Rug hooking began in the early to mid 1800’s, possibly by sailors who would fashion a hook from a nail and use the burlap, linen or cotton available onboard ship as a backing. Soon it became a winter activity, when the adults in a family would re-purpose cloth scraps into rugs and bed coverings.
In the mid-19th century when hooked rugs were first made, floor covering was a luxury in Canada. The wealthy might have an imported oriental rug or perhaps could afford commercial loom-woven carpeting. Others might have a hand-woven rug, but the hooked rug solved the problem of covering cold floors cheaply, making warm bed coverings and were the final stage in the recycling of hand-me-down clothing.
Very little 19th-century everyday clothing is left in Canada: cloth was too precious to waste and much of it ended up in quilts or rugs. Most likely rug hooking developed independently and simultaneously in several centres: Québec, the Maritimes and New England. Hooked rugs were made in much greater numbers in the eastern half of the continent than in the western half since, by the time the Canadian West was settled, store-bought floor coverings had become readily available.
There are a number of famous and distinctive cottage industries established in the Atlantic provinces including Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, initiated by Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell and the Grenfell mission, established by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell in Labrador, both of which have created and sold rugs for close to a century.
Unlike quilts, which are often treasured within a family and passed from one generation to the next, old hooked rugs are usually orphans whose family history has been lost. It is rare to find a very old rug whose maker is known. However, one famous rug hooker was Emily Carr, who made rugs to supplement the income she earned from her boarding house.
In 1868 Edwards Sands Frost, a Maine tin peddler, devised a series of zinc cutouts that allowed him to mass-produce stencilled patterns on burlap for rug hooking (an early version of paint by number). Other companies also entered the market. By the mid-1890s Garrett’s of New Glasgow, NS, was producing Bluenose rug patterns. In 1894 Wells and Richardson of Montréal published patterns in its Diamond Dye Rug Books (“Do not sell your rags to the travelling rag-gatherer; save them and work them up into handsome and useful Rugs and Mats”). By 1905 Eaton’s was advertising Monarch hooked rug patterns in its catalogue, and in the early years of the century Hambly and Wilson of Toronto also produced patterns on burlap. In Maine in the 1930s Pearl McGowan began a family business selling rug patterns and supplies.
Pattern rugs are still made today, but the most impressive rugs have always been those devised by the makers from their own materials and visions. Many old Canadian hooked rugs are surprisingly eloquent. They speak of economy, individuality and utility. Women incorporated into these rugs generations of clothing and memory-laden cloth – the very fabric of their lives.
The Canadian Encyclopedia, Max Allen, Rugs and Rug Making
National Guild of Pearl McGowan Hookcrafters
Lucie Quintal, Graffiti, 2020
“Reflecting on my mother’s death was the catalyst for Graffiti. I started this work using greys and I had the intention of making comforting repetitive squares all over. Then life happened.
The squares were left behind. Circles started to appear. Colours came out. Somehow, life became colorful again. Hope and continuity prevailed.
Graffiti is mixed fibres, mixed emotions, a symbiosis between life and death, ultimately being one with the world.” Lucie Quintal
Charline Collette, Hit and Miss Mat, 2020
Mary Grant, Duchess of York, 2014
Caroline Simpson, Hydrangea and wasp, 2019
“As a rug hooker, I draw my inspiration mainly from nature: the plants, animals, and built scenery found around my home and in the countryside. I create my designs mainly from photographs that I have taken, and I use natural materials—such as hand-dyed wool fabrics and yarns—hooked into backings of linen or burlap. I explore ways to combine various elements, such as people, animals, and buildings, into a cohesive artwork that evokes nature’s beauty and conveys a sense of immediacy.” Caroline Simpson
Ellen Gould Sullivan, Ellen B., 1907-1994
Beaverbrook Art Gallery, gift of Susan A. Murray
Christine Helen Irving, Horse, ~ 1920
The little Horse was hooked by my mother, Christine Helen Irving, when she was a young girl, 13-14 yrs of age. She was born in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and was married to William D Cameron.” Lois Thompson