Antique American Hooked Rugs
It is our intent to bring a new eye to Antique American Hooked Rugs. The primitive imagery that appears in these rugs often parallels the more accepted forms of folk art, but rugs have been neglected, ill-treated, and inadequately appreciated for decades. This may be true because most rugs were not made to be "art" but to serve as floor coverings for the parlor or bedroom, or even as kitchen or hall mats. They were a practical solution to a household need, yet the rugs brought color, warmth, and decoration to sometimes primitive or bare environments. Rug making gave country women a respectable and limitless way to express their thoughts and dreams in designs like landscape imagery, flora, geometry, and many others. Generally, without academic art training, rug makers could intuitively sense the power of form and color, and their pictorial and graphic statements were not inhibited by the difficulties involved in 'technical' artwork but were free to hook the finest detail into their rugs at their discretion. These pieces frequently exhibit masterful needlework and are deserving of our admiration and appreciation.
The choice of illustrations does not reflect an effort to show the most typical examples. Rather, we are presenting here a visual record of Antique American Hooked Rugs that we consider to be impressive works of folk art. We have tried to select only the finest rugs that reflect an art and skill unparalleled to other rugs. We do not exhibit in this collection any uninspired rugs that were made from commercially manufactured patterns. Patterns made rug making easier and helped popularize the craft after the Civil War. Patterns eliminated the need to express and design and thereby prohibited the rug maker's own imaginative ideas. They have stifled originality and creativity among those introduced to hooking through precut and stenciled burlap rug bases. Fortunately, many original and individualistic rugs were still made, and surpassing the reputation of ready-made patterned rugs, and becoming a proud part of American history.
Antique American Hooked Rug making was essentially a simple craft, and its flexibility encouraged a wide range of designs, but artistry was often sublimated to practicality. Most of the hooked rugs we have seen lack originality and spirit and can best be put into a category of "decoration". Each rug maker puts something of themselves into these designs through their intuitive artistry, and even the rags that were hooked into them were very often their own family clothing remnants, each with a personal history. The first hooked rugs were probably made in the late 1840's with linen, tow, and homespun hemp used as foundation fabrics. The concept of pulling fabrics up through a woven foundation was undoubtedly influence by the thin hook-like device used by American sin tambour work from about 1780 to 1860. It has also been suggested that during the first half of the nineteenth century sailors and their wives may have invented the simple hooking technique. Sailors had a marinespike tool that was used for rope work. It is similar to a rug hook, and it seems likely that a modified version of this tool was used to pull rag strips up through a woven foundation fabric.
Early attempts at hooking with linen or hemp foundation were apparently not satisfying to rug makers. Very few rugs with a linen or hemp base are extant, probably because the relatively tight weave of these fabrics made the pulling through of fabric strips difficult and time-consuming.
It was the introduction of jute burlap (i.e. gunny-sacking, hessian cloth) that made the hooking technique popular and practical in North America. The loose open weave of burlap and the strength of the jute fiber were quickly recognized by rug makers as constituting an ideal base for hooked rugs. Hooked rugs have been called "America's one indigenous folk art." Both as a technique and as a means of artistic expression, it was in America (including both the United States and Canada) that this rug making technique was conceived developed.
Hooked rugs were first made in Maine, New Hampshire, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, as well as Labrador, Newfoundland, and areas of French Quebec. By the 1860's the craft had spread all through New England and the Atlantic seacoast, as well as into parts of Pennsylvania. Later, toward the end of the nineteen century, hooked rugs were made throughout America. Whether the first hooked rug was made in Canada or in the United States is debatable and academic, since during the nineteenth century the area of Maine and the Maritime Provinces was really one continuous region in spite of a national boundary line.