Rug hooking: rags to art

It is one of the humblest, most primitive, and most American of all crafts. Its finished product is nearly always stepped on, walked upon, and beaten with a broom. Yet for generations rug hookers have been turning scraps of wool and pieces of burlap into practical and thoroughly charming works of art.

Some of the deepest roots of American rug hooking can be found along the coast of Maine, where long, cold winters have always dictated that farm wives cover their drafty, wide-planked floors with something warm. Unable to afford the limited selection of manufactured rugs available, these 19th-century rural women looked to their families' worn-out clothing and empty grain sacks for inspiration.

After cutting the old fabric into strips and dying them with colors extracted from indigo berries, walnut juice, goldenrod, and other natural substances, they used a buttonhook to pull the strips through the burlap or homespun mesh. The designs they followed, often of a family pet or a clump of cabbage roses, were usually their own drawings etched out on the sacking with a charred stick.

Like so many other traditional American crafts, rug hooking is nearly as popular now as it was during the last century. And although many of these modern rug hookers live in Texas or California, the headquarters for the recent revival of the craft hasn't left the coast of Maine.

Behind the peaceful facade of an early 19th-century white clapboard house in the pretty town of Kennebunkport, Joan and Robert Moshimer preside over the Craftsman Studio, a family business that encompasses just about every aspect of rug hooking. The Moshimers publish the bimonthly Rug Hooker News and Views, the only publication entirely devoted to the craft. They also own the W. Cushing Dye Company, which specializes in old-fashioned colors which have been the unparalleled favorites of rug hookers since the Civil War. Their studio, occupying a converted barn adjoining their home, brims over with supplies that can be purchased there or ordered by mail.

The Moshimers' rug hooking enterprise grew out of what had been a hobby. "Shortly after I moved to Maine in the 1940s, a friend took me to visit an elderly woman who made beautiful hooked rugs," recalls Joan Moshimer. "I was so intrigued that I checked some books out of the library and taught myself how to do it."

Drawing upon her training as a commercial artist, Mrs. Moshimer was soon creating her own designs, something most serious rug hookers find to be half the fun. From there she went on to teaching the craft and eventually published a small catalog of her own designs and patterns.

Adorning almost every inch of wall space in the Craftsman Studio are prime examples of the wide variety of styles available to modern rug hookers. The more realistic are done with the narrowest strips of wool flannel, using many shades of dye to create depth and subtlety. One such is Joan Moshimer's own cocky brown pheasant, created out of such fine strips that it appears to be a painting. By contrast, Marion Ham's primitive cow on a green background, created by wide strips cut by hand, is a piece of modern folk art.

Among the many wares available at the studio are kits and patterns, hundreds of variations that are printed on backings of Scottish burlap. Among the other essentials the Moshimers carry are wooden rug frames used to steady the burlap, rug hooks, swatches of wool flannel, and cotton twill tape to bind the edges. Prominently displayed as well are the small brown packets of Cushing dye, the colors of which can add individuality to even a kit or pattern.

Among recent innovations that some rug hookers find useful is a small rotary cutter, called a bliss, which will turn out several strips of perfectly cut fabric at a time. For realistic hooked rugs, some of which are done with strips as narrow as an eighth of an inch, the bliss is a necessity.

Once the strips are cut, they are ready to be hooked onto the burlap, a process that involves using the rug hook to draw the strips back and forth through the mesh, creating small loops. "It's not essential to go through every hole in the mesh," says Mrs. Moshimer as she deftly hooks a blue strip onto a demonstration piece. "It is essential, however, that the loops touch each other."

The Rug Hooker News and Views, published in a room adjoining the studio, is a good source for beginners and veterans alike, as it lists the names of teachers across the United States and prints news of rug shows or workshops. Included in each issue is a free design that can easily be copied onto burlap and used as a pattern.

Among the contributing editors of the magazine is Mrs. Ham, a veteran rug hooker who teaches the primitive style of rug hooking, which harks back to the king produced in Maine over a century ago. While she concedes to using such conveniences as the Cushing dyes, rug hooks, and wooden frames, she advocates using recycled fabrics and encourages her students to create their own designs.

Each summer women from as far away as Seattle and England trek to her 18 th-century farmhouse in nearby Limerick to learn rug hooking in the traditional style. "They come lugging huge bundles of wool material to be dyed and cut during the workshop," Mrs. Ham says. "By overdying -- dying fabrics already colored -- you can create some really wonderful and unique shades. And by using a variety of woolens you can create a rug with a variety of textures, something that gives the antique rugs much of their charm."

In a corner of her spacious, light-filled workshop, Mrs. Ham keeps a trunk filled with wool fabrics for her own use and that of her students. When searching through thrift shops and yard sales for them, she especially keeps her eye out for old paisley shawls, which are cheap if they have enough moth holes. The swirling colors, she says, are especially effective when incorporated into a rug.

Part of her workshop sessions focus on the dyeing of the fabrics, done in huge pots in the backyard and then hung out on clotheslines to dry. The fabrics used are nearly always 100 percent wool, as synthetics will not hold dye.

When the material is ready to be cut, she teaches the students to cut them by hand into strips about half an inch wide. "You don't want strips that are machine straight in a primitive rug," she says. "And if you're working with a good wool fabric -- what rugs should be made of anyway -- you can often get the strips by first cutting and then tearing them down the rest of the way."

While she recommends that antique hooked rugs be hung on the wall to preserve their fragile backing, she always puts her own creations in their traditional place -- on the floor. Regarding their care, she is equally matter-of-fact.

"The best way to clean an old rug is to throw it out into the snow and then sweep it off," she says, and then adds some advice that best characterizes her craft's special appeal: "The more you walk on a rug, the better it gets."

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