Hooked on Rugs

Homemade crafts filled many hours for earlier generations suffering the winter doldrums. Just imagine just how much longer it must have seemed to former generations before the advent of phones, television and other modern distractions such as the Internet.

One homemade craft that would have been a good skill to develop is hooking rugs. Making a homemade rug after all had a two-fold purpose: It used up rags and old clothing, and it created a useful, warm addition to the home. Plus, the repetitive nature of the simple stitch-loop-hook system could be a relaxing pastime.

Many of these vintage rugs are colorful original designs, created personally by the crafter. Others were made from a kit that included a pre-stamped pattern. Both are today collected by fans of textiles, country collectibles and Americana antiques.

Hooking rugs has been around for a very long time. Examples in museums date back to antiquity.

In America, though, hooked rugs picked up in the late 1800s, when the colonial style of decorating came into vogue. Later, as the country entered the Great Depression, hooking rugs became a necessity. These antique rugs are now valuable.

The two shown in the column today were made in the 1920s by a West Virginia homemaker who lived on a farm. One is a long runner rug made of mixed block shapes, done in a design that reminds the viewer of a log cabin quilt. The other is a symmetrical floral design that likely came from a kit (formal symmetry is often a clue that a hooked rug is kit-made). Both are done in soft shades of rose, grays and greens, accented with black and red.

The convenience of rug making derives from the fact that it only requires a simple burlap sack, a crochet hook and a bunch of old woolen rags to create a clever floor covering. Frames to hold the rug while hooking might be a simple as four strips of wood tacked together.

Prior to 1780 or so, few American homes had any rugs at all, so once burlap bags came about in the 19th century, it presented an obvious opportunity to aspiring crafters. Before this, only well-off families could afford the time and expense to add any enhancement to floors at all, in the form of stencils or painted floor cloths. Only the very wealthy could purchase real carpeting from overseas.

The first pre-stamped patterns for rugs are attributed to an entrepreneur peddler named Edward Sands Frost of Biddeford, Maine, according to rug restorer expert and author Tracy Jamar, who wrote a wonderful book titled “A Few Loops of Hooked Rug History.” She also has a website devoted to the fiber arts at tracyjamar.com.

Jamar traces Frost’s start in the rug hooking business to 1868. His designs were popular and inspired others to get involved. Eventually Ebenezer Ross of Toledo, Ohio, created a Novelty Rug Machine that used yarn instead of strips of cloth (needlepunch) in 1886.

Next came cottage industry rug hooking as the Industrial Revolution took over. By the turn of the century, a variety of names, now sought by collectors, emerged. By the 1920s, many cottage industry rug makers were firmly established in the New England states and in Canada; some are still active today.

Today, collectors recognize the beauty and value of hooked rugs. Like quilts, they are often created out of leftovers and are always the work of artisans relying on skill. Also like quilts, hooked rugs can be quite nostalgic since they incorporate fabric that may have been worn by someone known and loved.

The most popular design with collectors is pictorial; some of these are amazing in detail. Geometric designs are also sought, with florals generally less popular since these are most often kit rugs. Original designs are always more desirable.

Designs also are linked to regions, such as Canadian designs that indicate the province and others that denote New England cottage industries by state.

Hooking rugs might be the perfect antidote to winter, so you may want to try your hand at a rug kit before the spring thaw. If that doesn’t suit you, visit a local antique shop and explore the beauty of homemade textile arts. Quilts and hooked rugs are charming and make a warm addition to a home when displayed on the floor or used as a wall hanging.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via e-mail at: zambitomaureen@hotmail .com or by writing in care of this newspaper.