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.


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Cleaning Antique Hooked Rugs

Hooked rugs, especially after years of use, require special and careful attention. The nature of the hooking technique and frequent presence of old fabrics and home-dyed colors dictate special handling when cleaning these rugs. First the don't's: Note: Don't attempt these cleaning techniques without reading the instructions following. *Do not attempt to clean your rug if you are not sure how to do it. Don't put a hooked rug into a washing machine, even on the so-called gentle cycle. Don't shake or beat a hooked rug, since shaking, beating, or even vacuuming from the back can dislodge the fabric from the foundation. Don't submerge a rug into water; surface cleaning is usually all that is required.

Surface Cleaning

For rugs that are only slightly dirty it is possible to vacuum only the front side, and only after you have covered the rug with screen and set your vacuum on low-suction. The safer technique is to sweep the rug gently with a soft brush. As mentioned above, do not vacuum the back but use a brush instead. After sweeping or vacuuming, surface cleaning with a wet sponge or soft brush with cold water and a mild soap may be necessary. Using mostly suds and very little water (taking care not to soak the base), clean with a circular motion one six-inch-square area at a time, overlapping each area successively. A light secong sponging with plain water will remove most of the remaining soap. After the rug is completely dry, loosened dirt and lint can be gently vacuumed out of the rug. (Please follow the vacuum instructions above). Important: Note: If you your rug is still dirty after these steps, do not go further until you check for color fastness on a very small area of the rug. (Printed calicoes and woven plaids are less likely to run than solid color fabrics, which are frequently home dyed). Deeper Cleaning: Remember that your rug should not be submerged into water unless completely necessary. The handling of the rug during this process must be done carefully and gently. You can soak your rug in cold water and gently clean with a soft brush or sponge wit mild soap. Be sure to rinse your rug several times but take special care while the rug is completely wet. Do Not wring or squeeze the water out of the rug. Instead, roll the rug in towels with the front side of the rug out. Do not hang the wet rug on a clothesline or on a rod because there is a chance of putting a permanent crease in it. The weight of the rug, if held by clothespins on a line, can break the foundation of the rug. Let the rug dry on a towel for a day on its front side, and a second day on its back.

Storing and Shipping Antique Hooked Rugs

ROLL, DO NOT FOLD, ALWAYS HAVE THE RIGHT SIDE OUT Folding a hooked rug with brea the base, especially if anything heavy is set on top. Rolling with the base out puts an unnecessary strain on the burlap and weakens the foundation. If a rug is to be stored for a long period, use a sheet or cloth to roll with it but do not use an airtight plastic bag. Fabric needs to breathe and they will sometimes rot or mildew in a plastic bag. Don't put a hooked rug in a hot, dry closet-like space or attic. The base of a rug can dry out and become brittle, destroying the strength and durability of the rug. Note: Condition counts when buying a hooked rug. Professional storage and restoration is available but it's usually expensive. You must check a rug before purchasing for structurally unsound flaws that cannot be repaired. Checking a rug for Flaws or Damage: Here are some things to remember: Check first for whether or not a rug is dry and brittle. You can usually ascertain this by lightly squeezing a portion of the rug in your hand. It should feel supple and pliable. A rug with weakened or rotten base is easily damaged or even destroyed just by normal use, and rugs in this condition are very difficult to repair. Hold a rug up to the light to look for small holes or breaks (these damages can be repaired). Most old hooked rugs have been repaired in the course of time, and the presence of patches on the back of a rug does not lessen its desirability, that is, if the restoration has been well done with colors and cloth in the same type as the original. Rugs are frequently rebound to cover wear at the edges, and again, rebinding does not reduce a rug's desirability if the restoration has been done well. The only proper way to repair a hole in a hooked rug is to sew a small burlap patch to the base and rehook the missing area. A rug that has been repaired with sewing thread will not hold up if used underfoot. Virtually all old hooked rugs were worked on burlap or homespun linen, whereas hooked rugs on white monk's cloth could be presumed to be modern. Hooked rugs that are used on a hard wood floor should have a thin rubber base to insure longer wear.

Hooked Rugs as Wall Hangings

Delicate and prized rugs may be enjoyed as wall hangings and not just as floor coverings. Although rugs are most frequently hung to protect them from damage, improper hanging can often do more damage than keeping it on the floor. Never use nails or staples at the top of a rug that you expect to hang for any period of time. A large or particularly heavy rug should be supported so that the weight is evenly distributed. The best way to accomplish this is by sewing the rug to a cotton backing about 8 inches wider than the rug on all four sides. Stitching the rug down from the center out to the edges will prevent it from bellying when it is hanging. After the rug has been sewn onto the fabric, it should be wrapped around the stretcher or a piece of plywood made one-quarter-inch smaller than the rug. The stretched fabric is then stapled to the reverse. For smaller and lighter weight rugs, Velcro can be sewn around the reverse border in a strip approx. 6-8 inches long leaving one-and-one-half-inch space between. This allows the rug to remain flexible. The opposite Velcro strip is glued and stapled to the stretcher (made to size) or to the strips of wood with Velcro attached if it is to hang from the top only. If a rug is framed to be behind glass or Plexiglasís, be sure there is space between the glass and the rug.