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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

by Tracy Jamar
Quilt and Hooked Rug Restorer since 1979

Definition of Rug Making Terms

from a private collection

The technique of pulling a loop of one fiber through a woven foundation has probably been done since the earliest manipulations of textiles. Examples of the technique can be seen in 4th century. Egyptian textiles where remnants of wool tufts were pulled through a linen base. Various sources attribute the Scandinavians during the Bronze Age of practicing the technique and passing it along to the British Isles and onward to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the Northeastern United States. That said, rug hooking as we know it today has been practiced for fewer than 200 years. Whatever the source of origin, it is clear that hooked rugs developed, flourished and blossomed into an amazing variety of styles in northeast North America. Though the making of hooked rugs has now spread around the world they might almost be considered indigenous to the NE of North America.

Before 1780, in America most floors were bare, especially among the poor. The better off may have decorated their floors with paint, stenciling, painted floor cloths or even sand swept into designs. Only the wealthy would have had the means to own imported carpeting, as the domestic textile industry was in its infancy. It wouldn't get fully underway until the second quarter of the 19th century, so most of the goods were imported from England.

The early forerunners of the hooked rug were not pieces made for the floor, but for tables or beds, as Bed Ruggs, followed by hearth rugs made to protect expensive carpeting from soot and embers. Though technically not hooked, but yarn sewn, these rugs would resemble the hooked rugs to come. Yarn sewn rugs are not to be confused with rugs hooked with yarn; they are different techniques and though the surface may look similar, the back of the foundation will clarify which technique was used.

Most of the yarn sewn pieces would have been worked on a linen or wool foundation with needle and yarn. Cotton was more expensive, making it less available, except to the more affluent in the US. Though wool and linen could be processed and woven locally, the processing of cotton needed more elaborate technology. That technology was hindered and limited in the States by the British Acts of Trade; which weren't fully repealed until 1849. Before that, much of the raw cotton produced in the US was exported to England for processing and then imported as yardage.

Shirring was another technique used in the 2nd quarter of the 19th century. Fabric would be folded, gathered or pleated and then sewn to the surface of a foundation. Any rugs truly hooked in the first half of the 19th c. would have been through a closely woven foundation. Most of these variations would have been made and owned by the wealthy. Generally speaking, those are the rugs that have survived.

shirred rug detail of front and back, c.1830, wool on linen
Courtesy of Collection of Jan Whitlock Textiles

Full shot      33" x 36"


By the 1850s marked changes in life were well under way; expansion of technology, opening of imports from foreign countries no longer restricted by England, mechanization in all aspects of life, migration not only into the cities but out to the Western frontiers and immigration from overseas to name a few. It was also the time of the biggest change in the making of hooked rugs. That change came in the form of sacking, the type used on imported coffee, tea, grain, tobacco etc. from the West Indies. The sack was made in burlap, a woven fabric made from a bast plant or stalk fiber, jute. Burlap would mark the expansion of rug hooking and cause the other forms (yarn sewn and shirring) of rug making to be left behind. The burlap would be salvaged and used for the foundations of hooked rugs. Its wider weave structure facilitated the hooking process making it easier to pull strips of fabric through it. It was widely available especially in rural areas. It was very strong when new and best of all it was cheap, if not free. Thus burlap made it possible for the lower economic levels to create hooked rugs that would emulate the floor coverings of the wealthy for little or no cost, when hooking with strips of fabric culled from old and worn out clothing, or using remnants from the textile mills that were multiplying.

I am the family wardrobe, best and worst of all the generations from the first,
Grandpa's Sunday-go-to-meetin' coat,
And the woolen muffler he wore at his throat;
Grandma's shawl, that came from Fayal;
Ma's wedding gown, three times turned and once let down,
Which once was plum but now turned brown;
Pa's red flannels, that made him itch;
Pants and shirts; petticoats and skirts;
From one or another, but I can't tell which.
Tread carefully, because you see, if you scuff me.
You scratch the bark of the family tree.

Though burlap is strong when new, it does not retain its durability and may weaken long before the rugs hooking material wears out. If the burlap had served as cargo or feed sacking it was already on its second use when used as the foundation for a rug. The life of a rug, no matter what its content, can be a hard one and many early rag hooked rugs did not survive. It was common practice to place a newly made rug in the most prominent room. As they wore, they would be moved to locales of less importance to be replaced by a newer rug, eventually working their way out the back door to the woodpile or barn. Many rugs were utilitarian. Their value as a historical textile link was not realized and when they wore out, they were discarded. This could explain why many more "show" rugs have survived than the purely utilitarian common rug. Burlap foundations are one of the biggest concerns of antique rugs today.



The Complete Guide to Collecting Hooked Rugs: Unrolling the Secrets
by Jessie A. Turbayne

Hooked Rug Treasury
Jessie A. Turbayne 1997 Schiffler Publishing Co.

Hooked Rugs: History and the Continuing Tradition
by Jessie A. Turbayne

Celebration Xiii: Showcase of Commercial Designs and Adaptations (Celebration of Hand-Hooked Rugs)
by Rug Hooking

Purely Primitive: Hooked Rugs from Wool, Yarn, and Homespun Scraps
by Pat Cross

The Hooker's Art: Evolving Designs in Hooked Rugs
by Jessie Turbayne

Hooking Rugs
Lila Fretz 1990 Garden Way Publishers

American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot

Joel and Kate Kopp 1975/1985 E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.

Hooking was the one needlework that could be done by even those at the lowest economic level; no other needlework was made from worn out clothing or the unraveling of the burlap foundation, to be used as a hooking material. The supplies needed could be as humble as four boards nailed together and a hook fashioned from a bent nail inserted in a wooden handle. Hooking could also be upgraded by those of more means with the purchase of better newer fabric.

The introduction of burlap in the 1850s was well timed with the proliferation of the textile mills and the availability of fabrics at cheaper prices. With the increase in hooking came an incredible profusion of hooking gadgets and printed patterns led by the entrepreneurial spirit in 1868 of Edward Sands Frost of Biddeford, Maine. While on his journeys as a peddler and after he saw a need for them, Frost made the first pre-stamped patterns on burlap for rug hooking. 

As the demand grew and free hand drawing was too labor intensive, he came upon the idea to print the designs from stencils he could make using the metal from old copper boilers. In 1870 he started printing them in color. When Frost moved west for his health, James A. Strout bought the Frost business in 1876 and ran it until 1900. Others soon followed with their patterns and gadgets. In 1886, Ebenezer Ross of Toledo, Ohio started and invented a gadget called the Novelty Rug Machine that used yarn instead of cut strips of cloth. This technique today is referred to as needlepunch. Many rug hookers would personalize the patterns and add their own design elements. No rugs from the same pattern would come out the same, given the variety of materials used to make them. Even so, they were instrumental in limiting originality and creativity though these businesses are credited for popularizing and expanding interest in the craft.

Needlepunched rug likely a Ross pattern c. 1900-1910, detail of back on right, wool yarn on burlap feed sacking, aprox. 29" x 45"
Courtesy of the collection of Ron Tauss.

The last half of the 19th century was a time of rapid change: synthetic dyes were being discovered (by 1902 nearly 700 synthetic dyes were available), industries were expanding, inventions and discoveries in all areas were being made, electricity, telephones, steel construction in buildings, travel expansion, medical advances, the transatlantic cable etc. The Industrial Revolution in America was well on its way.
It seemed that the momentum was for more and more, done faster and faster, to be cheaper and cheaper. As production for consumer goods intensified and prices declined the quality of goods suffered. So it was with hooked rugs as well, as William Winthrop Kent noted in THE HOOKED RUG (1937), "The deterioration in the design of the hooked rug came with the commercializing of the design itself by the stamping or stenciling of bad stock designs on burlap for the trade. These were not always bad but often execrable" (i.e., extremely inferior, hateful).

By the end of the 19th century, the popularity of hooked rugs was at an ebb. Fashions, styles, available time and economic positions had changed. The "quaint" homemade hooked rug would be replaced by the "modern" factory produced carpet. Also now, in reaction to what was seen as the homogenization of the individual and the reduction of man to yet another cog in the industrial process, an anti-modernism movement gained momentum and cottage industries started up to counter what was seen as bad designs made cheaply. Their purpose was to supply better made and designed rugs to a growing middle class and provide work for those in need. One was Abanakee Rugs of New Hampshire, a company started by Helen Rickey Albee in 1894 using Native American motifs as design inspiration. Another began in 1902, the Subbekashe Rug Industry in Belchertown, Mass. where Lucy Thompson also used Native American designs as sources for her rug patterns.

from the Grenfell Industries, aprox 18" x 24" 
Courtesy of the collection of Laura Fisher Antiques

Perhaps the best known of the cottage businesses is the Grenfell Industries. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell opened the Grenfell Mission in 1893 to help the desperately poor in Newfoundland and Labrador. As hooking had a long history in Canada, he saw an opportunity for the fishing families to earn some much needed money in the off season by making hooked mats to sell. The arrival of Jessie Luther at the mission in 1907 markedly improved the design and color of the rugs making them quite sought after by tourists. The earlier rugs were hooked with cotton flannelette and later in the 30s and 40s, with collected and dyed silk and rayon knit hosiery. These rugs today are highly prized and very distinctive in style and subject.

In the 1920s, still more rug hooking industries developed, such as; Maine Seacoast Missionary Society, South End House Industry in Boston, and Cheticamp Hooked Rug Industry in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. This one was started by Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell and is still in business.

With the proliferation of the cottage industries, the homemade rug went out of style until a resurgence of interest in the 30s and 40s. This was in large part thanks to William Winthrop Kent, an architect and hooked rug authority. He felt that old rugs should be saved and hung as art and new ones be made for the floor. His three books on hooked rugs (the first in 1930 THE HOOKED RUG) promoted appreciation for early rugs and encouraged the making of new ones, using better designs than those of the late 19th century. About this time Pearl McGowan was also teaching and raising awareness of the craft of rug hooking.  

Whereas before, most any type of leftover fabric was used for rug making, now wool became the dominant component. Improvement in the standard of living and an increase in discretionary income for the expanding middleclass, made it feasible for wool to be purchased and dyed specifically for rug making. Wool became the dominant material in hooked rugs and remains so today.

Interest in rug hooking once again seemed to wane in the 50s and 60s as styles changed. A rug show in 1974 at the Museum of American Folk Art (now American Folk Art Museum) in NYC, curated by Kate and Joel Kopp, once more made apparent the beauty and historical value of this form of needlework. A year later, the Kopps followed up with their book AMERICAN HOOKED AND SEWN RUGS. Joan Moshimer helped fire up the interest in contemporary rugs with the opening of her hooking business in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Rug hooking has gone through many ins and outs of popularity as well as ups and downs in esthetic and technical quality. Today it is once again growing and expanding. Printed designs, cottage industries making finished rugs to order, commercially and hand dyed wools are widely available. Far surpassing the original bent nail and four boards nailed together for a frame, many tools are now available; designer hooks, cutters, frames and stands. Classes, books, shows, workshops, lectures, seminars, internet posting groups, camps and guilds are multiplying to the ever growing interest and participation in rug hooking. Museums and galleries are mounting hooked rug shows, recognizing both the old and the contemporary.

There is an amazing and impressive amount of original designing being done today as well. Rug hooking is an example of how a humble craft, born of leftovers and cast off clothing to produce utilitarian goods has blossomed into a medium for textile design and gained recognition as an art form.

Hooked rugs fill a special need. Like quilts, they are a way to be creative and expressive as well as make something both functional and attractive. Hooked rugs can be a physical registry of the life of the maker. They contain the shirt off their back, the socks from their feet and other materials that had been used up and worn out. Now they begin a new life. A hooked rug can quite literally give a closet full of information about the maker's station in life.

Today's rugger may not need to use worn out clothes and cast-offs, though for some it is a choice. The need to create and express one's ideas and designs as well as beautify one's surrounding is a constant in all art forms.

As with quilts, different regions had their particular design styles and patterns. Several rug styles can be assigned to specific regions in Canada. Inch mats (small squares arranged by color to form a pattern) were as common in Nova Scotia, as basket weave patterns were familiar in New Brunswick and as black outlined forms were to Prince Edward Island. Maple leaves and beavers were a sign of Canadian origin. A sculpted 3-D effect was originally known as "Acadian" now known as the Waldoboro style from the town of the same name in Maine. Many hookers used elements from their everyday life as inspiration, nautical themes, farm animals, pets and buildings, which might give an idea as to the maker's location. With the spread of patterns through magazines and newspapers the distinctions blended.

Tracy's bio and services offered
Tracy Jamar has been restoring antique textiles since 1979, where she was head of restoration and conservation services for the well respected gallery, America Hurrah Antiques, NYC. The opening of her own studio, Jamar Textile Restoration Studio located in NYC in 1985, allowed her restoration and conservation services to be offered directly to private collectors and antiques dealers. 

Her experience has included the restoration of all forms of quilts, pieced and appliquéd, including Baltimore Album, broderie perse, unusual pictorial and figural quilts and Bed Ruggs. She also restores American floor coverings including hooked, yarn sewn, shirred and rag rugs. 

Many of the items restored by Tracy Jamar are in major American museums and important private collections. A rare Bed Rugg she restored is currently in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in NYC where she has lectured on the care and restoration of hooked rugs and quilts. 

Tracy prepares textiles for mounting and hanging and offers consultation about a variety of display options. She is one of the creators of the Walker Display Textile Hanging System. She is known for her swift, competent and reliable service and can offer excellent references upon request. Though located in NYC, clients send her their textiles from across the US. 

For information call 212.866.6426 or e-mail tjamar@optonline.net.
Or, visit her Web site:

Click here for hooked rug information sources. 


* Hooked Rugs History and Patterns

© 2004 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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