Getting hooked on folky rugs
NEW YORK – Hooked rugs have been described as the comfort food of antiques with collectors coveting them for their artistic qualities and homespun nature. Rug hooking dates back several centuries and ranges from simple rugs hooked out of fabric scraps by thrifty crafters or elegant designs.
Hooked rugs come in all sorts of designs from abstract and geometric to whimsical and floral. Karen Swager, decorative arts and textile specialist at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., says that elaborate floral wreaths and bouquets, farm scenes, cats and dogs are common motifs in the designs of hooked and sewn rugs.
“Lions became a popular theme with hooked rugs due to the peddler Edward Sands Frost (1843-1894) who created an industry of stenciled rugs patterns,” she says. “There are few examples of people on 19th and early 20th century rugs. The most well-known hooked rugs with people were designed by James and Mercedes Hutchinson in the mid 20th century.”
Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., said rug-hooking techniques originated in North America, specifically Maine, and grew from their 19th century origins to become a national pastime. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, part of Colonial Williamsburg, presents the 2018-20 exhibition “Folk Art Underfoot: American Hooked Rugs” surveying the art of hooking and sewing rugs, featuring some 20 hooked and sewn rugs.
“By the early 19th century, sewn rug work was among the special sewing projects a young schoolgirl could create while attending one of the many day or boarding schools that specialized in sampler making, wool embroidery and other female accomplishments,” she said. Jan Whitlock, in her 2012 book American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples, notes that 40 schools advertising rug work had been identified. Several schools as far south as Virginia also included rug work in their curriculum.
Among notable areas known for hooked rugs is the distinct style of hooked rug that originated in Waldoboro, Maine, a shipbuilding community originally settled by German immigrants.
“The rugs are characterized by a deep pile that is clipped and sculptured creating a design that stands out from the background,” Smith Ivey said. “The finest Waldoboro rugs were crafted between 1860 and 1880 and were intended as decorative showpieces rather than floor coverings to be walked upon. Today, hooked rugs with raised motifs are referred to as Waldoboro-types, whether they are actually made in Waldoboro or not.”
The most desirable rugs are ones that showcase the inventiveness and artistry of the maker, Swager says, noting that whimsical designs featuring animals are very sought after. In March 2010, Brunk Auctions sold the collection of prominent collector Tom Gray, including a number of fine hooked and sewn rugs. Among them was a bias shirred rug with a whimsical farm animal scene that hammered at $30,000.
“Some collectors also seek rugs made with a distinct technique. For example, bias shirring, where fabric strips are cut on the bias and stitched to the foundation lengthwise in the center of the strip, is one of the most time consuming and difficult techniques of rug making. This technique also allows for subtle shading and the incorporation of wavy designs that can enhance the artistry of the rug.”
Smith Ivey explains that designs for early sewn and hooked rugs echo motifs found in other home furnishings including woven rugs and quilts.
“Rug makers found inspiration in published sources as well as in the details of everyday life,” she says. “Houses, birds, floral arrangements, and animal motifs, especially household pets, were the most popular designs. During this period, house cats were a major family pet and the most popular design for hooked rugs. Geometric patterns, which are the easiest designs to draw and produce in a rug, are also common.”
She said four hooked rugs created by Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896) in Dixfield, Maine, between 1850 to 1860 are some of the best and most striking forms of hooked rug work for a number of reasons.
“First, it is rare to find a rug with a known maker. Four hooked rugs attributed to Lucy Barnard feature a large white house on a hill with attached outbuildings,” she said. “Her rugs display an unusual sophisticated awareness of perspective through the use of oversized flowers in the foreground and two-sided buildings. Landscapes such as these require greater skill and appear less frequently than floral and geometric patterns.”
Highly collectible today are Grenfell hooked mats, which became a cottage industry in Newfoundland and Labrador in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. William Grenfell established “the industrial” to help provide a source of income for the local women, Swager says. “Designs for the mats were inspired by regional scenes and animals. Polar bears, owls and winter landscapes are found on a number of Grenfell mats.”
While the market for hooked rugs has softened a bit in recent years, the best and most artistic examples continue to bring strong prices while the beginning collector still has the opportunity to enter the field at affordable prices.
Some of the attributes that collectors should consider, Smith Ivey says, include:
- Condition: Does it have its original binding? Are the colors bright or faded?
- Materials: Is it worked on burlap, which degrades easily and indicates a later date? Is it worked on cotton or linen, which are more stable ground fabrics and indicates an earlier date? Are there mixtures of fibers in the pile that create interesting textures?
- Design: Is the design original to the maker, and if so, is it an important expression of American imagination and ingenuity? Is the pattern derived from a published design? Did the maker customize the publish pattern to express some of her personality?
- Maker: Is the maker of the rug identified? Does the rug have a known provenance? Is it dated or signed in any way?
- Technique: Is it hooked or is it an example of a sewn rug, such as yarn-sewn, bias shirred; chenille shirred, or patch? Are different hues of one color used to create a shading effect?