Looped Into History
Scraps of fabric and leftover wool, bound to burlap, and laid out on the floor or bed. Rug Hooking was a practical art form in Newfoundland and Labrador – a craft of poverty – where women would create something beautiful and functional in a time when resources were few and nothing went to waste. Its beauty was in its simplicity, and its history was woven into our culture.
Welcome! Thank you for visiting The Rug Hooking Guild of Newfoundland and Labrador website. We hope you enjoy your visit and will consider making us a frequent stop as you surf the net exploring rug hooking.
A simple metal hook with a wooden handle, a piece of burlap, a basic wooden frame, strips of fabric or yarn, and you are ready to start your first piece of hooking.
In the early days, a hook was made from a nail and wood for the handle. Today, hooks are fashioned from crochet hooks and the handles range from wood, to stone, moose antlers, bone, and all manner of carving materials.
Many and varied articles such as cushions, wall hangings, pictorial, ornaments, stair runners, in addition to rugs of many shapes and styles can all be created by simply pulling loops through a backing. Some are hooked on manufactured patterns printed on burlap, rug warp, monks cloth, and linen, but many, as in the past, are individually designed.
Rug hooking is a satisfying and creative leisure activity. The cost can be as little or as great as you wish to invest. Recycled materials can be used. It is equally suited to the young, the old, the active and those less so. The basics are simple to master and you are limited only by your imagination.
Early Days of Traditional Newfoundland Mat Making
A Craft of Poverty. Here in Newfoundland it belonged to the ‘baymen’ or fishermen and was women’s work in the winter when time was long and confining, when resources were few, and nothing went to waste.
To many, mat hooking awakens memories of a four-sided, hand-made wooden frame set up on four kitchen chairs and of hand cutting strips from old clothing to fashion into a mat for the hallway or parlour.
It certainly was not work for the privileged as manufactured floor coverings became available during the late 1800’s in the then Colony of Newfoundland. When girls of privilege were sent to school to learn ‘women’s skills’ rug hooking was certainly not on the list– rather embroidery, quilting and hand sewing were considered necessary skills to know.
No one knows for sure when or where rug hooking began. Authors of our history books give varying theories.
Author William Winthrop Kent believed they were first produced in Yorkshire England, when early 19th century weaving mill employees were allowed to collect ‘thrums’ pieces of yarn that ran 9”, which were useless to the mills. The workers took them home and pulled the ‘thrums’ through a backing.
Another view by Jenni Stuart-Anderson in Rag Rug Making states “the technique of hooking woolen loops through a base fabric was used by the Vikings, whose families probably brought it to Scotland.” (Publisher: Traplet Publications Ltd (Nov. 1 2007), 124 pages)
A Folk Museum in Guernsey, Channel Islands, has sound examples of early rag rugs made in the same manner which were produced off the coast of France.
We don’t know from where or when rug hooking came to our province. We can only assume it was brought over with the early Europeans. Here in Newfoundland, we seem to have more of an English connection than with any other because of the similarity of our rug hooking terms.
In the early days of its history in this province, a mat was not an object of beauty but rather an object of necessity, used on ground and wooden floors and on beds in the winter to keep the residents warm.
It wasn’t until later as things progressed that mats began to have ‘a place’ and rug hookers and home owners began to use different mats for different areas of their homes.
For instance, a floral mat may gain a place prominence in the ‘front room’ or parlour while a hit and miss mat would find its home in the kitchen or back porch.
In saying that, once a lovely front room mat started to fade, it would eventually find itself in the hall, the kitchen, back porch, outside step and eventually into the land wash or the local garbage dump.
The beautiful thing about rug hooking in the early days was its simplicity. Rug hookers didn’t always fuss about color, fabric or backing. Firstly, because it was just a ‘mat’ and there were too many other important things to worry about than what the mat on the floor looked like. Secondly, because they simply did not have the variety to choose from. The mats were also simple because of the pulling of the loop, materials used, the designs, as well as outline and fill in methods used at the time.
The popular patterns were simple blocks, rectangles and squares of different sizes and were hooked using up scraps of leftover fabrics. Other patterns looked like broken dish pieces. These were referred to as broken or cut glass. Many of the mats reflected memories of the old country, the rose and thistle motif was a popular one, as were flags of home countries.
Also adapted were quilt patterns, such as the double wedding ring, stars and moon and thread spool.
A floral mat was sometimes enhanced with scrolls or borders and often the mat was hooked with ‘preferred’ color and fabrics.
When women used designs, and they often didn’t, the patterns were drawn on with charcoal from the stove. A lot of the mats were designed depicting life around them. Perhaps a drawing of their house, fishing stage or wharf; maybe of their husband’s boat. They often reflected religious symbols, celebrations, flowers, scrolls, fish, whales and trees.
For many people who could not draw, they sometimes hooked the outline of the logo on the flour sack; sometimes the outline of the family pet; maybe the family name. They also used the shapes outlined on wall paper or floor canvas.
Rug hookers, who couldn’t draw were sometimes very innovative in making their patterns such as the mat below which was designed using a baking powder can.
Garrett’s of New Glasgow was a well-known pattern maker. During the early 1900s many of their patterns were replicated all over Atlantic Canada. Today Rags to Rugs (ragstorugs.com) (firstname.lastname@example.org) is home to the original Blue Nose Patterns and they are endeavouring to bring more Garrett patterns back into circulation.
During the late 1800s – early 1900s, many Newfoundlanders jumped ship in Boston and New York City to work on the skyscrapers. Not only did they send home barrels full of clothing for the crowd home but they also sent home rug hooking patterns, such as the Boston Pavement or Sidewalks of New York which became a popular pattern to hook.
The women of Newfoundland and Labrador weren’t only wonderful mat makers using the ‘pulling loops’ method. They were also very skilled in making mats in the poking, sometimes called rag-a-jack, method.
Poked mats were also made using a brin backing but the mat makers drew the pattern on the back of the brin. Using a sharpened piece of wood, the method was to poke through an end of an approximately 1.5” x 3” piece of old fabric. Move your fabric along 2-3 holes, then poke in the other end.
On the Great Northern Peninsula, Sir Wilfred Grenfell, under The Industrial, used mats hooked by local women as a means of financing his mission. Dr. Grenfell drew the patterns based on life around him. These were then hooked by the women using silk stockings that the dear Doctor had received from his friends throughout England and parts of the United States.
The women who hooked the mats also benefitted as they received compensation, usually in the form of clothing or sometimes health services. In later years they were paid cash for their work, thereby supplementing their household income, which was often meagre as their husbands were fishermen.
Another wonderful form of rug hooking here in Newfoundland was a unique style of the women in Baine Harbour on the Burin Peninsula. Also driven to supplement the income for their households, these women formed a cooperative called The Placentia West Mat Makers. At one point, more than 50 women hooked for this group and their mats can be found all over the world in homes of distinction, including the Queen of England’s.
For more information on rug hooking in the early days of Newfoundland and Labrador, see our Book: “Hooked Mats of Newfoundland and Labrador: Beauty Born of Necessity” or visit one of the following:
Grenfell Mats: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/grenfell-mission.php
The Rooms www.therooms.ca
Placentia West Mats: http://www.craftsofcharacter.com
Sadly, though, as things began to modernize during the late 60s and 70s, rug hooking as well as other handicrafts began to decline. Women were now working and everything you could possibly need and want became available on the store shelves. We were beginning to lose an important piece of our province’s history, and that’s where we, The Rug Hooking Guild of Newfoundland and Labrador, came to be.