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The lover of hooked rugs has the choice of either old exampies, made a hundred years ago, more or less, or rugs produced today. The old rugs are the most expensive, naturally, because they have a historical interest in addition to quaint designs not often found in their modern descendants. The best hunting grounds for these mementos of another age are in New England, among the Pennsylvania Dutch and along the Eastern Canadian seaboard.
Just when the first rugs were made is a moot question. Almost every settlement of Colonial days had busy housewives who filled in their spare time making these floor coverings; but most of the old rugs that we know today were made after 1800.
It is hard to draw the line between an old rug and a new one, since the making of hooked rugs has never stopped in many a New England home. In groups where outside suggestion has brought about more harmony in color, modern rugs are much better than some of those made in the past. But now and then it happened, both in Colonial times and later, that some housewife with a true feeling for folk art produced a naive pattern that cannot be matched today. The unexpected plays a delightful part in the seeking of interesting hooked rugs, whether one goes in for old or for new.
In former days the housewife who wished a new rug for her best room took an old sugar bag or grain sack, and, after boiling it well to take out all the dressing and to shrink it thoroughly, she sketched with a piece of charcoal from the fireplace a design either made up by herself or copied from a neighbor's rug. Cloth strips cut on the bias and dyed the proper color were pulled through the rough burlap by a short awl with the end turned into a hook. Generally the short loops which, very close together, made up the surface of the rug, were left uncut, although sometimes a part of the design would be trimmed, thereby leaving a portion of the pattern in relief.
All kinds of material were employed. The gorgeous red roses, a common motif of those days, owed some of their popularity to the great prevalence of red flannel underwear. Fabrics from men's clothes were good and durable and were an important source of material. Worsted yarn was sometimes employed, but generally thrifty housewives used up odds and ends out of the scrap bags.
Designs on the old rugs had a wide range. Apparently some of the patterns were inspired by attempts to imitate carpets and rugs such as were seen in the better homes. Some hooked rugs with elaborate bunches of flowers in the centre and with scroll designs around the edge suggest the patterns of Brussels carpets or the Aubusson rugs of France, then in vogue. Others with a distinct Chinese suggestion were no doubt inspired by Oriental rugs brought back to a New England seaport by some clipper ship Captain engaged in the China tea trade.
But the really quaint designs on hooked rugs are the pictorial ones. Dogs and cats and horses were often used. Lions trying to be ferocious may still be found. Landscapes are hard to pick up nowadays, but when discovered they are worth the time and trouble of the search. Village scenes, ships with their names worked on the waves and patriotic patterns with the American eagle fiercely defending the national shield are some of the many subjects of these home-made floor coverings.
Interesting and often amusing are the mats. These were made in semi-circular form and were intended to be placed just inside the door. Most of them carry the word "Wel come," along with a design of flowers, cats, dogs or ships. One kind, says Anna M. Laise Phillips in her book, "Hooked Rugs and How to Make Them," were made by girls to be presented to her future husband and known as a "Bride's Welcome." A characteristic pattern was of two love birds. Sometimes practical instruction would be given to the guest in the form of an injunction to "Wipe Your Feet." One such rug discovered carried the admirable precept "Please Be Polite."
The rugs now being made are still a product of the old tradition of home craft. Some may be obtained in villages and farmhouses by searchers who offer tempting prices; others are made in communities that have revived this old-time art and evolved a systematic method of getting the product to market. Down through the Blue Ridge Mountains, in isolated hamlets in New England and elsewhere are housewives who add to their small income in this manner. Patterns their mothers used, old designs almost forgotten and new ones originated by themselves are woven into these floor coverings now so popular for living room, bedroom or sun porch.
New hooked rugs are made in practically the same manner as were the Colonial rugs whose colors have reached a fine mellow tone, like an old painting. The mod ern craftworker, to be sure, has her cotton or wool strips cut for her; but interest and a homely sense of design and color persist. The bright colors and harmonious combinations of hues in many of these modern rugs make them admirable decorations for present-day rooms with their brilliant cretonnes and other gay furnishings. For the hooked rug goes right into the living room and does not, as in the old days, first serve as a sacred ornament in the parlor with its darkened windows and little-used furniture.