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Design In Hooked Rugs
Design is the most striking and characteristic feature of a hooked rug. Ordinary rag rugs, braided rugs and the like were earlier in their origin, and design was not a planned part of them to any notable degree. The embroidered rugs were produced in this country after hooked rugs had already won a secure place for themselves. Our reason for describing embroidered rugs ahead of their chronological place was in order to devote the major part of the book to hooked rugs. In interest, popularity and quantity the hooked rugs far surpass any of the others.
One cannot make a hooked rug without a design. The pattern may turn out grotesque, distorted, uneven, lopsided or amateurish, but it is still a design. When the early hooked rugs were made, there was no "art course" available for the aspirant. Unfortunately, having a good design in mind was quite different from executing it acceptably, and skill in designing came only with long practice.
While geometric figures with their simple repetitious forms commended themselves to the unadventurous, few early hookers thought of themselves as such. They tried their skill at pictures out of their experience, mingled with their own fancy. This was pictorial art in a new medium. It had not been done before. Since it was not hemmed in by any rules, it developed in an unfettered fashion, literally going off in all directions at once. This gave it great naivete and freshness, with virility deriving from its current surroundings, yet in some quarters not without the worldly-wise quality which clung to the rugmakers with their memories of European culture.
Many frankly utilized the inspiration of their ancestral homelands and even copied unashamedly from the then contemporary European ideas in arts and crafts. In Quebec it was the French tradition. In Virginia English ideas predominated. In the middle Atlantic States Dutch influence prevailed, To the far south the Spanish; westward the Indian. But while at first there were national rivalries, there soon emerged an art unmistakably native to America.
For the most part, the designs came from the day-to-day interests of the people. In fact it may be said that good insight into those times, which we would otherwise have lacked, is preserved in the designs of the hooked rugs which chronicle the simple and complex events of the times.
While the designs cover a wide range, they fall for the most part into a few major groups. One is the experimental type of the beginner-a hit-or-miss affair using variegated scraps as they came, with a black border often finishing it off.
One family of rugcraft is deservedly much sought after today. This is the marine type. It may be surprising to learn that many sailors practiced such handicrafts as knitting, rugmaking and the like at sea it was never considered effeminate to do so. Vovages were not the near-supensonic affairs of today. There were many days and weeks of comparative idleness to be filled between ports, and this was a craft that had utility after the return. The women also made them. Among the marine subjects commemorated in many a hooked rug were scenes of tile whaling industry. In sonic New England seaport towns the hazardous occupation of whaling often claimed most of the able-bodied men. It was natural that their absences of months at a time Would be the subject nearest the hearts of their womenfolk. Replicas of full-rigged schooners, brigs and clippers riding the waves were frequently hooked into floor coverings. Nautical subjects such as anchors, cables, waves, fish, tridents and even whales were used.
The inland women, on the other hand, translated farmyard scenes and other aspects of the landscape-hills and trees, little white houses, the church, the well and other familiar and well-loved features of the neighborhood into glorious coverings which were literal and realistic. The houses were architectural correct and the costumes of the people were depicted authentically. The practice of conventionalizing the objects in the fashion of Oriental rugmakers was not followed here. These were as real as actual pictures, painted with the floor rather than the wall as a background.
While the individual factors which made up many of the rugs had this literal quality, they were often combined in quaint and whimsical ways. A covering might be seen that had horses, birds, trees, stars and crescent moons mingled in a manner surprisingly modern. This was especially true among the Pennsylvania Dutch women, who were not averse to a heartier hulnor than one was apt to find in New England. In fact, only at the height of the Victorian period were a few Yankee-inscribed hooked rugs discovered of a semi-cynical duality, combining the humorous touch with the traditional moral touch. One depicts the typical spinster sitting alone with a teapot and a cat for company. It bears the following verse:
"This poor old maid, A bit too good, Condemned herself To spinsterhood. When Cupid met me, I did flee. I fled too well and here I be".
The Revolutionary War inspired rugmakers with patriotic subjects-the flag, the coat of arms of the United States, eagles, and other similar themes to celebrate great moments in American historv.
Animal rugs were very popular in the mid-nineteenth century and later and for a time developed at a furious pace. Dogs and cats, cows and lambs, horses, clucks and chickens paraded right out of the barnyards and onto the parlor rugs. The results were grotesque. The creatures were given a makeup which could onlv be described as distortion. Whether this was done through a sense of humor or a lack of skill almost incredible, is hard to say.
Numerous rugs were oval, circular or semicircular-few were hexagonal. Occasionally one might come across a cutout scroll having edges paralleling' the irregular lines of the design. A pleasing innovation was the little welcome mat. The welcome, good-luck or call-again mats were logically placed at the entrance door and were semicircular in form. Rugs abounded which were blazoned with mottoes like God is Love and Home Sweet Home. There were also sampler types, maps and other miscellanies.
There were also rugs of tile motifs with blocks that seemed to be all alike yet upon close scrutiny never were. Other designs were geometrical with triangles, circles, stars, and so on. Then there were the inch squares consisting of tiny blocks of numerous colors and those forming diamonds and other figures. Again, the use of vari-colored L-shaped bands produced blocks called a log cabin pattern. Other rug hookers liked to plan interlacing stripes, and another usage was composed of soft blending waves of color following one another and giving a mosaic effect from a little distance.
The most frequently found hooked rugs are developed in floral designs. While many of them consist of rather primitive posies, they range to large and lovely treatments of real intricacy and truly artistic skill.
Every conceivable treatment of flowers seems to have been thought of-wreaths, in vines, in baskets, in detached leaves or buds, intertwined in scrolls, in repeating bunches, in large central bouquets, growing or cut. While some are scattered irregularly without plan or particular skill, and even quite without regard to scale, others are designed with fine symmetry and excellent drawing.
All the lovely flowers known up and down the Atlantic Coast or remembered from country gardens in Europe formed the motifs of the floral rugs. Hollyhocks, lilies, daisies, pansies and roses, which were among the favorites, were executed in rugs with remarkable fidelity.
Especially beautiful examples of this type were made by the French who came to Nova Scotia and Quebec. They were particularly partial to extremely elaborate floral wreaths and the scrolls, floral sprays and ribbons seen in Aubusson and Savonnerie floor coverings were transposed in homespun wool. These floral pieces were worked with amazing realism and attention to detail and sometimes, to increase the effect, the buds and flowers would be raised in relief.
All sources, at one time or another, were used as inspiration for the design of hooked rugs. Imported wallpaper, an unusual sea chest, fabrics of exotic costumes were all enlisted. Occasionally an oriental rug would be the model. While hooked rugs of oriental design are not typical of most American productions, they should not be overlooked by collectors. They are apt to fit into some modern decorative room treatments more appropriately than the more frequent floral or naive types.