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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Hooked Rugs And Clipper Ships

It wasn't alone the tall Maine masts and stout timbers that fetched the clippers and whalers back to home port, but men and women with know-how in their fingers. They could splice a mighty rope hawser or hook in half-inch rag strips through a piece of old sail, "drawin' " a picture of the ship and sea for ma or the new married daughter at home, or the "girl who waited."

Did our American sea men and women really "invent" the hooked rug, or was it a hunger for beauty plus native thrift that led New England and Canadian housewives to use every rag that would hang 'together" for hooking fancy patchwork pieces to cheer up the puncheon floor? Maybe, as some think, hooked or drawn-in rugs did come from Scandinavia with her Vikings and her voyagings. Whatever their beginning, hooked rugs now are as American as hominy.

Of course in the months at sea the hook had to take "as was" what came to hand from threadbare wool shirt to worn-out red flannels. But on the homestead, come a fair day, the rag bag was hauled from its peg or its niche under the loft stairs. A piece of stout backing from a straw tick or table cloth. corner was set aside. Rags, torn, and loosely tied in hanks, were put through the dye pot to brighten them up.


The brightening up dyes for these hooked rug pieces didn't come out of a store envelope. Nut husks stored in shed or loft; fruits or leaves; vegetables or roots, each had its juice properly "drawed out" to make a nice color, the rag strips were simmered in this dye bath in fireplace or on wood stove. This "'tended to" the coloring business. When the brightenin' was set in right good the hanks were "dreened, rinsed and dried," and the strips were ready for drawin' through the backing at will.

That is, unless the need was for indigo blue. Indigo naturally called for the peddler's indigo lumps or powder and the stirring of the earthen indigo jar which held its lonely place winter and summer near the chimney or fireplace. Some housewives claimed they "sweetened" it with roots or herbs, but tales of stirring the indigo pot at coloring time even touch the mighty Daniel Webster. He stood up to the Devil and Tom Walker, but folks said he shut his mouth and reached for his hat when the tavern indigo pot was stirred. Stinky or not, the colors it put into blue yarns were good and lasting.

Now when the torn, hanked and dyed strips were dried, the sailor boy could fill his locker, add a good stout piece of backing and hoist aboard ship for whaling or the China Seas.


Ma generally waited to set up her rug frame and backing to the "dark and sullin' days" of winter. Then she fetched her strip bag, polished up her old hook with brick dust or ashes so it would slide through the backing easy, and put all her "spare time" into her art work. Come spring, she usually had a nice hooked wool rug-or twoto show for her winter's pastime.

Cotton from India or Britain cost a caution of money and didn't get down to rug makings until after the War of 1812 when New England set up cotton manufacture for herself. In proper time cotton 'took its place in the rag bag, and finally fetched up alongside wool strips in hooked rugs. These "New England rugs" of cotton and wool mixed are a "find" collectors are always hoping to meet.

Now cotton rag yarns packed closer and so worked up into a fancier pattern. The pile stood higher and firmer. But these rugs didn't feel so good to the feet on a cold night. . The colors didn't hold up so bright and perky. It was "a question" whether to make rugs fancy figured and high standing or bright and warm and soft underfoot.


The first drawn-in or hooked rugs were simple patterns, mostly squares or diamonds, like the old quilts - say the Log Cabin quilt with its log upon log and closing in the square 'till a little center patch formed the roof. Simple ovals held a posy or a little spray of them. Many rugs had plain bandings or fancy shell or wave edges, but a lot of them were borderless. The thrifty housewife learned to sew a band or two of finely braided rags around the outside to take the scuffing wear.

With cotton rags the hooker began to fancy up the rugs. Sometimes the pile was hooked higher in certain places than in others, or an outline of bright stitches emphasized the pattern. Bouquets spilled from baskets over the rugs, kittens sat decorously in frames, even the family cow got her face and figure hooked into these old rugs.

Maybe the pictured farmstead, spreading chestnut, barn and dobbin told better of the bride's new home than a pen in hand could. Maybe the saucy sweetheart, experienced in bundling, teased by "hooked-in" speculation on married bliss. Then there was the Sailor's Dream rug, sold not 'too long ago in New York. It pictured the sailor lying in his hammock, his sweetheart's face in the upper left hand corner, his mother's in the right, a handful of cards spread in a third corner, and a bottle with two glasses occupying the fourth.


Spite rugs took a load off several chests. There was the young wife who told her mother-in-law to go home, and the bitter woman who wrote her resentment of big Sunday dinners and greedy in-laws through a hooked verse ending with the line, "I hate their guts."

There were motto rugs too. One hurt bride whose husband came back from China with a "naked woman on his chest" decided for all to read that he was a "much bewildered man" but she gentled her chiding with a flower hooked in beside the motto. Doorway mats welcomed the guest or urged the departing to call again. The wedding present rug was often a horseshoe carrying "Good Luck" lettered in.

The older hooked rugs with their stout linen backs and linen yarns or wool backs and wool yarns are mostly gone now. Even the so-called "New England" wool and cotton mixed rugs are scarce and dear. But their offspring of fine and handsomely hooked patterns in flower elaborations and pictorial designs, as well as the "sentiment" rugs on linen, linsey-woolsey, cotton, or burlap backing have a high demand. And the spite rugs with their record of human hurts for all to see have lost their sour note and become a bit of humor and amusement for the collector and his friends.

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