Hooked on rugs

Sandy Broyard's passion becomes her handiwork.

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While enjoying the rugs at the 2018 Ag Fair, finding one made by Chilmark resident Sandy Broyard was a complete surprise. Broyard is better known as director of What’s Written Within, a modern improv dance company, plus there’s her work on Chilmark’s conservation commission, and she puts in time on the site review committee. In fact, I never before noticed a rug by Broyard, and it turned out to be her first submission. Now that life is quieter, I had the chance to visit Sandy at her Chilmark home and learn how she developed a passion for hooked rugs.

Broyard’s home, though modern on the outside, feels like you’re stepping back in time upon entering. You’ll find dark wood, hand-stenciling on the stairs and bordering the upper edges of every wall, many antiques everywhere, and a wood-burning stove. Her home effuses history from every corner. There are hooked rugs on the floor, hanging on walls, sitting on chairs, and adorning tabletops.

She shows me how the sun has faded the edge of a loop we see on one of her creations, but the original color can still be seen by pressing against the loop and looking below the surface.

“I started rug hooking because I saw a tiny article on Valentine’s Day in the New York Times, 10 or 11 years ago, about a woman in upstate New York who had patterns for primitive rugs,” Sandy explains. “My [late] husband and I collected antique rugs, and I’ve always loved them for their unique quality, and also they’re all-American. Rug hooking has been around a long, long time. It became popular maybe in the 18th century, when the poor would make rugs out of worn clothing and used burlap bags. I love the fact these are all anonymous artists, and that they’re all unique visions.” None of the rugs Sandy and her husband collected are signed.

Sandy attended a two-day workshop in New Hampshire with Barbara Carroll, author of “American Folk Art Rug Hooking.” Speaking about the rug she started there, “It’s the width of this piano bench,” Sandy says. “I wanted to put piano keys on the ends of it as a nod to very primitive rug hooking. The very wide cut. We were given templates to use of primitive shapes of dogs, cats, fish. I made a fish, I made a star, and the rainbow corners are often found in primitive rugs.”

We continued on the rug tour, looking at one from her collection that says “little house by the side of the road.” Though it’s quite faded, Sandy concedes, “It has a little Van Gogh in it, and reflects some woman’s rendition of her time and existence.” We walk around examples, collected over 25 or 30 years, that originally inspired her to take up this craft. The Broyards “lived in a series of 18th century houses in Connecticut, collected antiques, went to antiques shows and dealers, and we’d see these rugs and were so drawn to them.

“This was from a purchased pattern made around 1875 to 1880, when the Sears and other catalogues began,” Sandy says about a lion rug she shows me.

Then she shows me two more rugs she made: “An homage to a Hamadan Oriental that died. I took some of the shapes and elements.” Sandy said that because she does not hook daily, this rug took her eight or nine months to finish. The other rug, made a couple of years ago, is “the only time [she] followed a pattern. I attended a Rosalie Humphreys Powell [who’s taught on-Island since the 1940s] rug-hooking workshop. She’s a McGowan teacher [as in Pearl and granddaughter Jane McGown Flynn, teachers and innovators in the field], so very finely done shading. Thin-stripped does not appeal to me, but I wanted the challenge of shading.”

Hooked rug makers use cutters to create the strips they work with in varying widths. Sandy mostly works with “a six cut,” but adds, “there are some four-cuts in here too,” as she shows me examples. We walk by a chair with a rug seat that she says “was the inspiration for what I put in the fair. The one I put in I [added] water elements between an Oriental motif.” When I mention remembering a ribbon hanging from her Ag Fair entry, Sandy says, “I was shocked.”

I wonder how many rugs Sandy has finished in the 12 years since she began hooking rugs, but then we’re on our way down the stairs. Does she still collect rugs? No. Does she ever travel to do research for her rugs? Well, no, because she admits her choreography keeps her too busy. She does, however, meet with a weekly group begun by Rosalie Powell, that now meets at former and new members’ homes.

What Broyard is up to now is planning for her next rug, “which is bigger. We all have a lot of leftover strips, like the one at the fair. The one I’m working on is inspired from the deer getting into my garden, and from a design made in 1877 France. I’ve always loved that deer, its expression. I love that everything is symbolic and was used in William Morris, how design comes down through different cultures and the ages, what sticks and what doesn’t stick.”

Sandy shows me how to draw a pattern. Ideally, she uses a light box to trace elements she likes. Once you get the drawing down, one must transfer it to the backing, again using light to draw the tracing onto the backing. “Annie Hays was my first inspiration,” Sandy says. “We developed an email relationship. She taught me how to begin. My first rug was one of her designs.”

She takes out an album to show me photos of other examples of her work, the pieces she made when each of her grandchildren were born, explaining the significance of each element. I wonder about the material she uses, and Sandy tells me, “One of the problems about becoming a rug hooker is that you become addicted to wool.” She opens an antique wooden trunk filled with one of her stashes, then takes a see-through plastic container out and shows me more, but has a few more containers stashed under beds. Long pants, skirts, and other clothes can be turned into raw material for rug hookers: “There are certain wools you don’t want to hook with, like a flat China wool.”

Broyard shows me the frame she works on, which holds the backing. The wool is underneath, and you stick a hook through and pull up. She uses a Fraser cloth-slitting machine, albeit the luxe model, admitting you’ve definitely married hooking when you purchase one. The main advantage is being able to change the cutter widths so easily. Although Broyard as yet has not inspired a family member to begin hooking, she did recently teach a friend the basics.

She said she has given a lot of her rugs away to family members and friends, always adding, “Some are small.” Then she shows me some hooking techniques. It’s the first time I’ve seen rug hooking. Broyard adds, “There’s latch hooking, you can buy in kits. I did a couple, but it’s like idiot’s delight.” For rug hookers, “there’s the hunt for wool. We share our wools. It brings women together.” I was thoroughly grateful for my tour, and Sandy Broyard showing me what is involved in the art of rug hooking. I hope we’ll see more of her work in future Ag Fairs.

If you’re interested in rug hooking, contact Nancy Weaver, a member of the Island rug-hooking group, at nancyweavermv@hotmail.com to learn more.