by Marla Fletcher
Poke, pull, wiggle, repeat. I am absorbed in a rhythmic ritual — simultaneously at peace and at play. My creative thirst is, for now, being satisfied. In my relative beginner’s grasp, the hook moves in awkward jerks and starts, but with time and experience it will settle into a steady, almost trancelike sequence.
This reflection focuses on the centuries-old craft known as rug hooking, and how it has come to be my most captivating leisure-time pursuit — eclipsing even gardening! The craft involves pulling loops of fabric through a loosely woven, firm backing such as linen or burlap to paint pictures and tell stories. Some consider it folk art or ‘artisanal entrepreneurship.’
So much about this appeals to me. There’s the creative/artistic aspect, where bits of material ranging from traditional woollen fabric to unspun yarn, ribbon, cord, metallic thread, stockings, cotton T-shirt strips and/or silk are painstakingly worked into an image. The outcome can be pictorial, ornamental, whimsical, geometric, vividly avant-garde, playful or nostalgic. It’s colouring on a grand scale, with a palette that can be muted and calming or bold and invigorating.
There’s plenty of room for self-expression, whether you choose to work on a pre-stamped image from a kit or your own design. The selection of materials, colours, textures, subject and size/shape of the piece all reflect who you are and what it means to you. Sometimes, the end product comes as a complete surprise…
Deanne Fitzpatrick, a transplanted Newfoundlander who makes her home in Amherst, Nova Scotia, is one of Canada’s best-known and most prolific hookers. Her studio does a roaring business, at home and abroad. She declares on her website (www.hookingrugs.com) that she considers rug hooking to be a true “passion,” something she can’t get enough of. “I learned that I could tell stories, and express myself through rug hooking…. In many of my pieces I tell stories about the world.” In a 2010 article in Saltscapes magazine, she explained, “… the art is in the approach. It’s not what you do that makes something art; it’s how you do it and why you do it.”
The craft’s history is rich. Famous examples include pieces hooked by renowned Canadian artist Emily Carr and works by the women who produced the acclaimed ‘Grenfell mats’ in turn-of-the-century northern Newfoundland and Labrador, using old silk stockings and strictly controlled designs, in a cottage industry created to support the Grenfell Mission.
Recently, the Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto, celebrated the craft in Home Economics: 150 years of Canadian hooked rugs. More than 100 rugs from its archives were displayed in a show that that highlighted “craft innovation that embraces aesthetic practice, traditional technique and vernacular design, producing vibrant expressions of creativity as well as regional identity and national cultural heritage.”
Rug hooking offers a direct link to our past, when shared values such as thrift, patience and a reverence for home and family comfort ruled. The original hooked rugs were fashioned from the remnants of old clothing, backed by scratchy, stiff burlap sacks that might have held last season’s root vegetables. These became floor mats to keep the winter’s chill at bay.
I love that recycling theme and glean most of my materials from previously appreciated apparel and household goods. My maternal grandmother hooked rugs, though sadly I was too young to realize and ask her about it while she was still alive, as did her forebears in the Magdalen Islands. I hope I’m carrying on some of that heartfelt artistry.
There’s another thing that draws me in: a warm, enveloping sense of community — whether it’s among online fans who share patterns, tips and tribulations, or courses where you can learn more, or in the local rug-hooking groups and circles that dot many parts of the world. Yes, I belong to a local rug-hooking group, and when I was contemplating writing this post I asked my fellow hookers what they feel this craft offers. Here are some of their replies, restricted though they were by my three-word limit:
- nurturing creativity
- enjoyment and relaxation
- endless learning
- spiritual journey
- community and fulfillment
When I look around the busy tables at a gathering of rug hookers, I can’t help smiling at the happy exchanges I see taking place. Serious design discussions in one corner, intense colour consultations in another, laughing revelations about past catastrophes, the sharing of hooking techniques and conversations about fabric dyeing abound. The din is often overwhelming! If there was a ‘noun of multitude’ – the kind of collective noun you use to refer to groups of things, often animals, such as a ‘muster of peacocks’ – to describe assembled rug hookers, I’d like to know it. My research didn’t turn up anything definitive, so for now I’ve coined my own: a joyful resplendence! Thoughts?