Wool Art: Antique hooked rugs move from the floor to the wall

Beginning about a century-and-a-half ago, men and women created hooked rugs to warm their hearths and homes. These folk art floor coverings, which were originally made to cover dirt floors, were fashioned out of ingenuity and frugality and are now highly valued in collectors’ and decorators’ markets.

Wool rug hooking is thought to have begun in Canada’s easternmost provinces and in the Northeast United States. Fabric scraps no longer suitable for clothing were cut into strips and hooked by varying techniques into a burlap ground in patterns. The end result – whether simple or complex, geometric, floral or pictorial – was only limited by the artisan’s skill and imagination.

The earliest hooked rugs date from the early-to-mid-19th century; these early rugs are most often found in museums and historical societies.

antique hooked rug

Dated 1902, this American hooked rug carries the initials “SG,” features a galoping horse flanked by chickens and measures 24 inches by 66 inches. Even with condition issues – including several tears, fading, surface dirt and a large patch – the rug earned $3,200 at Pook & Pook April 20, 2012, in Downingtown, Pa.

antique hooked rug

This circa 1920 Grenfell Labrador Industries mat depicting a two-masted schooner with red sails and black hull sailing on a blue sea retains its original label and is in very good condition. Measuring 10 1/4 inches in diameter, It earned $70 at a Louis J. Dianni auction in Fishkill, N.Y., Oct. 9, 2011.Grenfell hooked rug

Laura Fisher, proprietor of the Fisher Heritage gallery in New York, has several hundred vintage and antique quilts in her inventory, ranging from the mid-19th century through the 1950s. When asked about what hooked rug collectors gravitate toward, Fisher said some people prefer early rugs with animals, which can fetch pretty high prices at auction. She says, “The earlier and folkier, the more valuable.

“Other people love early 19th century florals that were popular in Maine and Canada. The flowers are raised, clipped and sheared so the rug has a three-dimensional quality.” These rugs often have a center bouquet set within a scrollwork border.

Wool hooked rugs became widely popular in the third quarter of the 19th century. Some entrepreneurs saw the growing interest in this home activity and recognized that there would be a demand for pre-designed rug patterns, especially for rug hookers who were unsatisfied with their own artistic skills.

Edward Sands Frost of Biddeford, Maine; Ralph Burnham of Ipswitch, Mass.; and Ebenezer Ross of Toledo, Ohio, were three such entrepreneurs. Frost (1843-1894) was one of the earliest commercial hooked rug pattern makers. By creating pre-stamped patterns on burlap with sheet metal stencils, he expanded and transformed the homemade rug hooking industry, making rug hooking a viable cottage industry – an industry that helped fishing communities survive harsh Atlantic winters.

Probably the most noteworthy cottage industry name in the Atlantic region – and therefore some of the most prized hooked mats and rugs by collectors – is Grenfell Industries, which produced thousands of high-quality mats and rugs, many with regional themes such as wintertime, polar bears, fishermen and nautical; geometric designs were also created, but they are more rare.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, an English missionary, Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell, saw the need for struggling communities in Canada to supplement the local fishing industry in the offseason. Recognizing the locals’ extraordinary needlework skills (settlers brought mat hooking from England and Scotland), he established a mission based in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, Canada, to generate revenue for Labrador and northern Newfoundland residents: Material kits and patterns were distributed to home workers who then created mats, rugs and other textile products. Those products were then sold through stores and catalogs.

vintage hooked rug

This hooked rug depicts a dog seated on a colorful diamond-patterned rug with an oval foliate surround. Northeast Auction of Manchester, N.H., sold the rug for $472 during its Annual Summer Americana Auction Aug. 3-5, 2012.

antique hook rug

Mounted on a stretcher, this early American hooked rug with flower pot and red roses sold for $649 at Northeast Auction’s Spring Weekend Auction, March 3-4, 2012. The colorful rug measures 36 1/2 inches by 34 3/4 inches.

The original Grenfell Industry mats are distinctive because they were made using dyed silk stockings instead of wool; the artisans were so skilled that they were able to use every hole in the backing, sometimes achieving 200 stitches per square inch. Each finished piece was inspected to assure quality and workmanship standards were met.

After peaking in the 1920s, the Great Depression hit Grenfell Industries hard: sales and donations lagged and supplies were depleted. World War II caused supply and transportation challenges, as well as rising costs. After the war, silk stockings were no longer available.

Mat hooking continues today in St. Anthony by the independently owned Grenfell Handicrafts, which produces contemporary mats from original, copyrighted Grenfell patterns.

Other traditional designs manufactured a century ago also are still available and popular with contemporary rug hookers. Because hooked wool rugs were made in the home for personal use, seldom can they be traced back to the original maker or pinned down to an exact date; rarely do antique hooked rugs come with such detailed provenance. There are clues to a rug’s age and value, however.

Hooked rugs generally fall into three different age categories. The first is antique: 100 years old or more. These rugs can command anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending upon the design, age, condition, provenance and other factors.

“Collectible” or “vintage” hooked rugs – rugs that are typically 25 to 75 years old – are often priced at less than $100 and come in an unlimited variety of styles and designs. One can pick up a collectible hooked rug for a fraction of what a true “antique” rug would cost.

Falling into the collectible rug category, “Hutchinson rugs are highly desirable and collectible,” Fisher says. James and Mercedes Hutchinson designed their own rugs from the 1920s-1940s to sell to the public at auction. They are often humorous, with funny observations about relationships, poems and epigrams. Hutchinson rugs are one example of vintage rugs bringing sometimes-extraordinary prices.

Pearl McGown rugs from the 1950s are also coveted by collectors. “Like Grenfell,” Fisher says, “McGown rugs are extremely fine and beautiful.” McGown, who was from West Amesbury, Mass., wrote many books, taught people how to dye their own rag strips and created the reverse lock stitch, making the back of a rug look as wonderful as the front.

Fisher says McGown produced hundreds of patterns and trained women as rug hooking educators to take and share her techniques with wider audience. McGown’s granddaughter is involved with organizing contemporary rug hooking events.

antique hooked rug

Mid-20th century Old Dutch Cleanser oval hooked rug measuring 20 inches by 36 inches sold for $236 at Northeast Auction’s March 3-4, 2012, Spring Weekend Auction.

Contemporary hooked rugs are newer than 25 years old. However, just because a contemporary hooked wool rug doesn’t have a significant amount of age, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. [See more on contemporary hooked rugs.] Each rug is still a handmade, unique work of art. Like collecting any contemporary art, the price paid for a piece will be as appreciation and recognition of the skill and design of the rug artist.

Fisher cautions that there are hooked rugs being made in China and India today, made by companies capitalizing on the interest in old, folk-art type rugs. How do you tell the difference? “There’s a different technique of manufacturing,” Fisher said “Most international imports are hooked on monk’s cloth cotton weave backing rather than burlap. Burlap is the foundation of choice for the majority of hooked rugs that are antique and vintage, either American or Canadian.” Fisher continues, “Rug hookers today use monk’s cloth cotton because it doesn’t crack and dry like burlap.”

Also, a lot of Eastern import rugs have a thick latex backing. They feel and handle differently than vintage or antique rugs. Fisher elaborates: “They have a heavy feel that old rugs don’t have. New England rug restorers in the 1950s used a different kind of latex.”

Another detail that will help in determining if a hooked rug is old or new: Old rugs were made with rag strips; new, imported rugs are usually made with wool yarn. And if they happen to be made with rag strips, it’s a cotton knit rather than wool. Old rugs were made with scrap fabric; there’s a variation in color. Wear, use, air and environment all affect the color.

Fisher explains, “Variegation in color and age patina give antique rugs a visual liveliness that so far no one has been able to match in manufacturing. A new-made rug has a flatter appearance … There’s no substitution for age.”

Jessie Turbayne, author of “The Complete Guide to Collecting Hooked Rugs: Unrolling the Secrets,” as well as seven other books on hooked rugs, has been buying, selling, collecting and restoring hooked rugs for nearly 40 years.

Turbayne recommends focusing on a particular type or age of hooked rug when starting a collection – “Buying just for the sake of buying is unwise and costly.”

A respected authority on rug values and care, Turbayne teaches rug hooking and restores anywhere from 200 to 400 hooked rugs per year for museums, collectors and antiques dealers in her Massachusetts workshop. She estimates about 90 percent of the restoration work is hand stitching – sometimes using fine surgical needles.

Turbayne says many times, people don’t know what they’re buying. If they bring a rug to her for repair, she advises the potential client of both their rug’s value and its estimated restoration cost. Though she has executed restorations anywhere from $10 to $20,000, a typical restoration runs about $100 to $300.

hooked rugs

A whimsical American folk art hooked rug depicting a family of ducks and ducklings is worked on a background of blues and greens with tan and black border. Mounted on a frame, the rug measures 24 inches by 33 3/4 inches. It earned $472 at Northeast Auction’s March 3-4, 2012, Spring Weekend Auction in Portsmouth, N.H.

The possibility of expenses incurred in restoring hooked rugs shouldn’t dissuade collectors; as Turbayne says, “As functioning art, they are equally at home hung on walls as placed on floors.” These hand-crafted works of folk art add color, texture and warmth to any décor.

For centuries, women and men have been exercising their creative skills to beautify utilitarian objects. Whether a well-executed hooked rug is new, 25 years old or 125 years old, these one-of-a-kind pieces are receiving increasing interest by collectors – as evidenced by steadily rising prices – and contemporary hooked rug artisans.

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