Edgartown knitters gather to knit, perl, and socialize

Jean Billingham's depiction of these shore birds is full of detail and movement — Photo courtesy of Amelia Smith

If you visit the Dock Street Hookers, they might get you started with a bit of stripping. The women there are always happy to introduce newcomers to hooking — rug hooking, that is. They meet weekly at The Anchors, the Edgartown Council on Aging. While the stripping here is all about shredding wool fabric, and the hooking is just pulling a piece of wool through cloth with a hook, the conversation is awash with double entendre and off-color humor.

“We’re down here in the harbor in this beautiful building here and sometimes it’s just so soothing to sit here and look at the harbor and the beaches,” said one of the hookers, Norma Sousa, who is intent on her work and objects when the comments turn too lewd. “Grace Watt and another girl were the ones who started this group, and they were so friendly. I was working as a receptionist here, and I quit working so I could join the group.”

Rug hooking is a traditional craft that began in the early 1800s in England and along the eastern seaboard of North America by women who definitely did not have money to burn. As floor rugs became popular, they sought ways to create their own rugs made from materials they had on hand. The traditional backing for hooked rugs was burlap, which could come from old grain sacks. The pieces of wool for the pile and pattern came from scraps and worn-out clothing. Today, the Dock Street Hookers continue that tradition of thrift. “You can use old wool clothing, you can take items from memory and work them into a rug,” says Annie Heywood, a long-time member of the group.

The Hookers do buy some materials, like linen or burlap foundation cloth, a stripper for the wool, and wool in colors they can’t find locally. Ms. Sousa pointed out a piece of her current work that she dyed herself, with onion skins. The hooked pieces wear well: One of the hookers showed off a purse that she’d been using for years, made out of a folded piece of hooking which looked only barely worn at the corners.

Of course it’s also easy to spend a bit more money on the craft. Claire Murray in Edgartown sells kits complete with colored yarn, a patterned foundation cloth, and instructions. Some of the hookers go to classes taught by Rosalie Powell in West Tisbury, as well as meeting with the Dock Street group.

The women at the Anchors would also welcome someone who was working from a kit, but most of their own work is original, even if it’s designed from existing photographs, paintings, or traditional patterns. Jean Billingham has a rug on display that tells the story of her migrations with her husband, a portrait of all the houses they lived in together. The rug looks like a picture of a village on a hill, but in fact the seven houses come from seven different places, starting in England in the 1950s and ending with the Billinghams’ current home on the Vineyard.

Lynne Benson came to the hookers for the first time this fall to get started in a new craft before heading off-Island for the winter. She recently sold her business, the Heath Hen Yarn and Quilt Shop, “so now I can get in more trouble,” she said.

Another newcomer to the group, Betsy Harrington, said that she met Rhoda Tappan, an old rug hooker, at Windemere. “I loved her work so much, and I’m a painter, so I wanted to do a little something new.” She brought her son Nik along, and although he didn’t strip or hook, he joined in the banter.

Anne Silva and Rose Goodwin also came to visit — some women who used to hook still come by for the company, even though their eyesight has faded to the point where hooking becomes too difficult. Although the core of the group is made up of older women, others are welcome too.

“It’s a comfortable place to come to,” Ms. Sousa said. “You can talk and you can do your hooking at the same time, you don’t have to count anything.” She says that it’s a forgiving art — it’s easy to pull stitches out and add them back in. Mistakes are no big deal, and designs can be adjusted as needed.

The Hookers’ work is currently on display at The Anchors, in a show originally scheduled for the month of October, but which has been held over into November.