Thrifty New Englanders: Yesterday’s Rag Becomes Tomorrow’s Magic Carpet.

Thrifty New Englanders: Yesterday’s Rag Becomes Tomorrow’s Magic Carpet.

Hooked rugs might be the all-time best example of thrifty Yankees getting the last gasp out of something… and with style! Rural folk admired the machine loomed carpets that became popular after the 1830s, but couldn’t afford such luxuries. So women along the seaboard of New England and the Canadian Maritimes created their own crafty alternatives by taking bits of rags and left-over scraps of fabric, and pulling them on a pattern through a coarse backing like jute or burlap. Yarn, even in short lengths, was much too valuable to waste, so women used any bit of fabric too worn or unsuitable for clothing, and free grain or seed sacks for the backing.

The first hooked rugs were actually used as blankets and bed coverings, inspired by the heavy “bed rugs” from the previous century. They evolved not just as practical floor coverings, but also became colorful, artful designs that ranged from the abstract or geometric, to figural or scenic displays. Each rug hooker devised their own patterns, and a folk art was born.

Dolphin Hooked Rug

Vintage Hooked Rug of Porpoises or Beaked Whales, circa 1930.

As hooked rugs became increasing popular, the variety became more stylized. Edward Sands Frost, an enterprising peddler from Biddeford, Maine, began selling his own stenciled rug designs in the 1860s; he eventually had a repertoire of around 750 patterns (now in the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) which included flowers, wild and domestic animals, and adaptations from Oriental carpets. As in most crafts, rug hookers were influenced by each other, and regional characteristic or styles developed. Today’s collector highly prizes unique patterns and naïve “outsider” charm.

Starburst Hooked Rug

Vintage Starburst or Moravian Star Hooked Rug, circa 1920.

Rug hooking became so popular that Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck began selling their own kits. By the beginning of the 20th Century hooked rug patterns and supplies were abundant and cheap… and unfortunately ever more cheap in quality and deplorable in design. Rug hooking fell out of favor.

Inspired by the general Arts and Crafts movement, many cottage industries started up to counter what was seen as bad designs made cheaply. Companies such as Abanakee Rugs of New Hampshire and , the Subbekashe Rug Industry in Belchertown, MA sought to supply a better made and designed rug to a growing middle class, and at the same time provide work for those in need. Best known of all were the Grenfell Mission Industries, providing crucial support and opportunity in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1893.  The iconic Grenfell Hooked Rugs were made first with cotton flannelette and later (in the 1930s and 40s) with collected and dyed silk and rayon hosiery. The fine tight texture, and distinctive style and subject matter, make Grenfells among the most sought after antique and vintage hooked rugs.

grenfell rug

Grenfell Missions Hooked Rug of Flying Ducks, circa 1930.

Antique hooked rugs remain very popular today, with both the traditional collector as well as the modern decorator. Since they range from the boldly abstract, to the naively quirky, and to the elaborately fancy, there is a hooked rug to grace any room, whether underfoot or on the wall. The hooked rugs illustrated here, and others, are available at the Antiques Depot.


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