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Of all the handmade rugs, the hooked rug is by far the most well known and the most justly popular. It is therefore both neccssary and appropriate that we devote the largest portion of this book to their many aspects.
Few hooked rugs now in existence date much earlier than the mid-1850s. The evidence points to the probability that they were not made during the early Colonial period, and not much before 1700.
The hooking of rugs is not precisely an American invention. Although the craft of making them developed distinctively in this country, it had been practiced as an ancient art about the Fourth or Fifth century in Egypt. Ancient travclers-Arabs, Moors and others-carried the skill to Spain. In clue course it spread to France and then to Canada. As a more modern form it is believed to be a north-country art invented independently by the Scandinavians, Scots and Dutch. It is very likely that the Pilgrims and Puritans learned the method during their residence in Holland. The Swedes on the shores of the Delaware, the Finns in lower New Jersey, the Dissenters of Scotch ancestry in New England, the Pilgrims in the environs of Massachusetts, and the Dutch huisvrou with her friends around Nieuw Antsterdam, all had some knowledge of rug hooking, and put this knowledge to good use at the earliest opportunity. At the beginning of the Eighteenth Century almost every housewife in the northern colonies knew how to hook a rug, and examples were already being made that were good enough to be bequeathed from mother to daughter. At the same tittle that these skillfully woven pieces were being produced, others were being made by novices, isolated from sources of traditional ideas, without precedent, and quite lacking in knowledge and skill.
Both skilled and unskilled, however, were under the handicaps of improper facilities and inadequate materials. Yet from their dearth of what we would consider essential factors they evolved rugs which are valued heirlooms. It should be realized that the making of hooked rugs in early America, even in its less Skilled aspects, was at no time the work of primitivc people in their elemental environmcnt. The early artisans were people of European culture, with a background of travel and cosmopolitanism as it was known about 1700. If they expressed themselves in craftsmanship that seemed overly simple and somewhat primitive it was only because of a basic inadequacy of materials.
The early hookers of rugs faced all manner of obstacles. They had to make not only the rugs, but all the factors that went into the preliminary processes. If burlap was used for the foundation, it was made of sugar or meal bags which had first been washed, stretched and pieced together. There are many rugs the sire and shape of a discarded feed sack, since the finished product was controlled by the available material. If they decided upon linen as the foundation, it meant, initially, the preparation of the flax through its numerous processes up to the spinning of the thread and the weaving of the material on a loom, the worker standing and bending over frames usually stretched from four chairs. As to woolen materials that were required, what the sheep provided was, so to speak, on a long-range contract. The wool was first used for clothing, which was not discarded after a few months for reasons of fashion but was used continually sometimes for years. By the time New England thrift allowed it to be converted into rugs, it was none too soon. The discarded coats, trousers, dresses, stockings and other garments were carefully cleaned or washed, and sorted for material, color and the like before being cut into the narrow strips that lent themselves to hooking. Before this last step, however, there was another difficult and rather irksome one. The strips were usually dyed in assorted colors from vegetable dyes gathered in the woods. The pigments were boiled, mixed, cooled, preserved for the proper time and meticulously used. But obviously there could be no "hook" rug without a hook. So a hook like a #1 crochet needle and about the same size was made from hard wood, bone or porcupine quill or forged from old metal or an iron nail.
But even after all preliminaries they were still without a design. For many would-be hookers designing was a difficult task. Manual labor was one thing-the design, the creative factor, was another. The pioneer women were accustomed to hard physical work, but were as babes in the peculiar genius necessary for the creation of art-forms. How they nevertheless succeeded to high artistic levels we shall see later.
A typical Colonial woman could find time to do two average-sized rugs each winter. Despite the fact that she bore and reared eight or ten children, the making of the rugs was something she engaged in evenings after the more imperious demands of the daylight hours had been met. One of the daughters might sit below the frame stretched over the corners of four chairs, handing the scraps to her mother as she was ready. The design often grew spontaneously as the hooking progressed. "I believe I'll add a posy about here," the hooker might decide, suiting the action to the word.
The essentials of the design were sketched in first on the burlap which was stretched on a frame and the hooking started. The method of performance was not difficult. The worker pulled loops of cloth strips or heavy woolen yarn with a hooked instrument through a material with sufficiently open mesh to permit this. A small number of the oldest pieces had a foundation of homespun wool or heavy unbleached cotton, but at first they were usually made on linen. Later burlap was used ancl proved an ideal material, strong and coarse enough to hook through quite readily. With the hook, the worker pierced and spread the mesh and caught up the loop of scrap, rag, yarn or whatever was being used, to pull it back up through the mesh. Then the hook was again inserted and another loop drawn up, making a close smooth surface. If the cloth strips were narrow, and the loops kept low and very close together, the result would be a beantiful fine texture. The work could be done faster if heavier loops were made, longer and farther apart, but with somewhat less durable results.
Although this process sounds rather easy, it did actually involve a certain amount of skill. It was far from simple to work in the straight lines which were required to safeguard the integrity of a pattern and achieve an even texture. Not, was it easy to maintain a uniform height for all the loops so as to produce a smooth surface. Wuch practice was necessary before real proficiency was attained in these fine points. Since a little rug of two square yards would take an average worker about three weeks of continuous activity, the factors of industry and perseverance should be readily appreciated.
Occasionally the loops were cut to make a softer surface and appearance. While this enhanced the beauty, it tended to decrease the durabilitv. Sometimes a combination of cut and uncut loops was Used, with the design carved by clipping around each motif so that it stood out more clearly. Both realism in design and a luxurious softness resulted from such clipping. This reached its apex in the rugs done in Nova Scotia, which became famous for highly elaborate floral designs.
This luxurious result was probably purely fortuitous. Perhaps as some rugmaker's treasured possession became dingy with use the tops were clipped in order to cut off the soiled portion and reveal the baighter tones below. The effect was not merely an improvment of the soiled or faded rug, but an improvement over the original appearance. It was then merely a matter of logic to apply this treatment to the new rugs.
What about the colors the rugs displayed when new? Aniline dyes and other reaclily manufactured chemical aids were not vet known. Despite the cultural background and traditions of its people, the colonies were industrially primitive.
In rag rugs the color problem was solved passively. The rug was apt to turn out largely- black, brown, gray and other neutral colors because these practical shades had been the ones used in the clothing which now composed the rags. And for those lively touches of red which appeared in so many of the rugs, we may thank the proverbial red flannel underwear that was popular with the men of the time.
To be sure, the more ambitious, artistic or ingenious of the women, and almost all of them came under one of these classifications were not satisfied with taking colors as they found them. When their design required some particular color, they prepared a concoction to use as a dye. In fact, more than one was usually needed and, for each one, a particular process had to be pursued to transform it into usable character.
The most usual dye sources were roots, vegetables, barks, flowers, fruits and berries. Red dyes were customarily derived from cranberries, beets, madder root and logwood. Pokeberry juice gave a crimson color. A certain desirable pink hue could be had by scraping dust from old soft brick in some built up sections of New Amsterdam. Yellow was made by boiling onion skins with alum, and there were other ways. Only much later could the New Englanders obtain such "boughten" dyes as cochineal and indigo for red and blue, respectively. Goldenrod flowers could be pressed for juice and, when indigo was available, could be mixed with it to make green. Blueberries, the bark of the red oak or hickory and all sorts of other growing products were enlisted for the dye brew.
Early hooked rugs were such important and practical objects of domestic attention that their makers soon recognized the opportunity that existed to combine beauty with utility. An immense amount of interest arose quickly, for here was a task that offered the special relaxation one achieves through self-expression, at the same time that one was performing a constructive and needed duty on behalf of home comfort. Neighbor vied with neighbor, and the worker, realizing all that had gone into her labor, often kept a new rug bottom side up unless company were expected. As one woman has related of an incident during her childhood: "Mother would sit by the front window watching for them, and as soon as they came in sight she would say, 'Sally, turn the rugs while I mind the door".