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Collecting Mania: Hooked Rugs

Updated on May 27, 2010

A craft born of domestic thrift has become an important fixture in the canon of American folk art. One of the more cheerful solutions to 19th-century Americans' daily needs was the hooked rug. To alleviate the chill of cold floors at little or no expense, thrifty homemakers combined scraps of yarn and worn clothing with homespun backing to create splashes of color and beauty in dark rural homes. Over the years, the utilitarian practice evolved into a time honored craft, showcasing an individual's creativity, relating family histories, and encompassing a wide range of styles.

Scholars believe that settlers in the ports along eastern Canada and northern New England were the first to make hooked rugs. The inhabitants of these harbor towns became familiar with the mats sailors knotted with small, hooklike tools and began experimenting in their own homes with fabric remnants, homespun yardage, and hooks of wood and bone. Because patterns for simple blocks and circles could be created by tracing the perimeter of books, plates, and other household items, many novice craftspeople favored geometric patterns. More ambitious undertakings produced floral designs, portraits of pets and people, and milestones in a maker's life, such as a marriage or the birth of a child.

When jute burlap began to be imported from India in the 1850's, North American craftspeople found the stronger backing easier to work with. Not long thereafter, stenciled designs made available by peddlers and ladies' magazines catapulted rug hooking into a national pastime. Late in the 19th century, cottage industries sprang up as hookers who had made enough rugs for their own homes realized the economic potential of crafting pieces for sale. The best known was the Grenfell Mission, in St. Anthony, Newfoundland and Labrador, established in 1890 by Englishman Dr. Wilfred Grenfell.

The primary goal of Dr. Grenfell's mission was to assist the poverty stricken with supplies of clothing and medical care as well as food in order to ameliorate their economic conditions. Grenfell Mission swiftly became famous for its iconic burlap rugs that were sold to medical institutions, hospitals and clinics throughout the United States and Britain. Once Dr. Grenfell passed away and machine-made rug production became the standard the business gradually faded away and eventually closed. Grenfell rugs are extremely sought after these days by folk art collectors.

Both antique and contemporary rugs appear in a variety of shapes - rectangles, squares, and circles. The most common hooked-rug motifs are figural, floral, and geometric. The crafts movement of the 1970's helped revive artisans' interest in rug hooking.

The advent of affordable, mass-produced carpets and linoleum early in the 20th century, along with changing tastes, caused a decline in popularity of hooked rugs. During the Depression, however, thrifty homemakers revived the craft. Ever since, craftspeople have kept the skill alive, both reinterpreting traditional designs and creating their own patterns, reflecting the hooked rug's long, colorful journey from floor to wall.

Prices for antique hooked rugs range from $250 for a simple pattern dating from the 1930's to $1,000 or more for a 19th-century example with an intricate pattern and bold colors.

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