What began as a craft born of thrift and necessity has evolved into an art form.
Country women, mostly from New England and the maritime provinces of Canada, began weaving (hooking) strips of tattered wool blankets and clothing into the burlap from feed sacks in the mid-18th century. Unlike the more affluent city folk, they couldn’t afford to buy rugs, so they sought inspiration from their surroundings—roosters, horses, and flowers —and crafted a new rug while sitting by the fire each winter.
Hooked rugs were mostly a way to cover the cold floors, according to Sally Van Nuys, owner of Amherst Folk Art & Rug Hooking in Amherst, Ohio. They were also used for warmth on the bed and were called bed rugs.
Eventually, craftswomen progressed from making do with available scraps to dyeing their own wools. Today’s crafters and artisans create rugs working from digital images they’ve transferred to the cloth they hook on.
“If you look back over the years, you can really see the evolution,” says Virginia P. Stimmel, editor of Rug Hooking Magazine.
The early rugs were primitive. By the late 1920s, Pearl McGown began designing and selling patterns, according to the National Guild of the Pearl McGown Hookcrafters Web site. In 1930, she began designing patterns and eventually developed more than 1,000 patterns sold around the country.
McGown began offering courses in dyeing wool in the 1930s, so that crafters had more control over their palette. And in 1940, she brought teachers together in Concord, Massachusetts, to share techniques and display their rugs.
By then, rug hooking had become an established hobby across the United States, with florals and nursery rhyme rugs particularly popular.
In the 1940s, artist Molly Nye Tobey broadened the craft, notes Kory Rogers, associate curator of Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Tobey learned to hook rugs from her grandmothers and began selling state-themed hooked rugs from her Rhode Island antiques store. Each rug had a color scheme based on something a state was known for, such as the sandy colors of oat fields in Oklahoma. She then depicted each state’s claim to fame. For example, the Vermont rug showcased cheese and maple sugar.
By the 1960s, the interest in hooked rugs had waned when the “modern” look of shag carpet and clean lines took hold.
But over the past two decades, crafters and designers have become increasingly creative so that there are now literally thousands of design choices to meet every possible taste. Some hook in the traditional Early American-style or in contemporary geometrics. Other designers, like Claire Murray, look to the sea for inspiration and go beyond the early sailboat motifs to include shells, starfish, mermaids, lighthouses, underwater scenes, and nautical ropes. And some artists transfer photos from the computer onto a pattern and hook rugs depicting their grandchildren’s faces.
Wool sells for $20 to $40 per yard, and the kits to make a 2-by-3-foot rug sell for more than $100. While the craft has evolved into a hobby for more affluent people, there are still rug hookers who shop at Goodwill for wool clothing they can cut up and use for hooked rugs. Those involved in online hooked rug discussion forums love to talk about their great deals, like the rug hooker who bought a size 24 skirt for $3. It’s even better if it’s white or camel-colored wool that can be dyed.
In the six years Stimmel has edited Rug Hooking Magazine, she has noticed an increase in the level of sophistication in the dyeing process. Six years ago, most hookers at shows were using strips the size of spaghetti noodles. It can take years to hook a room-size rug with pieces that small. Artisans are now using slightly wider strips and dyeing them in order to get the gradation of color they’re seeking.
“Some women and men are hooking rugs today that are unbelievable,” Van Nuys says. “A lot of them look like paintings.”
For people who don’t have the time or inclination to hook a rug, there are dozens of online retailers and stores selling hand-hooked rugs. Consumers who want high-quality, durable hand-hooked rugs should stick with 100 percent wool rugs since, according to experts, wool is naturally stain resistant and easier to clean. Synthetic fibers and cotton offer cheaper price tags, but do not last as long.
Machine-made hooked rugs can also be made well and generally sell for less than handmade rugs, according to Alex Peykar, president of Nourison Rugs, a worldwide rug manufacturer. “When it comes to machine-made, we don’t refer to them as ‘hooked’ anymore. They’re called ‘looped,’” he points out.
To spot a quality rug, Peykar suggests looking for dense loops that don’t allow any light through when you hold the rug up to light, adding “The more densely hooked and the more detail in design, the higher the quality.”
Consumers should expect to pay $1,000 for a very good quality 8-by-10-foot hand-hooked wool rug and $700 to $800 for one of good quality; machine-made wool rugs cost less.
If you’re just looking for a small novelty rug, Peykar says synthetic fibers would be fine since you can throw the small rugs in the washing machine. (Wash them in cold water on the gentle cycle.)
For those who like to change their décor every few years, machine-made rugs made with synthetic fibers last about two to four years, says Georgia Hare, marketing manager for rugs and art at StudentMarket.com , Inc. Consumers buying online are encouraged to ask for swatches or call the company to ask about colors, quality, materials, and production methods.
Those concerned about buying a rug made with child labor may shop for rugs made in the USA or look for certified designations such as “Rug-Mark” that indicate an adult manufactured the rug.
Hooked Rug Care: Tips From Experts
With a little care, hand-hooked rugs can last for generations. But by their very nature, they are more delicate than standard broadloom rugs, so require special attention.
If the rug is an heirloom or one-of-a-kind created rug, the owner should contact a textile conservator to examine the rug and determine what cleaning technique would be safest and most effective. According to conservators at the Shelburne Museum, some rugs can be washed, some can be dry-cleaned, some cannot be washed or dry-cleaned. The one thing that owners can usually do safely is vacuum the rug carefully and thoroughly on both sides using the floor attachment for rugs in good condition or the brush attachment for rugs in fair or poor condition. The beater bar should not be used on hooked rugs as they are easy to catch and pull.
Water washing is not recommended because even previously tested dyes can bleed. This is also true of spot cleaning. The spot should be tested first using the cleaning solution on a white cloth. During cleaning, check the cloth to make sure that dye does not transfer.
Machine-made rugs are usually backed with an adhesive, which can dry out if the rugs are dry-cleaned. Also, antique rugs that were hooked onto old feed sacks risk drying out because feed sacks were usually made of jute, which can become brittle with sun exposure. To increase its longevity and prevent fading, place a pad under the rug and keep it out of direct sunlight. Unless the rugs are made with synthetic fibers, don’t clean them with household rug cleaners, which are too harsh for wool. If you want to wash a stain off the rug, mix one part dish soap and 10 parts water and gently dab it off. But if it’s an alcohol stain, such as wine, don’t use water. Try to get the stain out of the rug with rubbing alcohol. If you use water, you’ll set the stain. Club soda is safe to use on other stains (not on alcohol stains).
When selecting a rug-cleaning company, ask a local, reputable rug dealer to suggest a cleaning company. Before giving your hooked rug to someone to clean, ask questions to determine whether the company is knowledgeable and experienced with cleaning hooked rugs.