My Creativity Resolution

I will suspend the rules in order to explore
I will explore in order to play
I will play in order to create pieces that express myself
to venture beyond what I have been taught
to open doors I did not know were there
to immerse myself in color and form
to cross over, to prod, to swerve, to jump
where white is not white
where black is not black
where even gray is purple

Rug retrospective 2009: Rugs finished this year

As the new year approaches, I am going to be posting some rug retrospectives.

This year has been amazingly filled with rug hooking. I hadn't picked up a hook in five years because my life was so busy with a new job, a new home, and a new baby. Being new to Houston, I had no idea where to find other rug hookers.

That changed when I saw the ad in RHM for the Stash Sisters, an ATHA guild that meets the first Saturday every month in Humble, Texas. I showed up for my first meeting in February and used the time to become reaquainted with my rug Transfiguration (then unnamed) which I had begun to hook on a trip north in August 2008. I met a group of wonderful women and struck up the beginnings of new and meaningful friendships that day.

I came back the next month, with no progress on Transfiguration over the month, but continued to hook on the rug at the meetings. In April, I attended the Stash Sisters' hook-in, met more area hookers, and decided then and there that I needed to get serious about hooking again.

So I started up this blog to chart my progress and to write memoirs about the rugs I had hooked already. I had no idea about the fantastic community of on-line rug hookers out there or the wonderful people I would meet through my blog. Or the direction that my blog has taken. To encourage community and rug hooking (and keep it up myself!), I initiated the TEN MINUTE CHALLENGE and also started the PALETTE DYEING rug camp on Rug Hooking Daily.

The TEN MINUTES a day has paid off for me. What rugs have I finished this year (plus some cup coasters, not pictured)? Dimensions and other information can be viewed under the GALLERY button above.

More retrospective later...

Last Reflection on "turning" and memories of my mother

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of my mother's death. On September 28, 1999, Gail DeConick died after undergoing a triple bypass surgery. It was a sudden and tragic death of a woman 57 years old who had not seen the birth of any of her grandchildren or her oldest daughter married. She was a person full of life, a joy to all who knew her, a woman whose family and our happiness was more important to her than anything else (including herself). She passed on to me her motherly wisdom which was rich and true, a sensible common wisdom that I rely on everyday of my life. She taught me not just to dream but to make my dreams happen. She believed in me even when I was having a hard time believing in myself. Her strength became my strength. After she died, I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing her standing before me. It struck me hard that she was living on in me, and at the time, this realization helped me grieve her loss.


Photo: me and my mom, twenty years ago!

A few years before her death, when I was still living around Ann Arbor, Michigan, she and I went on an autumn leaf hunt. We had just found an old orange coat at a church rummage sale, and we were so pleased with ourselves. What was I going to hook with this brilliant orange wool? We laughed together, saying "leaves" at the same time. So off we went, driving around Chelsea, seeking the perfect autumn leaves. She held the leaves as I drove to a local Kinko's were I placed the leaves on the copier machine and made photocopies of each one. When I got home, I carefully cut around the paper leaves, enlarging them slightly as I cut. These became the templates of the leaves in my rug Jack in the Red, leaves that now adorn the banner of this blog.

Jack in the Red is a big rug. It was almost too ambitious for me to hook at that time since I had only been hooking for a year and a half when I started it. It took me a while to figure out that I couldn't hook the leaves plain orange and plain red because they looked like blobs. So I experimented with splotchy (and sloppy, I might add) over-dyeing which I couldn't reproduce today if I tried. Who knows what I actually did. I sprinkled some burgundy and brown Cushing's dyes on red, orange, brown and plaid coat wools I had recycled. I studied pictures of how other people hooked leaves, and finally I figured out how to hook one leaf I liked using this variety of splotchy-dyed materials. I then tried to reproduce that leaf throughout the rest of the sixty leaves on the rug.

I didn't finish that rug until the summer of 1999 and only because my mother kept talking about that rug and how she couldn't wait to see it finished. By that time, I had moved to Illinois where I was teaching at a university, and I was at a stage of my life when I was very alone and struggling with that. So I spent many evenings in my apartment working on Jack in the Red.

In August, my mother called me and said that she had been having bad chest pains. She had to go in for immediate open heart surgery. I drove home the next day and spent a week with she and my sister before her surgery. We just went around doing normal mom and daughter stuff. We swam, sat on the porch and sipped tea, we ate out, we shopped. And, much to her delight, I brought along Jack in the Red which I had just finished binding. My sister and I had planned to attend Sauder Village camp the following week and put Jack in the Red on exhibit. But with her surgery, that plan fell through. So my good friend and fellow rug hooker, Robin Rennie, carted the rug down to Ohio and it was displayed there during the week of my mom's surgery.

My mom died six weeks later, never regaining consciousness after the surgery. Although I did not intentionally hook Jack in the Red as her tribute, that rug has become so over the years because it is bound up with memories of the end of her life and her death. Yet the rug is not a sad rug. It is a happy rug. It is about the life we lived together and shared with each other. About all those special moments in our common days together. Every autumn when I hang Jack in the Rug in my home, it reminds me of my mom and that lively and joyful autumn leaf hunt we shared on a beautiful crisp day in Michigan. It is a celebration of her life and our togetherness and all that she passed on to me as a mother and a friend.

It also reminds me of the swiftness with which life changes, with which it turns. That August and September were not only tragic and filled with loss, but it was also the moment in my life when I met the man of my dreams, whom I married a year later on August 5, 2000 - Wade Greiner. It was the moment that my life changed directions as swiftly as a blink of the eye. It was a moment that was pronounced both with loss and with love, and I really understood for the first time that life outlives death and that suffering and joy are reflections of each other. I realized that living is not really about the big things we do, the things that occasionally punctuate our lives. Rather living is about the little things we do with each other, the everyday things are what matter.


My final words on 'The Hidden Stone'

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to be able to record autobiographies of my rugs. My blog has taken on a life of its own, far away from this original intention. So given that yesterday I dyed another hue in my palette and I don't wish to bore you with another photo of dyed wool, I thought I would take a minute to finish talking about my memories of The Hidden Stone, my first rug.

I submitted a story about my rug and pictures to Rug Hooking Magazine in 1996. I still have the handwritten postcard sent to me by Brenda Wilt telling me that she wanted to publish it as a First Rug on the Last Page article "but in all fairness I must tell you that it may be a while until we get to it," she writes. "We have quite a few 'first rug' stories already, and so it may be a year or more until we get to yours." Well, it was two years later when it came out in the November-December 1998 issue. But I remember being proud as a peacock seeing my first rug in print.

I exhibited the rug in the Manchester County Fair 1997 (Michigan) where it took first place. I also exhibited it at Sauder Village Traditional Rug Hooking Exhibition 1999 where it took Honorable Mention.

I remains my favorite rug and has hung in my living room ever since I hooked it.

My son's question about rug hooking

Yesterday my son Alexander asked me, "Mom, can I ask you a question?" For some reason, this is how he starts his "serious" discussions with me. I nodded. "Why do you love rug hooking so much?" he said.

I thought a moment, because I wasn't sure how to relay to a five-year old the power of art and color and fiber to inspire me to create, "to give life a shape" as William Shakespeare once said about art.

So I asked him what he loves to do. Without hesitation, Alexander replied, "Play." I responded, "Rug hooking is my play."

What is it about rug hooking?


PHOTO: Alexander sitting in his new IKEA chair "just like mom's."

The message of my first rug

My first rug, The Hidden Stone, was completed in a year's time. It was a good size rug - 3' by 5' - and has hung prominently on the living room wall of each of my homes since then. I recall designing it in stages as I hooked. First the center of the rug, then the border once I had hooked the center and "knew" what the rug wanted on the outside.

The outside border is a mosaic pattern from a floor of an ancient Greek residence. I choose it after browsing through some of my archaeology books, because the rug needed a round repeating pattern. At the time I didn't know that it is best to include your major colors from the center of your rug in the border. But this happened naturally as I played with different ways to hook the contiguous circles and tried to make them distinct from each other. When I experimented with the light blue, I found that it really popped the border design and tied the rug together. So that is what I settled on.

In an interior border, I included the message of the rug: a famous latin phrase from the medieval Hermetic tradition. Visita interiora terrae, rectificando invenies occultum lapidem: Visit the interior of the earth; through purification you will find the hidden stone. I had known from the beginning that this would be the rug's message because I had conceived the rug as a prayer rug in a Hermetic tradition.

Hermetism is an ancient religious tradition that grew out of old Egyptian religion and ancient Greek philosophy, stressing that the divine is not something distant from us, but in fact is within us and makes up our true selves. The Hermetics taught that human beings are really divine beings - that the stone is hidden within us - and that the life journey is about recovering that stone and transforming ourselves into the divinities we are. The Hermetic tradition was revitalized in the middle ages when alchemy emerged and philosophers and early scientists began experimenting with chemistry, particularly distillation and attempts to change metals into gold. Their physical experiments were perceived to mirror the spiritual transmutative process, when the human being was transfigured into the spirit.

I tried to capture that process on my rug through verse and picture. Thus the stone is hidden in the belly of the dragon which is unformed matter. Out of the dragon grows the tree of knowledge, and the universe itself, its cosmic spheres, the sun, moon, and stars, and the four elements, earth, water, fire, and air.

Running out of wool

It took a year to hook The Hidden Stone from May 1995 to May 1996. One of my panic memories of creating this rug was running out of the background material. I had over-dyed a bunch of gray wool with Cushings Wine in order to have enough of the same wool to hook the background. Then I ran out of the dyed wool!

Since this was my first time dyeing, I didn't know that I should keep track of what I had originally done just in case I ran out. So when I over-dyed another coat, of course it came out different. When I tried to hook it into the rug, it looked like a different block. What was I to do?

I decided that I needed to make it look like I had meant the rug to have two different fabrics for the background. So I pulled out strips from the area I had already hooked, rehooked them in the unfinished area, and hooked into the old spot a strip from the second dye batch. In this way I created a mottled background that not only works, but adds real interest to what would have been a fairly flat looking background.

Salvaging wool for "The Hidden Stone"

Until fairly recently all of the rugs I hooked were from wool that I had salvaged from rummage sales and garage sales. Half of the fun was finding the wool and half of the art was figuring out what I could do with what I had found.

In my first week of rug hooking in May 1995, my mother and I spent a couple of days scouring church basements and yarn sales buying up every piece of wool clothing we could find. For the next few months, Mom and I would get the Friday paper and plan out our routes over tea at breakfast. Off we would go early in the morning to the places we thought would have the most clothing, and what a hoot when we found a bright colored garment that I didn't already have. I remember finding a gorgeous turquoise textured jacket and a big red wool coat our first week out, both of which I hooked into The Hidden Stone.

We would load my car down with bags of wool clothing that I had bought for a couple of dollars, and head to my apartment where I would disassemble the garments and launder them immediately. Knowing that old wool clothing can harbor moth eggs, I never brought salvaged wool into my home before putting it through a hot wash and dry cycle. It didn't take long before I had boxes of wool under my bed and lined along my bedroom wall since I had no storage to speak of in my one bedroom apartment. And who can't love the fantastic old buttons I collected. I don't know what happened to that jar of buttons, but I wish I still had it. I also wish I had known to collect the button-up front panels of men's shirts since they make great strip organizers.

I remember those days with fondness, sharing rummage-day Fridays with my mom, who since passed away in 1999. Those days were filled with our anticipation, with our laughter, with our shared joy over a find, with our wonderment about what I might create with the found wool, how it might be given a new glorious life.

In these recent days of recession, salvaged wool is a wonderful option for those who are creating rugs that don't require careful shading. Salvaged wool can give your rug a very unique look because you will be able to incorporate wool that is not available to other hookers by the yard. Although it is a time commitment, and does require quite a bit of hands-on work taking apart the garments and laundering the wool, who can say no to yards and yards of wool for two dollars or less, much less the buttons and memories you will collect!

Demonstrating rug hooking

I first got involved with demonstrating rug hooking in the fall 1995 while I was working on my first rug, The Hidden Stone. Each rug I hook is hooked with memories of things that happened along the way while the rug was being created. The Hidden Stone will always contain memories of the Waterloo Historical Farm where I first started to hook it, and where I first started to demonstrate in front of the big red barn in a red cloak that my great-grandma had sewn for my mom's wedding day.

I can't stress enough how important rug demonstrating is for our art. It is not like knitting or weaving or spinning. People don't know rug hooking exists. Even with the internet, hooking remains a mystery to the general public. With autumn approaching and all the harvest festivals planned, it is a good time to start thinking about rug hooking demonstrations. Call around to the organizers of different festivals and see if there is already a group of weavers or spinners demonstrating. If so, inquire if you can join them with your hooking. If not, ask if you can sit on the lawn or the porch of one of the buildings and rug hook. Make our art visible!

If you do this, here are some tips from my past experience:

  • have a hook, hoop, backing, and strips available for people to try on site - in fact encourage it
  • bring your finished rugs to exhibit, but make sure that they are secure so that they are not stolen
  • make up some starter kits for purchase with a ten by ten prepared backing with a simple design like a circle or a heart, an inexpensive hook, an inexpensive small hoop, and enough strips from your left-over stash to finish the sampler
  • have hard copies of information about local guilds that meet in public areas, and invite interested people to a meeting where you will be available to help them get started rug hooking if they would like help. Be safe. Don't invite them to your private space.
  • bring a friend (or another hooker) to sit with you while you are hooking on your rug and watch the exhibit while you get lunch or use the washroom. Never leave your exhibit unattended.
  • enjoy the day in the open air hooking on your rug and chatting, with the wonders of autumn around you

The manuscript basis for my rug The Hidden Stone

The first thing that I remember about hooking The Hidden Stone is that I was so excited to work on a piece that I had designed. I had taken the elements from an old medieval Hermetic manuscript which showed a dragon in a circle with his tail in his mouth and the tree of knowledge growing out of him. The flowers were charming, sprouting as the tree.

I started hooking the dragon in the center from a purple coat. Since I didn't know how to hook yet, the dragon looked terrible. In fact everything I hooked looked terrible until I got the first concentric ring finished on the rug, about the size of a large dinner plate. Once I started hooking beyond that, something clicked, and I got the rhythm and the height of the loops right. I was so excited. I could finally hook.

I began hooking this rug in the open-aired barn at the historical Waterloo farm. It was spring 1995, so everything was fresh and new. Even me. It was here that my art was born.

Manuscript details: This is a page from the Alchemical Manuscript of 1550 housed in Basle University Library. It is called "The Flower of the Wise." In the center is the cosmic egg surrounded by the dragon Uroboros which is the symbol of unformed matter. Out of the egg grows a red flower representing gold, a white flower representing silver, and between them a blue flower of wisdom. Underneath them are the sun and the moon and the philosopher's star.

Starting my first rug

One of the reasons that I started this blog is to write a rug autobiography. So I want to begin that biography in the chilly little parlor of Waterloo Historical Farm where I learned to hook. It was 1995 in Waterloo, Michigan, a sleepy village just north of Ann Arbor. I learned about rug hooking when I saw a group of hookers demonstrating in front of the little log cabin on the farm's grounds during their autumn Pioneer Festival. One woman was hooking the most gorgeous peacock I have ever seen. I had always been a fiber enthusiast - weaving, sewing, clothing design - and when I saw the creative versatility of rug hooking (you didn't need a big loom or have to follow a pattern!) I knew it was something I wanted to do. So when the farm offered a course in rug hooking, I signed up along with my mom and my sister. This introduction to rug hooking is the main reason that I am so enthusiastic about demonstrating rug hooking at local festivals myself.

The teacher, Robin Rennie, was a wide-cut primitive hooker at the time (she has since become McGown certified and hooks all sorts of widths). She started us on burlap (there was no linen backing available yet!) on a geometric chair pad. She had us work with 8-cut worms and refused to tell us how to hold the hook. She said that we had to find the way that was most comfortable for us. I ended up palming the hook, never considering using it like a pencil.

The chair pad I hooked was dismal, with twisted loops and frayed worms because I had yet to get the knack of cutting straight. I didn't really know how to go around corners or curves. It was bad. And I struggled with hooking even that. But at the same time I loved it.

When I got home, I threw the pad away, bought some more burlap, and designed a 3 by 5 rug using elements from old Hermetic manuscripts - a sun and a moon, a cosmic dragon, flowers, a latin phrase, and an elaborate figure-8 border. My mom and I went around to all the rummage sales we could find that week and I bought every coat I could get my hands on. I wanted to hook with as-is or what I called "found" wool.

The next meeting for the rug hooking class, I brought my first rug design and the wool I had found. Robin looked at it and said, "April that is ambitious. Are you sure you want to hook something that big and complex for your first rug?" Of course I said yes. And that is how The Hidden Stone was birthed.

Starting the stand-up scarecrow while Transfiguration stalls

The good news is that I spent last evening drawing my stand-up scarecrow and transferring him to an old piece of white linen backing that I had on hand and need to use up.

The bad news is that the wool I dyed for the lower register background behind wind woman in Transfiguration is not hooking well. The color is fine, thankfully. It is the wool that is bad. I ran out of Dorr White and so I used another white I had picked up along the way, not giving it a second thought. After dyeing, the material turned out to be lighter weight and more rigid than its Dorr counterpart so when it is hooked, it doesn't soften and fill the holes properly. It looks too different from the Dorr wool to keep it in the rug. URG. So more reverse hooking and more redying. And to make matters worse, when I phoned Dorr this morning to inquire why white wool was not on their website, I discovered it is back ordered and the new shipment won't be in until next week. So Transfiguration is on hold for a couple more weeks.

In the meantime, I might as well work on the stand-up scarecrow. Wow, I might be early with my autumn decorations!

Alex has his own worries about this next project. He keeps asking me, "Where are his eyes?" I keep having to remind him, "They will be buttons."

Trouble with Transfiguration

I am disappointed. I thought that I finally had the right combination going on with the hills behind wind woman. To get some motion, I hooked behind her on a slight curve some light grays I had dyed. At first it looked correct. But after hooking all evening and laying the rug down to view, I went "ick." Even the slight movement of the curve and the slight variation of the grays is distracting.

So it is going to be back to the dye pot this afternoon after work. I need to dye a bit deeper gray with no mottling at all. Then I need to dye a deep dark purple. I am unsure if I need a second gray, or if the two colors behind her will be enough.

More reverse hooking for me this week. This has been by far the most challenging and frustrating rug I have ever hooked.

Will this rug ever be satisfied?

Transfiguration fits

Last night I started hooking the blue-grays in the hills behind the wind woman. Now she looks like she is emerging from water. This just won't do. I have already removed the silhouette trees because they were distracting. Then I tried to dye green with the same dye base as the rest of the rug. The introduction of the green was awful, although the green itself is beautiful and goes nicely with the other colors. But it was distracting too. So then I went with the blue-gray. And now I have a mermaid! So this afternoon, while making my rug labels, I am also dyeing up a batch of dark purple, and I am going to try that. Hopefully I will achieve the feeling of a mountain at midnight.

Woof is done

I finished Alexander's rug last night. In a week's time! This is the quickest piece that has ever come together for me.

It is a small-10x14" and I will make a small back pack for him tomorrow and attach it by hand on the pack.

Alexander picked out the dog that he wanted via a number of pictures on the internet of chihauhaus which I used as a guide to draw my pattern. He picked out the colors from my wool closet, including the background. He wanted his name on the pack and also the name he gave this dog "Woof." We added a gecko because our dog Maggie loves to chase the geckos on our porch and we thought it would be fun to have Woof following the scent.

The piece is hooked in 4-cut, mostly recycled wool and textured plaids. I used some new wool dyed for other projects. The background piece I purchased about five years ago for another project (an Azeri rug) which is no longer in the works. I threw away the Azeri rug after so much frustration with executing the pattern in terms of color that I couldn't complete the rug. So I am happy that this blue wool finally found the rug it was meant for.

I hooked this piece for Alexander to mark and celebrate his "graduation" from pre-school and entrance into kindergarten in August.

Creative rug hooking

I am starting a blog called Red Jack Rugs in blogger. It should feed into The Welcome Mat. For those who don't know me, I started rug hooking in 1995 when I took a two-session introduction to primitive rug hooking taught by Robin Rennie in the old parlor of Waterloo Historical Farmhouse, Michigan. Since that time, I moved to Illinois, married, had a baby boy at age 40, and moved again to Texas where I live now.

When I had Alexander, I found it impossible to continue hooking since I am also a full-time professor. So I am returning to making rugs after a five-year hiatus. I wanted to start this blog because rug hooking is an art that has become extremely meaningful to me since it allows me to express myself in creative ways that I can not do otherwise. I spend so much time in my left-brain, living the life of the mind as an academic, that my rug hooking gives me the space and moments I need to let my right-brain free.

So this blog will have many purposes. I want to organize my own rug past here. I also will use it to share my current projects as they come together. So I wish to write here my rug hooking autobiography.

My plan also is to post occasionally "instructional" items which I will call "loopgrams." They will amount to tips and tidbits that I have learned along the way about hooking rugs.

I hope to use my sidebar as a resource for other rug hookers, with links to vendors, resources, networks, teachers, camps, events, and groups, particularly those in Texas. So if you have links to any of these items you would like me to include, simply put them in the comments or email me at adeconick@rice.edu.

Over the next year, I hope to build up a number of pattern projects that I will offer for purchase in the sidebar under "Red Jack Rug Patterns." I am also working on a dye book for my specialty dyes which have a golden base that lends them luminosity.