William Winthrop Kent, who has done extensive research on rug hooking, the technique has its origin in the early 19th century Yorkshire, England, where workers in weaving mills were allowed to take home pieces of 9-inch long yarn called thrums, which were useless to the mill. The workers used the thrums to pull loops through a coarse backing to make a homemade rug. This was the closest impoverished families of those times got to owning a carpet.
However, rug hooking as we know it today probably has its roots in the rural areas along the eastern seaboard of North America, specifically New England, the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador. As stated earlier, the craft owes its existence to impoverished folks who could only dream of owning the expensive carpets that adorned the homes of the rich.
When factory-made carpets became all the rage in America after they were introduced sometime after 1830, poor women who couldn’t afford them began making their own homemade floor coverings using whatever materials they could find. The result was hooked rugs, an imitation that was shunned by the wealthy class of the time.
The hooked rugs made after 1850 were made using a base of burlap, because burlap could be freely obtained from used old grain and feed bags. For pulling the loops, any piece of useless fabric that was available was used. Unlike in Yorkshire, yarn was not used since it was too costly. Thus, the tradition of using scraps of used fabric evolved, which is a uniquely American tradition.
By the early 20th century, the art of making hooked rugs was on the verge of dying out when Pearl McGowan popularized the use of cut wool strips instead of used pieces of fabric. She is also credited with establishing strict guidelines for rug hooking and formalizing its study in the 1930s. However, her contribution is disputed by author Paula Laverty who, in her book “Silk Stocking Mats”, has claimed Lady Ann Grenfell had established a similar guideline in 1916.
Either way, rug hooking came a long way from those early days, and by the 1920’s the use of high quality materials became more common, and the designs evolved to become highly decorative, including motifs such as flowers and animals. American hooked rugs are now considered valuable collector’s items; they are much sought after piece of Americana cherished by historians as well as homeowners.
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