Rug hooking began as a craft of poverty in the 1800s. It is the "art" that women and men practiced who had very limited access to materials. Rug making was a "country" craft that relied on scraps of materials cast off by mills or rags that were too worn out for the family to use for cleaning anymore. Burlap seed sacks were turned into no-cost carpets by hooking these cast offs and rags into the holes of the sacks.
We don't necessarily think of rug hooking this way anymore, although my first five years of rug hooking was done only from reclaimed wool that I hunted on the cheap at rummage sales. At my heyday, I bet I had a whole closet of wool (packed in) that I had purchased for under $100. It took a lot of leg work, and many hours of cutting up old smelly coats and laundering them thoroughly, but my "art" was imitative of the ol' days in that I restricted myself to hooking with selvaged wool. When I returned to rug hooking last year, I realized that I wanted my "art" to have more freedom, and so I began to explore new wool and really started to think about dyeing as an art in and of itself. Today we have guilds and camps and shops and magazines and books all devoted to rug hooking.
None of this would have been possible without two women in rug hooking's past who took an under-valued craft that was invisible and elevated its popular image: Lady Anne Grenfell (1920s) and Pearl McGown (1930s). Both women took a local craft that did not have much appeal at the time and brought it to a new level of business and art in their respective locales. Each woman used a similar strategy. Today I will share what I know about Lady Anne Grenfell.
Lady Anne Grenfell had noticed that the wives of the fishermen of Labrador made rugs, but that the rugs were not very attractive. In 1916, she apparently got the idea to design little patterns of northern scenes, put them on burlap and create kits complete with dyed silk stockings and a rug hook made from a filed off bent nail hammered into a piece of wood that fit into a woman's hand. These were distributed to women in the area to hook during the long dark days of winter. The materials Lady Anne supplied were recycled. The silk stockings came from donations from women in Canada, the US and England. There was a slogan at the time, "When your stockings begin to run, let them run to Labrador."
Women who crafted the rugs would be given vouchers to buy used clothing when they returned the finished mat to the Grenfells and Lady Anne sold it in her tea house. Lady Anne is credited with establishing strict standards for the production of the mats and the craft. Mats were hooked in straight horizontal lines and every hole of the burlap was filled. When mats were returned, they were weighed (to make sure that all the materials sent out were incorporated in the mat) and graded before the crafter was paid.
Even though the craft was still a craft of the poor (women had to prove that they were in need to be part of this program), Lady Anne's supply of upgraded (although still recycled) materials, the creation of unique local designs, the standardization of technique and manufacture, and the entrepreneurial connection began to change people's attitudes about rug crafting. Women who had no income, could create mats and exchange them for clothing and medicines, and eventually other goods as the Grenfell mat business took off. Women who previously had had no options found themselves with options. By hooking Grenfell mats, they could earn an independent livelihood and not be forced into early marriages they did not choose. Rug hooking was beginning to emerge as a business option and one that assisted and supported women and their families independent of a husband's income.