Tuesday, February 23, 2010

....and now for something completely different - Hooked Wool Rugs

I took up rug hooking sometime in 2002. First let me clarify that this is not the kind of rug hooking that you do with short pieces of wool and a special latch hook.

The kind I am talking about is called Traditional or Primitive Rug hooking. It is done with a very simple hook and a long strand of wool that is woven in and out of the backing material

In her book  "Rag Rug Making" Jenni Stuart-Anderson, ISBN 978 1 900371 53 7 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." (source Wikipedia).

Until the present day it was considered a craft of the poor or country folk. In Canada, although the hobby is wide spread,  the best known rug hookers hail from Nova Scotia.  The well-known Cheticamp hooked rugs used finely spun yarns and the highly collectible Grenfell mats were meticulously hooked with recycled jerseys.

After 1850 women would make "mats" from burlap feed sacks and worn out clothing of any sort. These mats were thrown down at the back door for men to wipe their boots on. Today these rugs are prized and rare. Collectors of folk art have driven up the prices of even half rotten mats to dizzying heights.

These mats range from the traditional and charmingly naive representations of flowers and pets to finely executed works of art. Inspiration can come from any source. A photo, old rug designs, or anything your imagination can conjure up. 

When we think of material "wool is king" as my first teacher said. Apparently this guideline was set in the 1930's by a woman named Perl McGown, who is credited with saving the art.  Wool has a resiliency and strength that far exceeds that of other materials especially synthetics.  Some artists dye their own material, others search for just the right color in their own cupboards or in  second hand stores, still others buy fine wool flannels carefully dyed by others.

Some "hookers", as we love to call ourselves, shun the old burlap feed sacks as a backing and instead buy expensive scottish burlap, linen or monks cloth whose weaves are regular and strong. 

I guess I am old fashioned as I stick to burlap with a relatively tight weave. Exercising my strong hunting and gathering instincts, I scour thrift shops for just the right colors of wool. Although sometimes I have been known to dye or over dye some thrift shop finds.

There might have been a day  when I would have gone as far as to raise sheep ( wait a minute - I did do that!) and shear them, card and spin the wool but I think I am past that now. 

This is just a tiny bit off topic but hey...it is my blog!

I did once try to spin some of our sheeps' wool when I lived in Ecuador. I also tried to spin some of our Malamute dog's woolly undercoat  but was largely unsuccessful on both counts.

It is not as easy as the Cholas make it look as they walk along the street, baby slung over their back, chatting with friends as they spin wool using a drop spindle. At left is a very unhappy Cholita with her spindle.

Usually  the steps in making a rug go something like this: inspiration, drawing, transfer to backing, choose colors, estimate amount of wool needed (approximatedly three times the area you want to cover), cut  wool by machine or hand. On your mark, get set, go!

Some hookers use special frames that are on a stand, others use the more portable embroidery hoops. I just sort of free syle it on my lap.  I am told that in the old days the ladies sat on one end of the mat to make a taut surface on which to hook. I seem to do okay without that and do most of my hooking in bed. Yeah, yeah I have heard all the jokes.

There are two basic genres of hooking. Primitive which  uses the wide cut strips of 6/32 up to a half inch in width and fine hooking where strips of 1/32 to 5/32 of an inch wide are used. Designs of the fine-cut hooking genre use more fine shading accomplished by overdyeing wool in gradated color swatches.

So enough blathering about history. Here is the first rug I made in my hooking class at Loyalist College. The teacher designed the rugs and sold them to us along with swatches of wool.  In order to individualize the design you could add elements by the use of templates for birds and animals and put them anywhere you liked. The teacher was annoyed with me when I said but the animals and birds are too big for the picture.   I didnt realize at that time that that is a feature of the primitive style where these rugs were often made by non-artists. I got around it by placing them on an inside borde where to my artist's eye they did not conflict with the size of the rest of the objects. Can you imagine a squirrel that size sitting on your roof!

There is what appears to be a dragonfly on the bottom right beside the date.  I discovered one day  while doodling that I could squeeze my initials EJB closely together and make them into something that resembled a winged creature. I fooled around with it a little more and came up with a dragonfly. The E and the B are stretched sideways to form wings. The J is the body.

Some people stare at me incredulously when I explain this but others, the smart ones like you, get it right away. You want to be in the smart group right?

It is my symbol signature and if you look carefully you will find it in one form or another on all my work....except the dolls. I still have to sew some little dragonfly charms to each of them.

Above is my second rug. It is my own design  inspired by myriad chicken-themed rugs that have gone before. Hookers and chickens go together like ham and eggs it seems. Did you find the dragonfly?

Eyes left now please.....don't look at my messy room. This rug is a little hard to see properly when it is not hanging on the wall.  The theme is very personal, representing  my interests, places I have visited, favorite books and authors etc.

I made it for a specific space at the top of the stairs. It represents a tall bookshelf. The black cat on top is fishing in the goldfish bowl.  One of my venerable hooking group ladies said, "You broke all the rules, but it works." 
By that she meant that purists don't use artificial eyes in animals, nor do they put real dog collars on the dogs or mix cut wool strips with yarn.  But the rules are changing in rug hooking just as they are in quilting. Many rugs are not meant to be used on the floor but rather as wall art.

I used yarn for both the dog and the cat to give them the furry texture I wanted. I think you can click on any particular photo to enlarge it. Then you will see them more clearly.

The last photo is part of the middle shelves of the piece. I had this hanging briefly in its appointed place when I made it in 2003 but then Reg and Irma, mere balls of fluffy kittenhood at the time, took to playing hide and seek behind it and ripped a good chunk of it out. 

It has sat for over 8 years waiting for me to mend it. This time it is the cat's eyes that stare at me accusingly when I unroll it from the towel it is stored in.  What? I haven't found the wool I used so that I can mend it. Organized hookers keep books with folders for each rug they make and samples of the wool used in case repairs are needed. Obviously I am not one of those organized hookers.

This post is getting really slow to work with so I will continue the rest of the rugs in another post. See you over there.

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