The Art of Rug Hooking
‘Revival of an ancient handicraft has brought much of beauty, utility and novelty to the people of Canada's
Women and their Work
HOOKED mats! I wouldn’t give them house-room.’ So say many people who live in those sections of the Maritime provinces where these rugs are made. But it is unlikely that those who say it have seen the mellow tones and soft colors of old rugs, the quaint and original patterns of which time and feet and sun have worn and pressed and mellowed to a very great beauty which, except in rare cases, is lacking in the rugs that are being made to-day.
Fortunately, the latter are improving. The great interest in and demand for hooked mats which has recently sprung up has encouraged women on lonely farms, shut in by long winters to resume and revive a home industry that modern conditions was effacing.
The beauty and the usefulness of these mats has been discovered anew, and the improvement in design and color is apparent each year as more and more of the women learn that the height of beauty in a hooked mat is not achieved by copying the florid designs and loud colors of department-store wall paper patterns, but lies, instead, in a return to the soft colors and original homeworked designs of fifty years ago. This is being brought home to the workers by the earnest efforts of disinterested men and women who in the various localities are working assiduously both to raise the level of work to the highest possible standard by a return to the older patterns and color schemes, and by finding a market for the completed mats.
In Chester on Mahone Bay, near Halifax, there is a lively traffic in mats, for Chester is a lovely and restful resort that attracts the kind of people who buy hooked mats. The dominant note of the Chester mats is gaiety. True, there are ‘Chesterfields’, farmhouse adaptations of the Chesterfield sofa pattern, and ‘Champions’, a pattern of interlocked bars, which tend to formality and gloom, (but for the most part the Chester heart inclines to the
portrayal of local scenes. It revels in portrayals of ships scudding before the wind with full-bellied sails or lying quietly in the bay, sunsets and sunrises, flying gulls, winter scenes and animals so humorously distorted that they seem to laugh; in squirrels larger than the trees they climb, cows pranking with the moon and other quaint conceits which often make subjects for gay wall-pieces.
Mat Weavers Are Artists
TN THE larger floor mats, the gaiety is as pronounced but is more regulated by well-defined patterns such as the ‘Shell’ mat, which portrays a variegated mixture, both as to color, shape and size, of the shells of the sea; ‘Sunshine and Shadow’, an attempt to capture those elusive shades; and the riotous ‘Boston Sidewalk’, a pattern of gaily-colored small blocks, its origin lost in the years but presumably an imitation of the mosaic side-walks of
the Boston of early days which caught the eye of rural Nova Scotian visitors.
The annual September fair, held Bridgewater in Lunenburg County offers the best opportunity of seeing what this district can produce in the way of handicrafts of all kinds. Percy W. Inglis, of Mahone Bay, who, himself, hooks beautiful mats, is one those who is doing much to encourage the workers in mats and other handicrafts to a higher standard of taste and workmanship. He and all others who maintain contact with the women who do such work are unanimous declaring that these workers readi' respond to all such effort and requii only to be shown, for, humble though their efforts may be, these women artists at heart, and poor though many
of them are, they find their greatest reward in the approval of critics and in the knowledge that they have created a thing of beauty. Inglis, who is one of the judges of such displays at the Bridgewater Fair, states that the mere difference of substituting one dollar and a half and two dollar and a half prizes to replace forty and fifty cent prizes resulted in a great improvement in the showing, both in quantity and quality, and one weman declared: ‘‘I have to thank you for getting me so interested that I’ve taken seventeen first prizes!”
Handicraft work of this character is done throughout the Maritime provinces and Nova Scotia, but of all the work seen and of all the localities visited over a peried several months, the quality of the work found in Cape Breton excelled all others. Excellent as is the work of the Highland Scottish people who form the greatest portion of the population of Cape Breton, it is excelled by that the Acadian-French in Cheticamp parish, not that necessarily they have more talent but because their more isolated lives breed in them a desire to do superlative work.
I had heard rumors of a certain home industries fair
which was held each September in Baddeck; that it had been instituted by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, and his wife who, until their recent deaths, lived nearby. It was my purpose to visit this fair, but nowhere could I find out anything definite about it, neither in Halifax nor even in Sydney, which at the end of the railroad and as the capital city of Cape Breton, was much nearer to Baddeck.
Undeterred, I found my way to Baddeck only to discover that the Baddeck Fair isn’t a fair at all, but an exhibition of cottage crafts which is on display in the town library from July 1 to September 1 of each year. Also I discovered that the exhibition is unknown to the inhabitants of even neighboring towns.
The late Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell and her husband, Dr. Bell, through long years of summer residence at Brein Breagh, ‘Beautiful Mountain’, near Baddeck, had come to take a great interest in the welfare of their neighbors, and Mrs. Bell had donated to the town the library building which has been named ‘Gertrude Hall’ after her. Following her death, her daughter, Mrs. David Fairchild of Washington, D.C., continued the active manifestation of that interest. A few years ago
she visited Cheticamp for the first time. Cheticamp, about fifty miles distant from Baddeck, is the largest French settlement in Nova Scotia. A hundred miles from the railroad, dependent entirely upon fishing and irregular farming, economically the people are very badly off. “I just couldn’t sleep,” she said after that visit,” seeing those people with their big families, and so poor! I was wondering what I could do to help them.”
“And she hit on this,” said her assistant, Miss Lilian Burke, “The Cape Breton Home Industries. It was started on the spur of the moment. We gathered together what rugs we could find in the village, and we sold one hundred dollars’ worth the first day. That was only two years ago. We sold twelve hundred dollars’ worth the next year, and two thousand dollars’ worth this year, and the season hasn’t closed yet. No one who doesn’t know them can quite realize what that amount of money means to these women.”
Miss Burke was enlisted in her effort by Mrs. Fairchild. She maintains a studio for craft work in Washington, and before hooked mats came in demand had instructed similar groups of women in lacemaking and similar crafts, and combining with that an enthusiasm similar to Mrs. Fairchild’s, she is well equipped for her task.
A Growing Industry
THE idea,” she said, “simply is to give the women hereabout an opportunity to earn a little extra money for themselves, by doing something in which they excel. Opportunities here are so limited, but this they can do and do well, and people will buy their work. The men can always make a little extra money one way or another, but the women can’t. And
they can do this so easily. Just in their spare time in the winter. They could hardly believe it at first when we made sales for them. ‘What? My mat!’ they would exclaim, and clasp their hands. ‘Real money for that!’ It was wonderful to us to see how they appreciated it.”
“The winter following our first exhibition was a very bad one in Cheticamp. The fishing had been bad and the work in the woods had been interrupted by a very bad season for flies so the people were worse off than usual, and the rug money was very welcome. Madame Doucet collects the rugs and other things for us there, and like all the other women she is very keen on the rug selling now. She has a little store, and at my suggestion she has turned her ice-cream sign over and displayed the other side of it, inscribed ‘Hooked Mats For Sale Here’.
“There was another woman, a widow with a large family, awfully poor, and her house needed shingling so badly the roof leaked. We showed her what to do, she got busy and made some mats which we sold, and the next time I passed I noticed that the roof had been newly shingled. It gave me a real thrill. Results like that make the work worth while for us. The women simply fetch or send in their
things, with the price marked on them, and we offer them for sale at that price and when we sell them, send the women the money. The Hall is a regular community centre now. The women drive ten or fifteen miles to flock in here and inspect each other’s handiwork and learn the news of sales. And there is real competition between them as to who can make the best mats and spin the best cloth. Some days, the street is packed with horses and buggies; for there are few cars here. And they are so grateful for what we’ve been able to do for them! The French women are, of course, effusive. The Scotch aren’t that, but they show their gratitude by their anxiety to learn our color combinations and get ideas for designs. One design we sent out came back to us in eight different colors and combinations from as many different women.
“Our aim is to get them back to the hand-drawn patterns and soft colors of the old technique and away from the awful colors and designs found in some hooked mats. Of course we have to be tactful. We say: ‘Now you have snow and ice and cold, and, of course, when you come in the house from the outside in the winter, you want to see cheerful, warming colors like red. But city people live differently. They have more warmth, and, besides, some of them live in mild climates, so they don’t want colors that may be all right here. They want soft, mellow tones . . . ’ ”
“We are constantly working on new designs ourselves and giving them as wide a distribution as possible amongst our workers. And we are trying to get them interested in turning their talent for this kind of work to other things beside mats and cloth. Some of them are now making beautiful handbags, bedroom slippers
I and things like that. And we are teaching them how to do streamers in the catalogne material in which the French women do such good work. We are trying to utilize all this latent energy for the beautiful and turn it into useful channels. But not all of our workers are poor by any means. Everyone is so much interested that many of them are women who are really quite prosperous, but they love the work and the chance to improve.”
Gertrude Hall was filled, jammed to the roof with the exhibit. There were hooked mats, old and new, catalogne rugs, homespun cloth, lace work, and even old family treasures, the work of an earlier generation, sent from little hamlets all over the island of Cape Breton. Tourists wandered in and out, exclaiming over the beauty of the exhibit, and generally they left richer than when they entered— by a mat or two.
Discovering Hand-Made Dyes
yOU know,” said Mrs. MacDermott, a * middle-aged Gaelic woman, a splendid type of that countryside, beautiful, dignified, with a face such as a queen should have and never does, speaking the English of a poet, clearly and melodiously in sentences of striking beauty, “this is something new to me. We didn’t take much interest in this until Mrs. Fairchild and Miss Burke showed us how to make our work more beautiful so that people would buy it. I’m experimenting with vegetable dyes. You know you can get the loveliest orange out of onion peels! You just let them soak a while and then boil them down. It takes a lot of onion peels though,” she laughed. She exhibited an orange-colored yarn. “Now,' there’s not a thing in that to color it but water and onion-peel. You can make it dark or light according to how much you use. I only used about ten pounds of onion peels for a large skein of my own wool, two or three pounds. The gray is the natural gray as it comes from the sheep, for, of course, it’s all my own spinning. Alexander MacLeod, next door, wove it on his loom.”
She pointed to a beautiful mat on the floor. “That’s my prize mat. The flowers on it are the flowers that bloom here, reproduced in their natural colors and woven into an original design of Miss Burke’s. The brown in it is from dye made from the moss of the hardwood trees, just boiled down. The black border is from the black birch. The green leaves are from spinach. And the red flowers were colored from dye made from beettops boiled down with a little alum in the water. It’s great fun to experiment with everything that grows for your colors; weeds, berries, bark, vegetables and all kinds of fruit. And it’s so simple; just boil with water and a touch of copperas or alum to set the color. A lot of us are making our own dyes. Not that they’re any better but it’s such fun to feel that you have made something entirely with your own hands, even to its colors. Even the Indians around here use aniline dyes now. The other is a lost art with us, but we’re finding out again.”
Mrs. MacDermott obviously was free from the touch of adverse circumstance, so it was without prejudice that she said: “You’ve no idea what the chance to do this work meant to us around here. We all love it so.”
Her views on dyes were upheld in another quarter, the woman-manager of one of the Canadian Handicraft Guild stores. When dyes were mentioned she laughed and said: “I used to think, too, that vegetable dyes were the best. But once I was with a handicraft exhibit of cloth at a Dublin exhibition and one man asked me something about the cloth and the dyeing. I rushed right in and I remember telling him: ‘Oh, yes, all our stuff is dyed in the natural vegetable dyes and will never come out. It’s not like the manufactured dyes,’ and a whole lot of other things like that. He listened without saying a word until I had finished
though I noticed he was looking at me in a funny way. Then he said, and he gave me his card: ‘I’m so and so/andhe named one of the biggest manufacturers of aniline dyes in Great Britain. Then he pitched right into me: ‘It just goes to show how fluently people will tell others about things they know nothing about themselves. Now young woman, you’ve been telling me a lot of things about vegetable dyes and aniline dyes that are quite wrong. I’ve been in the business since I was a young man, and so have many of those associated with me. We want to make good dyes as cheaply as we can. We have to. Don’t you suppose we have experimented and experimented and still are doing so, trying for better dyes and cheaper ones. And don’t you suppose we have spent all kinds of money on vegetable dyes, hoping they were what we wanted. And don’t you suppose we have found out that they’re inferior to aniline dyes in cheapness and quality. Don’t you know that when a good aniline dye sets it is there as long as the material lasts?’ He convinced me all right and made me feel very much ashamed into the bargain.”
A New Use For a Hen-House
WE FOUND another enthusiastic worker busily plying her hook in her hen-house. She was a brisk little woman with white hair. “Oh. when I saw what was to be made out of the mats,” she said, “I just said to myself: ‘The hens must go!’ and go they did. I bundled them all out of here, got rid of every last one, an’ now this is my workshop.”
As indeed it was. In the low ceilinged ex-hen-house, newly white-washed, her hooking-frame rested on two empty boxes. The burlap was stretched tightly on the frame, and the black lines of the pattern she was working on was etched on its surface. The yarn was caught in the wooden handled five-inch long steel ‘hook’, a straight piece of steel with a notched end like a crocheting needle. With one hand she plunged hook and yarn through the burlap, on the line of the pattern, and caught it on the lower side of the burlap with the other hand, and pushed it through the burlap again immediately adjoining the last insertion, and so on endlessly. We sat in the hencoop and talked as she worked. She bubbled with enthusiasm. “It’s nearly dinner-time, of course, but I had a few moments to spare so I just thought I’d run out here and do a little hooking,” she explained. “I can’t leave it alone. I just love it! This is the pattern Miss Burke sent me. Won’t it be lovely? And the colors will be so soft and nice?” She dragged out her hooking ‘files’, prints, drawings and patterns. One was of a large trout. “I did that in a mat for a doctor from Boston. It was the best fish he ever caught and he insisted I do it in a mat for him, taking the fly, and I did!” “Well, yes and no,” she replied to a question as to whether she used her own wool. “You see, I make my man’s underwear, spin it and get Mr. MacLeod to weave it on his loom, and I use it again when it’s worn out, for mats. I unravel it and hook it. It seems a sin to throw it away. It’s as good as ever it was years old though it is. See!” and she held up for exhibit the frayed leg of some long ago drawers, still gray as when the wool came from the sheep’s back. And she was right. The wool was as good as ever, in fact, better and softer than ever as a result of years of washings.
In Whycocomagh, Mrs. J. K. MacDonald hooks mats for pastime. Hers were things of beauty, made not for money but for love. But she was modest in speaking of her efforts. “Oh, I’ve only been hooking for two years. My mats can’t be so very good. You should see Mrs. MacAskill’s in Halifax!”
I did see Mrs. MacAskill’s. In fact, I had already seen them, and it is true that she has raised hooking to an art and shown to what heights of decorative value simple Canadian industry may be elevated.