Traditional crafts tend to grow from a functional basis as well as incorporating culturally influenced symbols and art. They often convey a naive or untrained sense of design. One of my favorite fine crafts is rug hooking.
Originally, rug hooking recycled fabrics to create rugs, wall hangings or other textiles to warm up rooms in early American and Canadian homes. Rug hooking is considered an indigenous American art form–or at least North American. Early Euro-Americans started hooking rugs in New England in the 18th-century.
Materials included a crochet hook, burlap sacks for the backing, and worn-out clothing cut in narrow strips for the loops. Frequently the fabric was wool — wool blankets, wool jackets, wool dresses and shirts.
Basically, the same tools are used today, although generally the hook is now secured in a wooden “spool” for a more comfortable grip, and often the fabric is new and frequently hand-dyed by the artist.
(See quickie instructions below, and link to YouTube “how to” video by Gene Shepherd.)
And, as with most crafts, rug hooking designs can be based on the styles at the time the craft was developed, updated for a contemporary look—or adapted for a look somewhere on a riff in between the two options.
These style and subject matter choices are personal preferences as to the way the artist enjoys rug hooking and uses it as an expression of her creative vision.
The ultimate look of the piece is dictated by: the tension in the loops; consistency or randomness in the arrangement and height of the loops; color and design choices; and the artist’s projection of the function of the piece, such as to create is as a rug, a wall hanging, or a piece of sculptural art.
Here are some examples on a continuum from contemporary styles to more primitive styles.
Contemporary artist, Liz Albert Fay, as exhibited at the Brookfield Craft Center, Brookfield, CT has used rug hooking as a way to incorporate a textural colorful element juxtaposed against the natural brashness of a piece of a tree trunk.
Her choice is to use the technique of looping the wool strips through a backing as one medium in a multi-media creation of an avant-garde, contemporary piece of American fine craft.
“Rug hooking can be compared to where the art quilt movement was about 20 years ago,” says Fay, as quoted in a blog post in American Craft Magazine.
Deanne Fitzpatrick, a rug hooker, shop owner and teacher from Nova Scotia says, “I think the thing that draws people to hooked rugs is the texture and depth.
They are so very real; you just want to run your hand along them like you would a piece of velvet or a stone wall. We are drawn to authenticity, whether it is in craft or people.”
Deanne’s work tends to reflect the energy of the subject matter or pieces created to appeal to the preferences of her clients.
Her loops are intentionally not structured as precisely or evenly as some other rug hooking artists.
Some small pieces, Deanne frames as wall art.
Note how the loops are made of various types of fibers and are not uniform in size.
See her article in Rug Hooking Magazine about “Thinking Outside the Box.”
Victoria Jacobson, a rug hooker, teacher, and former owner of Angel Girl, a rug hooking studio in Stillwater, MN says she has come to see rug hooking as “truly an art form” yet she modestly continues to be amused when considering herself as an artist.
Victoria describes the appeal as a “forgiving” art form—no counting, no sewing.
She says jokingly “it’s relaxing; you don’t have to think.”
She also points to the unlimited possibilities, such as mixing various widths of fabric strips, or mixing yarn, ribbon or strips of clothing into the pattern, to make each finished piece unique due to the material on hand at the time.
As seen in the “Gobblers” piece of the turkey with the wild feathers, Victoria often incorporates areas of big exaggerated loops, other fibers, or novel alternatives for texture.
Victoria formerly had classes and monthly “hook-ins” at her studio inviting local rug hookers to share in a community of fellow craftspeople.
Like old-fashioned sewing bees, the hook-ins allow the craftspeople to share the projects they are working on and to be inspired by each other.
Victoria’s style is a bit more traditional than Deanna.
Nancy Smith, an interior designer and rug hook artist, creates her rug hooked artwork with a whimsical tone and a primitive style.
She defines “primitive” as inspired in part by the intuitive balancing between exaggeration and minimization as seen in children’s drawings. Scale is distorted. A cat may be huge relative to the house. (See my blog post on “scale” with Lego characters at Mall of America.) Nancy says she never tries to make figures (human or animals) realistically.
She considers “the wool itself a drawing medium. I draw with wool much better than I draw with a pen.”
And, she concurs that for her one of the early and ongoing attractions to rug hooking is that it is user-friendly. “Unlike knitting or embroidery, it is so forgiving—just rip it out and redo—you don’t count 10 rows back, etc.”
Now for my rug hooking:
I am venturing to find my voice as a rug hook artist.
My “Fishy Minnesota” piece, shown in part here, is in a style similar to Deanna’s in that the loops are less precise than Nancy’s in “Merci” for example.
Although this may not be the style I really land on as a rug hook artist, I continue to experiment. Note, my geometric pattern in the trivet in the snow (at the top of the blog post), shows more controlled, even loops with more regimented rows. But given my artistic personality, it is likely the wild style will dominate more than the controlled style.
By examining my “Fishy Minnesota” you can see that my loops are not precisely even, nor are my fish in any way realistic–I like the hodge-podgey-ness, and the casualness of the uneven length of the loops. I frequently use wool that has different weights, so although my strips are generally 1/4″ wide each, the weight of the wool makes them appear different when hooked.
It doesn’t appeal to everyone. With the two images in sequence, it’s easy to compare the unevenness of my hooking to the precise even loops in Nancy’s “Merci.”
Although very different, either way is OK. It depends on the preference of the artist.
I recently completed a rug that I hooked but Nancy Smith designed. Again, my rendering of it is primitive and lumpy. It’s a perfect shape for jumping out of bed on Christmas morning onto hardwood floors.
I finished the rug by attaching a heavy wool fabric to the backside.
Another piece I created recently is actually made from yarn from US alpacas. I had not tried yarn before and I was very pleasantly surprised at how well it worked.
Nancy had an article on primitive style for rug hooking in a 2011 issue of Rug Hooking Magazine. Victoria has been on the editorial board of the magazine for a number of years, and publishes in the magazine periodically. Deanna has also published in the magazine. Gene Shepherd has The Rug Hooker’s Bible, and other information available from the Rug Hooking Magazine site.
Some Basics About Rug Hooking:
Rug hooking is often confused with latch hooking, a similar but different process. Latch hooking involves pulling two threads, usually yarn, around the fibers in a backing fabric and knotting the yarns on the topside. The term “rug hooking” is applied to the technique of using a hooked tool (originally probably a crochet hook, and some continue to use a crochet hook today) and pulling loops of woolen strips to the front of a canvas. The canvas is usually burlap, often a linen burlap. The ends of the strips of fabric are also pulled to the topside of the burlap. Ingeniously, the loops themselves line up so tightly that they do not pull out. There is no sewing and are no knots involved in rug hooking. Some rugs are hooked with yarn or ribbon, but the vast majority are hooked with wool strips generally cut to ¼” width and 8-20“ long each. A rug, depending on the size, can take from a few dozen to a few thousand strips to be completed.