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While wealthy colonists like Ben Franklin bought imported oriental rugs for their American homes, poorer and rural households were likely to make their own rugs, turning scraps of worn clothing and leftover yarn into hand-made hooked and rag rugs.

“The early examples are mainly hearth rugs,” says Linda Eaton, Curator of Textiles at Winterthur Museum and Country Estate. “A creative woman could make something beautiful for her home.”

Pearl McGown explains how the women did it in The Dreams Beneath Design, beginning with cutting rags into strips. “They had to stand or bend over frames usually stretched between four chairs. If they used linen for a foundation, they had already prepared the flax through 20 dexterous manipulations, spun the thread and woven the material on a hand-loom. If their foundation was burlap, it was made of sugar or meal bags, which had first been washed, stretched and pieced together. Their hooks were forged from old metal or a nail, and success depended upon the patience and skill of the ‘man of the house.””

Early rugs were often original design creations, as unique as the individual. Well-designed hooked rugs made before 1850 now command the highest prices at auction. In addition to their one-of-a-kind folk integrity, W.W. Kent writes in The Hooked Rug, “In America the very scarcity of materials contributed to simplicity of design and a certain excellence.”

A good example is a simple floral rug that Pook & Pook, Inc. Auctioneers in Downingtown, Pa. sold last year for over $28,000. In addition to the striking design and colors, this rug was created on linen, indicating that it was probably made before 1850. After that time, burlap bags were so commonly available and well suited for hooking a rug that homespun was seldom used. Otherwise, it’s often hard to date hooked rugs, and very rare to know the maker.

Experts don’t know whether hooked rugs are an American invention or whether early settlers or sailors brought the craft over from Europe. According to Joan Scobey in Rugs and Wall Hangings, whether or not they began here, “America’s contribution to rug making is undoubtedly the hooked rug,” as “it certainly reached its peak of creative expression and technical achievement in New England and the Maritime provinces….”

Wherever they began, humble hooked rugs have had a roller coaster ride in popularity. Once largely a rural or perhaps seafaring endeavor, hooking rugs caught fire when commercial patterns popularized the craft after 1850. Entrepreneurs like E.S. Frost, a Maine tin peddler, collected designs from farm women and stamped hand-colored patterns on burlap with stencils he cut out of large zinc plates between 1864 and 1876. Hooked rugs declined in popularity during the 1890s when commercial floor coverings became widely accessible.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York decorators began buying hooked rugs for wealthy clients, and Arts and Crafts collectives or philanthropic women like Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell set up cottage industries that made hooked rugs. Turn-of-the-century dealers Ralph Burnham and James Shoemaker scoured New England, amassing large collections of hooked rugs to sell.

Later, during the depression, hooking rugs again became a popular pastime. Teacher Caroline Saunders mentored teachers like Pearl McGown, Louise Hunter Zeiser, and Edith Dana, who in turn taught more teachers. In the “40s and “50s, hooking rugs became a common hobby among housewives. A resurgence of interest in folk art brought the craft back to popularity in the “70s, when organizations like the Green Mountain Rug Hooking Guild (www.gmrhg.org) were formed.

Winter in Vermont certainly calls for rugs on the floor, but early hooked rugs were made as far south as Delaware and perhaps farther. A limited number of early rugs exists from Pennsylvania Dutch country with lively images of farm animals and other natural subjects. Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum’s exhibit, Rags to Rugs: Pennsylvania Hooked and Handsewn Rugs, which ran in 2008, was a great place to see old rugs from the Lancaster area. Another resource is Patricia Herr’s new book, Rags to Rugs Hooked & Handsewn Rugs of Pennsylvania.

Linda Eaton of Winterthur calls Herr’s work “really important because it’s looking at a regional group. Since hooked rugs were highly collectible in the early 20th century, they have lost any provenance.” Like many wealthy people during that time, Mr. du Pont bought hooked rugs for his summer house. “He spent $20,000 in one year on hooked rugs for his house in Southampton,” Eaton says . Several rooms on the 8th floor of Winterthur have hooked rugs, and Eaton will get out all the hooked rugs for groups that arrange a special tour.

Eaton reminded me of the collectible value of the Colonial Revival period during the early part of the 20th century, when Americana boomed. Hooked rugs made during that time can command very high prices at auction. Pook & Pook recently sold a wonderful c. 1900 hooked rug featuring a black horse surrounded by pinwheel flowers and geometric designs for $8,775, after estimating $1,500-$2,500. “Hooked rugs from the 1870s to the 1920s are selling very well,” Jamie Shearer of Pook & Pook says.

However, “A fairly common everyday hooked rug commanded more money 10 years ago,” Shearer says. Caroline Faris of Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia says that many hooked rugs sell for $500. Now may be a good time to collect a hooked rug, or to make one yourself!