Magadelina Briner exhibit

Evelyn Lawrence and Kathy Wright put together a terrific special exhibit for Sauder this year.  It was a real treat to get to see it in person and purchase the self-published full-color 80 page book that they wrote on the subject.  It is called Rug Hooking Traditions with Magdalena Briner Eby published 2011 by Traditions by Wright & Co., 588 Flanagan Station Road, Winchester, KY 40391; (859) 745-5740; $24.95. I highly recommend contacting Kathy Wright to purchase a copy of your own. 

The exhibit and book feature the rugs of Magdalena Briner Eby (ca. 1832-1915; Perry County, PA).  She hooked American folk art rugs throughout her lifetime and her work is now found in some of the most distinguished private collections.

Lawrence became interested in Briner's rugs when she noticed seeing one of her designs in Joel and Kate Kopp's book, American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot (my favorite hooked rug book).  Lawrence became "obsessed" with finding more Briner rugs, and searched books, catalogues, auction sales, and private collections.  Every time she found another rug, she worked on her own to reproduce it, even playing around with natural dyeing techniques to achieve the same colors of wools.

The exhibit and the book show both the old rug and Lawrence's reproduction.  It was so thrilling to see them side-by-side.  The rug known as the "Great-Granddaughter's Rug" (left) received the 2011 Sauder Award for best exemplifying the mission of Sauder Village.  This rug was also reproduced in paint on a wooden board and mounted on the Ranger Station on the Tuscarora State Forest trail near the area where the Eby family owned property and Jacob and Magdalena were newlyweds.  It represents the first ever Trail Rug (after the fashion of the Quilt Trails).

Barbara Carroll offers the patterns of Magdalena's designs as Lawrence finds them.  You can find all of them at her website by clicking HERE.

Manuscript inspiration

I was surfing the internet this morning to find an image of Mary Magdalene for a project associated with my professional life, and I was reminded of the utter beauty of manuscript illuminations and how well they would translate into hooked rugs as borders and motifs. Take a look at some of these:

I also found this fascinating website where there are lots of vintage printables collected.

As I was surfing, I ran across someone interesting. In the mid-1800s, William Morris founded a design company that produced high quality textiles and tapestries (read more HERE). He adored medieval art and manuscripts, and thought "modern" art was only about mass production. So he based his company's designs on medieval images and produced some of the world's most outstanding and creative decorative art that helped to spawn the arts and crafts movement in the Victorian era. As I browsed his work, I was surprised to discover how his designs appear to have influenced rug hookers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Here are some of his works which I show from The Tapestry House website which sells reproductions of his textiles.

He sometimes included text on his tapestries. One of them that caught my attention were the words: "Honour the Women, they broid and weave heavenly roses into earthly life." It is called Ehret die frauen (Honor the Women):

Textile artist Marguerite Zorach


A couple of weeks ago, Cynthia Fowler of Emmanuel College contacted me. She is an Associate Professor who specializes in early American art, particularly Modernist Craft production in the early twentieth century. She had noticed my blog and my growing interest in rug hooking in the 1920s so she sent me an article that she just published called "Hooking Magic: Transforming Women's Handicraft into Art" (pages 227-244 in Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Texiles, 1750-1950; edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin; Burlington: Ashgate 2009).

I am learning so much from Professor Fowler's work. She wrote her dissertation on Marguerite Zorach, whom she also discusses in this article. Zorach was a modern artist who worked in a number of mediums including paint and hooking, although her large-scale embroideries are what she is most known for. The scanned picture is one of her hooked rugs called Eden (taken from p. 230 of Fowler's article). She hooked it in 1917. Zorach said in an interview in 1957 that she became interested in hooked rugs as a textile art medium when she was on a trip in New Hampshire with her husband, sculptor William Zorach. She met a woman hooking a rug from scraps of old clothing. Zorach said, "It was the first time I'd ever seen one, and I was fascinated. I remember this little old lady took us into her parlor and showed us the rugs. She'd look at them and say, 'Now, I remember the day Susie wore that dress.'...They all had memories for her" (quoted by Fowler, p. 230).

She only hooked a half a dozen rugs, but they make up part of her total body of artistic work, and reveal "her commitment to the handmade and to craft production as a legitimate form of artistic expression," Fowler explains (p. 231).

She was influenced by Cubism and fauvist colors, although her rug Eden is not as experimental as her paintings. But when the rug was exhibited in 1923, it was called "futuristic" and "ultra-modern" because it was radical when compared with the rugs that were being produced during this time period (Fowler, p. 231). The rugs I have been viewing in the books and catalogues from this period are nothing like Eden. They are your colonial american rugs, imitative florals, orientals, and primitives.

So Zorach intrigues me. She appears to be among the first to hook a rug that challenged the traditional craft, who saw in it a medium to express herself as a modern artist.

1951 photographed 'first' public hook in

In case you missed it, Gene Shepherd has posted a link to some fabulous pics of a 1951 public hooking bee (Pearl says it was the 'first' public hooking bee, a claim that needs to be confirmed; Color in Hooked Rugs p. 295). The pics were photographed by George Silk for LIFE magazine in 1951. Shepherd has identified the site as Storrowtown, MA.

1924 Hearthstone Rugs Exhibition

Today I received a copy of the catalogue put out by The Anderson Galleries of New York City in 1924 for the exhibition and sale of the Anna M. Laise Phillips Collection. I had so hoped that the catalogue would be heavily illustrated with photos of all the rugs. Alas, my hopes are dashed. The catalogue is 28 pages with one beautiful photo of a specimen which was reproduced from The Bulletin for the Art Center of New York (pictured here via a scan: more on this rug below).

What an exhibition this must have been! Phillips had on display and sale 183 pieces: the vast majority rugs, not all hooked, and a few quilts. Some were antique rugs and some were rugs her workers had made for the show. She writes:

"I have the pleasure in offering this collection from our Hearthstone Studios, the quaint old-fashioned homes of the descendants of our earlier American rug makers. The Antique rugs have been in the families of our workers for several generations, some of them for a longer time, carefully guarded and kept clean; but softened to harmonious tones by time, which blots out vivid colorings in art as well as nature...Rug making is an hereditary art that for a period slumbered, but did not die; because scattered throughout America, tucked away in little villages and country communities are women who to-day are bending over their rug frames, fashioning with painstaking fingers rugs in the same way that their grandmothers constructed floor coverings. The offerings here shown are made primarily to perpetuate the art of rug and quilt making, and to encourage our workers by CREATING A MARKET FOR THE EXPRESSION OF THEIR INHERITED IDEAS OF DESIGN, COLOR AND TEXTURE" (from Foreword; capital format: original to Phillip's text).
The rugs in the catalogue were collected by Phillips from the homes of her workers from "the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River" and "the Southern States too" (from Foreword).

The catalogue offers a full description of each piece in the exhibit - almost as good as a picture but not quite! Here are a few just so you can see the variety of subjects and materials used:

"STRIPED HEARTHSTONE HOOK RUG. Evenly and closely hooked. Ashes of rose and reseda-green stripes alternating with those of dull gold of equal width. An unusual rug. Size, 5 feet 6 inches x 2 feet 9 inches."

"RARE OLD FLEUR-DE-LIS HOOK RUG. Early American. Original design, closely hooked. A quartet of fleur-de-lis in soft old red in centre surrounded by faint lavender flowers and pearl-gray foliage. Size, 5 feet 4 inches x 3 feet 11 inches."

"CANARY BIRD HEARTHSTONE HOOK RUG. Very fine close hooking of hand-spun lamb's wool. Field in natural gray (uncolored, made by carding together the wool from a white lamb and a black one). Original design. Sprays of flowers and foliage with canary birds. Scroll border in tans, yellows, maroon and black. Size, 5 feet 3 inches x 1 foot 9 inches."

"MARINE HEARTHSTONE RUG. Deep, close, fine hooking of homespun lamb's-wool. Lighthouse rising from the sea on small island with misty purple-tinted sky in the background, sea gulls hovering near; mixed brown and fawn-colored border. Size, 4 feet 2 inches x 2 feet 5 inches."

I have become enthralled with Phillips. I am finding her name pop up in books from the period authored by others. Kent, in fact, drops a line in his book that one of her Hearthstone rugs sold for a four-digit price.

So I started digging around The Bulletin for the Art Center of New York, volume 1 no. 9 (April 1923). I found a mention of Phillips and a (second!) exhibit that she had put on for the Art Center and a fuller description of the rug pictured above:

“Mrs. Anna M. Laise Phillips held her second annual exhibition of American hand-made rugs at the Art Center from March 12-31. She displayed a number of antique and modern rugs from the Hearthstone Studios, the rural home of her rug makers. In the collection was a large carpet eleven by twelve feet, hooked in a basket-weave design, copied from an old rug, also shown. This rug, which is seamless, required the efforts of fifteen workers for seven months, but the result is a rug which stands out as a masterpiece of the handcraft. It is made for a seashore home, to be placed in the dining-room opening towards the sea. The colors are soft dregs of wine, a ‘hit-or-miss’ arrangement giving a purplish rose effect. A reproduction of it is shown on the cover of this issue of the BULLETIN” (p. 171).

Abstract in 1937

You must be able to tell I'm a historian through and through. W.W. Kent's books are fascinating, and what neat thing did I find within today? On p. 212 of Rare Hooked Rugs (1941), Kent displays a photograph courtesy of Mrs. Lilian Mills Mosséller who designed it (Plate 236). Mosséller lived in New York and Asheville, North Carolina. I scanned it and show it here.

Kent claims it is a "famous" rug called "Coffee and Cream." It is an abstract hooked before 1937 when it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the International Rugs and Carpets show. It was taken on tour across the USA by the American Federation of Arts in 1938. In 1939 it was exhibited at the World's Art Fair in New York. With my interest in abstract rugs, so far this is the earliest intentional abstract I have been able to locate to date.

The design idea was taken from the top of a swirling cup of coffee with cream in it. Unfortunately all we have in terms of a picture is this black and white. But Kent tells us that the colors were fabulous: six shades of white, oyster, eggshell, snow white, with an accent of chartreuse.

Mosséller appears to have been a well-known rug designer in her day. She wrote a few pages about the "contemporary rugs and their future" which Kent put in his book. She had a studio in New York and employed many hookers, whom she calls "artisans" and "workers". She seems to have been known for hiring handicapped people to hook her rugs. Kent preserves a photograph of these men and women working in her studios. She also had devised a huge crude cutting machine which stripped the wool in pieces that look to be around 3/4 inches wide. She was very keen on rug designers being considered on par with Picasso and Van Gogh, and she was very proud that her rug hung in the Met alongside these famous painters.

She is very insistent that designers must start signing their work by weaving their signature in the fabric, just as the painters do with paint. This intrigues me, because here is a shift from the earlier idea that hand-hooked rugs are utilitarian mats manufactured by workers and should not be signed, to the idea that the designer at least is an artist and her rugs will only increase in value if her signature is on it.

Two books by W.W. Kent

This afternoon the mailman delivered two old books I had ordered about rug hooking. Both were written by William Winthrop Kent. One is called The Hooked Rug. It was written in 1937 and reports to trace hooked rugs back to a 6th century Coptic mat!

Hey now I'm interested. An intersection has occurred between rugs and my academic profession (I'm a scholar of early Christianity, particular old Coptic texts!). The Coptic rug he has photographed (see below) is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC (p. 6).

It appears that he found out about old Coptic hooked mats from Helen R. Albee and her booklet Abnakee Rugs (my next purchase!). The Copts appear to have been making rugs the same way we do. They pulled the material through a cloth foundation in even unclipped loops. This suggests that the art goes back to the ancient Egyptians. Wow.

I have scanned the image of the cover of Kent's book because I thought the design lovely. Wouldn't it make a good hooked rug itself?

A story from "The Lore and Lure of Hooked Rugs"

I read this the other day. I had to read it again because I couldn't believe it. I am curious what your reaction is to this anecdote.

It was written by Pearl McGown in The Lore and Lure of Hooked Rugs, p. 86. She used this as an example of the good sense and ingenuity of one of her teachers.

"On one occasion colors were changed without the rugger's knowledge. A very beautiful room-sized rug was exhibited one year at Worcester, and when I congratulated the teacher who was exhibiting it, she said, 'It is lovely now, but you should have seen it when my pupil delivered it to me. I had given her instructions for the one remaining flower (multiplied many times in the design). I did not see the rug again until it was completed, and she had made all those flowers of the brightest purple you can imagine.'
'But they didn't seem bright to me,' I remonstrated.
'Of course not,' she replied. 'I wouldn't have exhibited it as it was. I made a weak solution of its complementary dye and vinegar and with a small toothbrush I subdued each flower.'
'But what are you going to say when you take the rug back to her?' I asked.
'Well,' she replied triumphantly, 'I'm going to tell her that Pearl made me do it!'

Women Yesterday and Today 6: Who was Mrs. Titcomb?

I can't believe my luck this week. I have been working through Pearl McGown's books in order to write a couple of posts about her, but I have become sidetracked with a new found interest in rug hooking in the 1920s. Phyllis Lindblade suggested a couple of titles that I might enjoy. So I ordered them up (don't you love the internet for finding used books?!). And two arrived the day before yesterday. Last night I got around to reading one of them by Ella Shannon Bowles, Handmade Rugs (1927). Bowles is writing after Phillips, and actually refers to her in the bibliography. The book is a comprehensive description of all the different types of handmade rugs that were being produced in the 1920s during the revival of rugmaking in the Arts and Craft period, when women were interested in bringing Americana accessories into their homes. She has two chapters on hooked rugs, which she also calls "pulled" or "drawn-in" rugs. These phrases appear to be synonymous with "hooked" since she uses them interchangeably.

Surprisingly, according to Bowles, the types of rugs that these women were after were not the "primitive" rugs that you or I might think about when we consider American country or folk art. Bowles knows that the height of rugmaking was in the Civil War period, but she complains how unfortunate it was that "many of the products of the years following the war were crude in design and coloring, for the commercial rug-patterns of the time were hideous" (p. 11). The rugs that she notes were being designed in the 1920s for women patrons were orientals, floral sprays with scrolls, landscapes, and so forth - apparently not so much the "primitives" we are familiar with.

She appears to be targeting women who are interested in making rugs, but not necessarily for their own personal use. She wants to help them go into business and so her last chapter is on the "commercial opportunities of rug-making." She says that rug making is good for women because they can create their rugs at home and then sell them out of their own homes or deliver them to gift shops and department stores for sale. The business woman might not want to hook at all, but become a business manager and organize a group of rug hookers, and then sell those rugs at a profit for herself.

She mentions a couple of rug businesses: Society of Deerfield Industries at Deerfield, Massachuetts; South End House in Boston; and Martha Titcomb and her daughter Elizabeth Titcomb. It is the latter I am immediately interested in because the used book I bought came to me with a surprise: a newspaper clipping from the late 1920s that describes the work of Miss Elizabeth Titcomb. Titcomb was a famous rug hooker in northern Vermont. The best I can make out, around 1910 her mother Martha had a dream to "give to the lonely women on the isolated farms of her home state an opportunity to make something beautiful, something that would occupy the weary hours of snowbound months, and at the same time give them the almost non-existent cash that would afford them a feeling of independence" (newspaper clipping). She decided to concentrate on rug hooking since it was "what was already there." She solicited women from the local Women's Club to begin hooking for her. Her first worker drove to her home and told her, that "she just loved to 'draw-in', and would like to be one of her workers" (newspaper clipping). The business was set up so that the workers hooked the rugs in their own homes and sent them to the Titcombs who then sold them to the client who had ordered the rug.

Titcomb and her daughter were the rug designers. Martha's rug designs were described by the critics at the time as "beautiful and elevating," as "the loveliest things one can imagine". They were drawn on an old painted pine table, to meet all kinds of tastes. Her designs were inspired by "the spirit of the old creations": baskets of flowers, very realistic, with some unconventional; ships sailing green oceans; golden sunsets; block designs with hit-or-miss. After the design was drawn the Titcombs painted the burlap with the colors that were to be used by their workers. The painted burlap was given to the workers, along with a key to the colors and the yarns to be hooked, yarns which the Titcombs had dyed themselves in their "workroom": turquoise, green, mauve, pale cream, deep red, tawny browns. Their "pulled-in" rugs were like those made by grandma except they are "always of wool and they are far lovelier in color" (newspaper clipping). They were not the "crude thrift rugs" made by women to use up bits of wool and rag and silk.

Titcomb's home industry was so successful that she could not keep up. The Titcombs claimed that "the rugs sell as fast as they can manufacture them" (newspaper clipping).

The rug in the photo (scanned from the newspaper clipping) is the type of rug that the Titcombs were designing and manufacturing and selling in the 1920s. It had a black background and is a duplicate of the first large rug ordered and manufactured by the business. It was designed to go with some "chintz" in the home of the woman who ordered it. The Titcombs preferred to design rugs to meet the decor needs of their clients. The rug pictured lay "before the hearth in the living-room of Elizabeth's father's house, where it must feel very much at home, in the atmosphere of the olden days that prevails in every particular" (newspaper clipping).

Were their workers happy? Elizabeth reports that one of her workers once told her after finishing a rug, "Send me something else to do quickly; I am like a hornet when I haven't a rug to work on" (newspaper clipping).

Women Yesterday and Today 5: Practical advise about rug making in the 1920s

To assist women of leisure, Phillips lays out a number of rug types she is familiar with, including a few photos. She markets them as rugs of "sentiment and symbol". She says that floral rugs were most popular, the rose surpassing the rest, although she mentions geraniums, morning glories, fuchsias, and verbenas "scattered over the surfaces of many of our early hooked rugs" (pp. 39-40). She describes geometric designs created by using a yardstick and the dinner plate, and cutting patterns out of stiff cardboard. She talks about Welcome Mats and Emblematic rugs with patriotic symbols. She is familiar with Picture rugs, Marine rugs, and Animal rugs. She also mentions Memory rugs, recalling a meeting with an 86 year old woman who handed Phillips her rug and said, "That's my pony; that's Jack, our old black Jack, and that's the field he used to browse in, and that's the sky behind it, and that's the same old fence and the old bars I used to let down when I took the cows to pasture when I was a girl" (p. 46).

She also tries to help these women think about the rooms in their homes and what kinds of rugs might be suitable for their "city and country homes." So we get a tour of the wealthy woman's home in the 1920s, from the new-spangled living room, dining room, bedrooms, guest rooms, nursery, halls, maid's room, porches, sun parlor to the family's camps and hunting lodges (59-72).

She also gives practical advise, telling them how to get started with a frame and foundation. She recommends burlap because it would be a waste to use hand-woven linen "in such an inconspicuous place as the foundation of a rug" (p. 94). She suggest buying the burlap at a department store, or, if better grade is preferred, at a needlework shop.

As for design, she is very adamant. She purposefully calls her chapter "Marking the Design" because she wants to revive the art of rug making "as it was in the best of days" before stamped designs, when "each worker wrought the outline of the thing she wished to picture herself" (p. 101). She complains that companies at the time, with the revival in the interest of early American furnishings, had accelerated their stamped designs, not only reproducing the old designs but also inventing new ones by combining some of the features of the primitive designs with more modern design elements (p. 102).

She advises the new rug hooker to become childlike again. To draw with the abandon of a child. To express herself. "Design your own rugs, and simple or imperfect, quaint or grotesque, the finished piece will not only contain bits of your own clothing and household fabrics, but it will reflect the ideas you may have as to formal or informal patterns" (pp. 104-105). She gives practical suggestions for drawing animals, making geometric templates, creating scrolls and so forth.

But when all is said and done, Phillips comes to the point that has been haunting the book and her desire to bring rug hooking to women of leisure: "Here is the material and the equipment and the willingness to make a present-day hooked rug by the best of old-time methods, yet the hands lie limp in our laps and we gaze at our lovely floral design and the straight line border, and all that we have read and all that we have tried to treasure in our memories have simply evaporated. We have a feeling of our own inadequacy - we are lost - and for the moment our good resolution to make a rug has also taken to itself wings. We can see one thing only, that expanse of canvas, and although it is but a little mat of not more than six square feet we gaze on it as though it were the Sahara Desert" (p. 118).

Phillips identified that "thing" that keeps rug hooking from becoming the craft of many. Personal feelings of inadequacy and fear that immobilize us - not knowing what to do next, what will look right. Her suggestion to start on the edge probably wasn't very helpful to the women she had hoped to persuade to pick up hooks. So although Phillips appears to have been part of the reason that rug hooking moved into new circles and became a craft of the woman of leisure, it would take another woman to come along and offer another solution that addressed head on the problem Phillips had identified.

Women Yesterday and Today 4: More on Anna Laise Phillips

As we celebrate the history of women this month, I want to return to the story of Anna M. Laise Phillips and her book Hooked Rugs and How to Make Them (1925). My last post about her discussed her as a business woman who set up a brokerage-type rug business in the 1920s. She developed a network of various pods of hookers, often in rural poor neighborhoods around the East and the South, and purchased rugs that they themselves designed and hooked from "rags." She marketed the rugs in New York city as authentic American folk art "like grandma used to make" at a time with Americana and nostalgia for the good ol' days (before industrialization) was on the rise in the states. She was very successful in selling these rugs, moving them into the homes of wealthy women and collectors. It appears that she was so successful that she went out on the state farm circuit lecturing about rugs, in order to solicit rugs from women she would meet there and establish new pods.

If we ever wonder why our hooking groups today are called "guilds" all we have to do is remember that the origin of our craft is connected to the fact that women who were hooking rugs in the teens and twenties were doing so to sell them. They found it convenient to gather together during the day at the guild leader's house and hook together. Phillips talks about two or three neighbors gathering in the kitchen and hooking their rugs.

She also talks about the dye pot being "as much a part of the kitchen equipment as is the stove today." The rags they used were turned into "beautiful colors" from "barks, roots, and herbs brewed and combined to make the desired tint." They used vegetable dyes grown in their gardens. Saffron raised for medicinal tea made a brilliant golden color when used as a dye. Logwood and onion skins were also used (p. 30).

I noticed when reading Phillips' book that her brokerage business is only part of her story. What she is doing in her book is trying to persuade wealthy women to try to hook rugs. She describes her audience as women who " attend to their household duties systematically and conscientiously, yet have their leisure hours when they might be doing some other form of expressive work if they could only decide what to take up" (p. 10). It is a hard sell because this was a craft of poverty that used "rags." All the books from this period talk about the women using materials that were so worn they couldn't be used for anything else anymore. So they hooked them into rugs that they would walk on (think farmer's boots) or put in front of their hearths (think cooking and open fires). During this time, rugs were largely made by women of poverty to sell or trade for food and clothing.

Nevertheless, she tries to bring the craft to a new audience in her chapter "Making Rugs for Ourselves" (pp. 87-100). She does so by trying to persuade women of leisure that the craft is "old" and "American" and part of the "revival" of past. Tired of industrialization and commercialism? Tired of cheap imitations? Tired of mechanical perfection? Then rug hooking is for you. At a time when women had just won the right to vote, Phillips writes, "This chapter is written in the spirit of helpfulness, of encouragement to our women to return to something which they can do in their own homes, by their own firesides, while father reads his paper or even while he is at the club" (p. 88).

But her big move was to convince these wealthy women of leisure that by hooking rugs they were not becoming part of a merchant guild. They didn't have to sell their rugs. She writes, "Lest I weaken, I am going to tell you right here: do NOT make rugs to sell, make them for YOURSELF" (p. 88). She advises them against making rugs for "your lover, your husband, your mother, or your friend, for if you do you will not make a really individual rug. Make rugs for yourself. Make the kind of rug you like, the kind that appeal to you, the kind of rugs that you would keep forever...Leave it to the other woman to make her kind of rug. You make your own kind" (pp. 88-89).

As for the rags, she is suggests that rugs making is a good recycling project. Instead of disposing of "father's pants" why not turn his ugly old worn out cast offs into "articles of virtue and delight"? Why not make your home beautiful with the things you already have? (pp. 89-90).

In another post, I will review what Phillips knows about rugs during her time, and how she suggests to go about making them.

Women Yesterday and Today 3: Anna M. Laise Phillips

I have been continuing to reflect on women's history, and reading some old books I never got around to until now. And I would like to share one in particular with you today because it is a testament to the time that Lady Anne Grenfell was operating her mission mat business and may explain why she was so successful. It also lays some of the historical narrative necessary to understand what happened when Pearl McGown came on the scene.

Six years ago I was in an antique mall and my husband was rummaging around the old books there. He came across a book I bought although I did not recognize. It was written in 1925 by Anna M. Laise Phillips. It is called Hooked Rugs and How to Make Them. I recall leafing through it and shelving it at home. And forgetting about it. Until I found it again as I have been preparing to write this series of posts on historical women in rug hooking.

From the first lines of Phillips' book, I was captivated. She writes in the first lines of her foreword: "Sometimes I wonder if the thing itself is as big or important as the reason for its being; and in view of the darkness and dawn, the chaos and then the order, the trials and then the joy of our work, it seems that the things we do are but the outlet of our inner selves" (p. 9). She goes on to call rug hooking "expressive work" and she states that she hopes her book will encourage women who have "leisure hours" after attending their "household duties" to express themselves by hooking a lovely rug for their hearths. It is very clear throughout the book that Phillips' wished to cultivate rug hooking as an individualistic expressive folk art form (more on this in another post on another day!).

How did she learn about rug hooking? She tells the story of a bleak December day when she was traveling in the Alleghenies mountains to visit a cemetery where some of her kinsfolk were buried. She is traveling in a very poor part of the mountain country and states that she stopped by the dilapidated home of a "big, motherly woman" whose husband was ill and unable to work. When she enters the home, the woman apologizes for its sorry state, including the fact that her house had no heat. The woman then tells Phillips, "Indeed, I can make rugs and I work fast, too. If you'll let me make you one I am sure you'll be pleased." Phillips says that the woman was so earnest that it nearly broke her heart. The woman needed something to do to earn an income since her husband had been ill for a year.

When Phillips got home to New York City she began receiving packages of rugs from the woman: rugs with morning glories and marigolds scattered across them. She considered them good quality. Phillips paid her. More rugs arrive. There is more cash exchange. We learn that the woman told her neighbors about her new income and they begin to have "little rug parties where two or three gathered and visited" and hooked rugs to send to Phillips.

Soon Phillips has more rugs than she knows what to do with. And doesn't want to keep buying them for herself since she was running out of extra money. So she wrote the hookers and told them that she couldn't buy anymore of their rugs. They wrote back, "Please, Mrs. Phillips, don't stop buying our rugs. You are keeping the coal shovel and the bread knife going."

So Phillips regrouped. She asked the woman and the group of hookers she had organized to hook rugs for a year, working with "bits of cotton and wool, with here and there a thread of silk" creating "rugs from her (the hooker's) own designs." When Phillips had enough rugs, she put on an exhibit at the Art Center in New York. She showed "a few nice pieces" in order to show that the work of this group of women "deserved to be encouraged." The show was successful and the rugs sold. The buyers then began commissioning work from the women, and the "bread knife" and the "coal shovel" were kept going through their patronage.

I actually found the New York Times article from May 14, 1922, which describes the exhibition Phillips was referring to. The Exhibition was called "Old and New Types of American Handmade Rugs" and it was billed as a collection of American handmade rugs "patterned after the very old ones and made by women whose mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers were skilled rugmakers." She had on display seven types of rugs: knitted, crocheted or "cottage rugs", braided or "grandma's rocker" rugs, rag or "Betsy Moore" rugs, and two kinds of hooked rugs. The first type she called "old-fashioned rugs" that were made from a variety of materials. And a new concept rug she called "hearthstone rugs" because of it "cheerful homelike appearance", rich coloring, and thickness.

The New York Times article states that the hookers were "groups of women throughout this and other States in the East and South who, being skilled in the art of rugmaking, are anxious to make their work practical. All the work is done in the individual homes and each woman completes her rug after her own design and according to her own methods of work. The result is a very unusual collection of handmade rugs...It is the aim of Mrs. Phillips to broaden the scope of this work so that other women who are equally skilled may be given employment in this kind of occupation which brings out their skill and talent for making beautiful floor coverings, without leaving their homes."

What was going on here? I haven't been able to find an official biography of Anna Phillips, but reading between the lines of her book, I suspect that it was not a chance encounter with a stranger in the mountains that brought rug hooking to Phillips' attention. Phillips' was visiting the area to attend to the graves of her relatives and when she leaves the hooker's home and returns to New York city, she mentions that her trip had taken her back "to the scenes of childhood." This makes me think that the "big, motherly woman" was Phillips' impoverished relative, and Phillips agreed to buy her rugs while her husband was convalescing to keep the family from starvation. And once the neighbors heard about it, they wanted in too. So Phillips' found herself in a difficult situation. She had understood her offer to buy her relative's rugs to be a temporary measure, and now she was being sent boxes of them.

From photos in her book (which I have digitalized here), I can see that she was a wealthy woman. She shows us a room in her house adorned with hooked rugs, a room which she calls "Ye Heartstone Studios". I imagine that the name "heartstone rug" is meant to reflect her studio name. So I think she had connections in New York society which allowed her to put on an exhibition at the Art Center where other patrons could buy the rugs her relative's group had hooked. This appears to have been so successful that Phillips branched out, going around to various state and county fairs to tell about her cottage industry and invite women to hook rugs to sell to her. She mentions particularly a group of women who were school teachers from the rural districts of Memphis, Tennessee, who were delighted to find out that they could make rugs out of "old materials" and sell them to Phillips (p. 158).

What appears to have happened in the 1920s was a revival of rug hooking as part of a revival of Americana. Phillips attributes it to post-WWI emotions and nostalgia for the good ol' days, and I have no reason to doubt her on this. It seems that New York city was one of the main centers of commerce for things Americana. It was becoming vogue for wealthy city women to have American folk art in their homes. Phillips appears to have known this and creates a cottage industry from it, just as Lady Anne Grenfell was doing in Canada. The differences are stark though. Phillips is not supplying kits and instructions to her workers. She encourages them to create rugs from their own designs because she is certain that only when this freedom is granted to her workers will the rugs be truly expressive.

Women Yesterday and Today 2: The Creation of Modern Rug Hooking

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.

Information for this post came from the Henry Sheldon Museum and Paula Laverty's, Silk-Stocking Mats which can be purchased at Amazon HERE.

Women Yesterday and Today 1: The Wage Gap

March is Women's History Month. So I am going to be devoting some of my blog posts this month to a series I'm calling: Women Yesterday and Today. To start off the series, I thought I would highlight a few statistics that are very troubling.

Women are now 50% of the workforce. On average women earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. Just one year (!) out of college, women already earn less than their male colleagues earn, even when they work in the same field with the same degree. At ages 66 and older women are twice (!) as likely as men to be poor. It has taken 40 years (!) to begin to close the wage gap by a meager 12 cents.

What is really alarming is just how much the wage gap widens the older women get. One year after graduation, women average 80% of the salary their male counterparts are earning. Ten years later they are earning 69% of the salary of their male counterparts. Even when researchers control for all the known factors that can affect earnings (hours, occupation, parenthood, etc.) their research shows that one-quarter of the pay gap remains unexplained. Over time, this unexplained portion of the pay gap grows larger and larger.

The AAUW has an interactive map HERE where you can hover over any state and find out the wage gap stats closer to home. It is sad to view these stats. Among college grads, women in Texas are earning 70% of what their male counterparts are earning. In my home state Michigan, it is even worse: 68%.

Last year, President Obama began to work on this problem by signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The second part of this legislation has been stalled in the Senate, but it will finally receive its hearing. On March 11, the Senate will hold a hearing on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is an update of the 46-year old Equal Pay Act. If you want to read more about this legislation or if you want to send your senators a letter to support this legislation, go HERE (AAUW website page). They have set up the website so that it is very easy to create and send your message, either via email or on letterhead. It took me two minutes.

I will come back to this topic again since April 20th is Equal Pay Day. And HERE are some pay equity ideas for action for that day if you want to make the problem more visible around your local area.

All stats are taken from AAUW.