Never one to remain idle for long, my friend Laura Harris embraced early retirement with gusto. Volunteering in our community took precedence, as did baking and hosting meals for friends and family. Then I learned that she’d taken up rug hooking. First of all, what exactly did she mean by rug hooking? My only experience with making rugs consisted of a short-lived latch-hook rug project. The resulting shag-rug wall hanging made a statement back in the ’70s—and we’ve all moved on from the ’70s.
A Short History of Rug Hooking
Traditional rug hooking likely made its way to North America via European immigrants. Frugal settlers fashioned hooked rugs out of burlap sacks and worn out wool clothing. These warm floor coverings were as varied and creative as their makers.
It is difficult to determine if rug hooking is an art or a craft. The patterns and designs tend towards art, yet the creation of a rug is considered a craft. The highest concentration of rug artists reside along the East Coast of the continent.
Crafting for a Non-Crafter
I was a little skeptical of Laura’s foray into rug hooking upon her retirement. She self describes as “non-crafty”. Yet after seeing the completed projects of her avid rug artist friend, she wanted to try it out.
Within an hour of holding a hook and fabric, Laura caught on to the basic technique of placing the hook through the fabric and pulling up a loop, the essence of the craft. Embraced by a local rug artists group, and mentored by her friend, Laura’s confidence grew.
Viewing the finished project some months later, I was duly impressed. The tactile texture and simple design combined to form a very appealing wall hanging.
While on holidays in Eastern Canada, Laura paid a visit to the Hooked Rug Museum of North America in Nova Scotia. This only fuelled Laura’s enthusiasm for the art.
With many resources to choose from out East, Laura chose a design imprinted on linen. This project would be four times the size of her first. Convinced that she would continue this craft for years to come, Laura enlisted her husband in making a frame. Then she purchased a specialized cutter. Laura was truly hooked.
As a relatively new rug artist, Laura feels her work is still that of a beginner. In my opinion, however, her projects are certainly worth my admiration. The colours are vivid and bold, and the designs are truly delightful.
Rug Hooking from Start to Finish
Rug hooking requires just a few simple elements: a frame, the base fabric, wool strips and a hook. Both of Laura’s latest two projects had designs already printed on the fabric. Some rug artists draw their own patterns.
Wool is also available for purchase, but Laura chooses to prepare her own. An avid thrifter, she scours thrift shops for pure wool clothing items, such as pants or skirts. After a hot water wash and dry, the material becomes felted. This fabric is ironed, then cut into narrow strips with a specialized cutter. Rich or muted, plain or patterned — these fabrics are chosen with care by the rug artist. No two rugs will ever be identical, even if the pattern is the same.
After the base fabric is filled with loops, the edges are finished with a woven seam binding and whip-stitched to the back.
Laura is enthusiastic about every aspect of rug hooking. She finds it to be relaxing, almost meditative. It appeals to her interest in history and passion for carrying on a traditional craft. It suits her down-to-earth practical and thrifty nature. She’s excited about tackling several other projects she has in mind. Looks like Laura’s retirement years have turned out to be both creative and crafty.
A Visit with a Rug Artists Group
Laura suggested that I could round out my observations by visiting the rug hooking group that mentored and embraced her. The Traditional Rug Artists of the South Okanagan group formed in the mid-1990’s with a modest gathering of four ladies. With a growing interest in traditional rug hooking, they sheltered under the umbrella of the Summerland Arts Council. A welcoming space for weekly meetings at the Summerland United Church ensured this active group had a permanent home.
Friendly smiles and lively chatter greeted me. Four long tables formed a square in the spacious room. Covering the tables were rug projects in process, large and small. The brilliant colours, designs, and varied materials were a glorious feast for the eyes.
I captured photos of most of the works: some completed, some in progress, and one decades old, carefully being repaired.
I certainly appreciated this unique opportunity to catch a glimpse into this ancient and traditional craft, alive and well in a small corner of the Okanagan Valley.