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The Short History of Rug Hooking

Few techniques allow for the creation of such detailed patterns as the rug hooking. Combining features of art and craft, those rugs are often hanged on the walls, as if they were paintings for everyone to admire. The process of weaving is quite simple: start by pulling loops of yarn or scraps of wool through a stiff base made of burlap or rug warp. Then pull the loops through the backing material, using a crochet-type hook in a wooden handle and… voila!

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The experts have not reached a consensus about the technique’s origins. Some say it was invented in England, while others claim that it were in fact Vikings who used and brought it to Scotland during their endeavors. However, the rug hooking as we know it today developed along the Eastern Seaboard in New England in the United States, the Canadian Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador in the 19th century. Initially perceived as the “craft of the poor”, hooked rugs were made by those who could not afford machine-made carpets imported from England. Because of the lack of more sophisticated materials the weavers often used any scraps of cloth that were available at the time – mainly burlap salvaged from sacks. Cotton was expensive and though it could be produced locally, it needed a complicated technology, limited in the U.S by the British Acts of Trade. After 1849, when the Acts were repealed, colonists were able to trade freely, developing not only industrially, but also artistically.

With time, the demand for hooked rugs started to grow, making their production more profitable, but also time-consuming. In the 1870s, Edward Sands Frost came up with the idea of printing the designs from stencils, made of old copper boilers. His idea took the market by storm, however, the mass production initiated the decline in the quality of rugs as well as their popularity. In the early 20th century, “quaint” hooked rugs were replaced with machine-made “modern” carpets and seemingly forgotten. 

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The craft was saved from disappearance thanks to two extraordinary individuals: Pearl McGown and William Winthrop Kent. While McGown promoted rug hooking through her teachings, Kent published three books which encouraged appreciation of the early rugs and promoted weaving new ones. With their hard work, the rug hooking started to spread outside U.S to Europe, where it gained tremendous popularity in Denmark. Ernst Thomsen, Danish citizen, invented machine for hooking rugs with yarn in 1939. This device modernized the craft, allowing for quicker and more comfortable production, making it even more popular. After the World War II, Ernst started to manufacture the machine and rug designs, with the help of his daughter Jane and her husband Kåre. The company, sold in 1987 to Sussi Lunden, still functions, supplying rug hooking aficionados with necessary equipment and materials.

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Nowadays, the technique evolved fusing over 200 years of tradition with modern technology. It stopped being a craft for the poor and became considered a fine art. Numerous designers, like Christina Little, and commercial shops started to manufacture hooked rugs, using their own styles and patterns. People can learn this craft from various tutorials on YouTube or from DIY guidebooks, however, the same sense of identity and belonging, present when the first weavers started to hook rugs, remains after all those centuries. While modern weavers don’t have to use old scraps of material, they continue to express their vast creativity and inventiveness with rugs.