A timeless art goes on

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In a little red-sandstone cottage in the Northwest of England lives an octogenarian rugmaker. She is calle Miss Williams. Late into the night she listens to the B.B.C.'s World Service and works away with astonishing dexterity at her hookey rugs.

Like patchwork quilts, pegged or hooked rugs were made on both sides of the Atlantic. Like patchwork they were made from a sense of artistry and thrift. Now that craftwork has become a commercial activity in which people justifiably seek for proper remuneration things like peg rugs and traditional patchwork have hovered on the edge of extinction.

A rug may take its maker well over a hundred hours to make and the price paid to the maker here is never more than twenty pounds (about $45). Either the price must change radically or the rugmaker must work for the love of craft (a dubious concept if you have to make a living).

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Miss Williams makes her rugs as a true artist works. If nobody bought them one feels she would still go on making them. If you tell her how much you like a rug she has made she glows with modest pleasure. It is as if she is always slightly surprised that people treasure them.

Inside her main room are huge bags of tweeds and wools, offcuts from a local mill or pieces that people have saved for her. Traditionally old clothing was used and Northern museums have found it virtually impossible to collect examples of 19th-century working peoples' clothes because when they were worn-out they were clipped up and put into rugs.

With a pleasurable twinkle in her eyes Miss Williams will show you the rug she is working at on her frame by the window. She generally makes hookey rugs with long strips of wool or tweed hooked in a looped pile through hessian. After seeing the rug on a frame there are usually one or two drawn out onto hessian in a pending pile. Though she has a personal vision of her own she likes people to draw out what they would like on their rugs and then she applies her critical eye to the job. She likes clear lines and definite ideas but every design - no matter who the artist -- is indelibly stamped with Miss Williams' style. Because of the tensions and the stretching of hessian the rugs are seldom exactly square and their edges waver slightly, often reflecting the lines within the pattern of the rug. Each piece of wool or tweed is tightly inserted, so for sheer hand-weaving these rugs are virtually unbeatable.

Most of the older farmers' wives have made rugs in their time and the rugs look well-placed on the stone flags of the northern cottage and farm floors. They can stand up well to the cold stone and heavy muddy boots. But most things have changed for most people and, convenience being the watchword of our age, the stone flags are being replaced by concrete, with vinyl floor coverings.

A few people still know the real quality and artistry of homemade rugs just as a few farmers still keep the earth running through their fingers stubbornly indifferent to soundproof tractor cabs with built-in stereos. Miss Williams carries on, hooking her farm animal pictures into rugs with a far greater knowledge and appreciation of their form and character than any modern agribusinessman can ever hope to attain. It would be impossible to change her compulsive art into a modern craft without losing its essence.

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