Although some of the women in the M.V. Rug Hookers group use their magnificent works of art as actual rugs, I can’t imagine doing anything but coveting them for my walls. Each in this exquisite exhibition at the West Tisbury library through the end of July is a masterpiece of skill and artistry.
The origin of this talented group, today consisting of some 12 regulars, most of whom meet at member Susan Silk’s house every Tuesday from 4 to 6 pm, started in about 2010. Island native Rosalie Powell, whose family goes back more than a dozen generations, introduced many of the M.V. Rug Hookers group to the art through her classes, workshops, and weekly gatherings more than a decade ago, and eventually they went off on their own. Member Sandy Broyard remembers, “Rosalie was a demanding but wonderful teacher about so many important things, such as how you choose colors, use the wool, and finish a rug … all the details.” Silk adds, “She also helped us by doing workshops on dying your own wool. To dye your own wool takes over your kitchen. There must have been eight pots. That’s the level she did. She’d say, ‘We’re going to learn to hook rugs like they used to.’”
At the start of each gathering, the women “show and tell” the ongoing progress of each rug. Other members chime in with advice on color choices and design challenges, and above all, offer encouragement. Then they get down to business, and with hands busy with their rugs, the women also connect as friends, sharing Island news and family anecdotes.
The members work on a wide variety of images, ranging from Debra Grant’s pastoral scene of cows in a field, and her depiction of the On Time II ferry crossing Edgartown Harbor, to an intricate abstract pattern of leaves by Nancy Weaver. Some rugs are subdued, such as one by Patty Kirwin in which the elegant geese by the water and land on which they stand are all created with a palette dominated by tan, brown, and cream hues against a pale blue and white sky that picks up the slightly darker blues in the water. In contrast, is another by Nancy Weaver of explosive concentric circles that fill the entire space so there is no background field of color.
The design in most of the rugs includes hooked, framed edges, which accentuate the sense of them as works of art. Broyard’s tulips dance within the framework, whereas Sue Silk deliberately extends some of the petals and leaves beyond the solid-colored frames, bringing a different type of dynamism to the handsomely colored compositions.
While members’ pieces vary in size, Lynn Marquedant’s remarkable, enormous rug is by far the largest, with its brilliant colors and dazzling composition in which her three dogs sit amid a burst of flowers of all shapes and sizes that break into our space.
Something unique to this art form is our visceral reaction to each piece, leaving us wanting to run our fingertips over their rippled surface, which is created by meticulously pulling a strand of slim wool up through a small opening in the canvas, reminiscent of those used in needlepoint. Like needlepoint too, the artist can create her own design and choice of color combinations. Although there are kits available, Silk remembers how much Powell looked down upon them, instead teaching her students about the historical craft.
A sign in the exhibition explains that rug hooking has roots in Scandinavia, and 18th century Britain and Scotland. From Europe, rug hooking traveled to Nova Scotia and New England. In the Colonial period, women made strips for hooking from worn-out clothes, blankets, and other fabrics to fashion decorative floor rugs and bed coverings. By 1850, the craft had spread to the Mid-Atlantic states and farther afield.
Members tend to make rugs to commemorate events like births and marriages, as well as giving them as gifts. Looking at the hooked rug that Kate Taylor’s grandmother made for her own mother in 1946, Broyard comments, “It’s different from giving a knit sweater, which is very utilitarian. I don’t think a sweater knit in 1946 would be alive today.”
Broyard shares about a demonstration they did at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, “When people tried rug hooking, they really wanted to get into it. It’s very satisfying. Part of it is designing your own designs, and the feel of the wool. After a while, you just keep wanting to touch it. There’s something very tactile about it.”
There are rug-hooking groups across the country now, and if you are interested, you can try your hand, whether a total beginner or experienced at the craft, with the one here on Martha’s Vineyard.
M.V. Rug Hookers meet this summer every Thursday from 4 to 6 pm. They will also be offering a free workshop this fall. For more information, email email@example.com.