Hooked on rugs: Traditionalists ply pioneer

Saturday, January 12, 2013
Sarah Wackner, right, tries rug hooking while Patty Edwards, standing, talks about making hooked pillow tops. Edwards introduced the craft to Crafts Guild members this fall. Photo by Jennifer Jackson

For a canvas, they used burlap sacks that once held flour or potatoes. Their brush was a piece of scrap metal forged by the blacksmith. Their color scheme, the muted browns and grays of clothing faded by years of washing and wearing.

For decades, pioneer women took worn-out wool clothing, cut it into strips, and hooked rag rugs to cover the dirt floors of their cabins. Now, other women continue the tradition, creating primitive-style works of art that warm the maker twice, making rug-hooking the perfect cold-weather craft.

"Wool is so heavy," Patty Edwards said. "Hooking in the summer time is so darn hot. The best time is winter."

Edwards, who lives at Holiday Island, is an award-winning rug hooker who will be attending a Hook In, or retreat, next week in Eureka Springs (see sidebar). She is also organizing a group for people who want to get together this winter and hook rugs, and offering basic instruction, material and use of cutting tools, free of charge.

"It's so much more fun to hook with somebody else," she said.

Edwards got hooked on the craft after seeing a wool rug that had a large razorback on it. Asking the owner where she got it, the woman replied "I hooked it." Edwards thought she meant latch-hook, but the woman said 'No, no, don't compare it to that.'" Latch-hooking is a version of rug-hooking that involves attaching short, pre-cut pieces of yarn to a grid using a tool that ties the yarn. In contrast, traditional rug-hookers use a hook like a large crochet hook to pull loops of narrow strips of wool material through the holes in burlap sacks or linen.

"There's no sewing, no knotting," Edwards said. "You can sit in a recliner and do it."

Rug-hooking developed in North America -- the oldest hooked rug in the Smithsonian is from northeast Canada -- and spread to New England. Rugs were commonly made of worn-out long johns, Edwards said, the muted reds forming the background for ships and lighthouses. The craft spread inland, where farm animals, cornflowers and wheat fields were common motifs. Edwards started out making rugs with traditional designs in subdued colors. For material, she rummages through thrift stores looking items of wool clothing, especially knife-pleated skirts, when she rips apart at the seams.

"I wash it on delicate cycle with a little baking soda, not detergent," she said.

She uses a hand-cranked cutter with wheels that can be set to cut strips of different widths. With her rug hook, she pulls strips of wool into loops above the surface of the burlap.

"Rug hooking is like coloring and staying in the lines," Edwards said, "You can't mess it up. You can do it watching television or a movie."

But the craft also has room for creativity: 10 people could do the same pattern and it would come out differently, she said. Working from the center out to stabilize the piece, she outlines a section, then fills it in, usually following the outline. For the wool of a lamb, she hooked in a circular pattern, like curls.

"I don't like straight lines," she said.

Projects range from pillow tops and wall hangings she can make in a weekend to a room-size area rug she has started with floral motifs resembling needlepoint. Rug hooking can also be used to make stair risers, Christmas stockings, toys, tote bags and tea cozies. Edwards' hooked version of a portrait of a Victorian girl that resembles a water-color painting took a prize in the Holiday Island art show.

Other patterns were borrowed from quilting books. On a trip to Cabo San Lucas, she saw a coloring book of designs that inspired a foray into brighter colors.

"I saw all these bright colors, so different from the subdued colors of primitive-style rugs," she said. "I shopped for wool there."

Raised by her grandmother until she was 14, Edwards grew up in Kansas City, attended school in Overland Park, Kan., and worked for Yellow Freight. She moved from Grassy Knob to Holiday Island 10 years ago. She started hooking a pillow top with an Oriental design while sitting at her grandmother's bedside in a nursing home, and was the executor of her grandmother's estate.

"I can't bring myself to finish it," she said. "It's about time."

In addition to rug-hooking retreats -- see sidebar for information about upcoming retreats in Eureka Springs -- there are rug-hooking camps and rug-hooking cruises that draw both men and women, Edwards said. For information about the rug-hooking group she is starting, call 479-253-4003.

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