As a result, they are still with us to prove that this method of achieving a tapestry like design with cloth instead of thread, and a hook in place of a needle, was known and practiced probably as early as the middle of the eighteenth century.
From that historic record on cloth, the Bayeux tapestry, credited to Mathilde, wife of William the Conqueror, and her ladies, down until the late eighteenth century when women of English country-gentry families consumed their spare time making rugs and other coverings in Bros point, tapestry was- nothing new.
New England farmhouses, however, were frugal, self-sustaining units. They had other uses for the yarn that had been spun with so much labour from home-grown wool, so they turned to their piece and rag bags. With a technique that had probably migrated from Northern Europe, they made rugs out of materials too worn for any other use. Thus came the hooked rug and, having reached the American shore, stayed.
Other home crafts perished under the competition of factory substitutes, but hooked rugs were made all through the late eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Even today, in minor farm journals and women's magazines, one may find small advertisements of improved rug hookers, stencilled patterns, and patented cutters for converting worn-out clothing into the narrow strips essential for rug hooking. These are addressed to farmers' wives living in isolated regions where money is scarce and home crafts are of necessity still practiced. Unhappily, what they are now making is crude in conception and rough in execution, but they are hooked rugs just as much as the finest and most highly prized examples of the eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The later can be identified by both internal evidence and design.
Before 1825 relatively little cotton cloth was in use in New England. Consequently, these early rugs were done on a background of hand-woven linen, fine enough for bedding or coarse enough for sacking; on an old blanket or shawl, also hand woven; or, infrequently, on something akin to sailcloth. The materials for the hooking were likewise home-loomed stuffs, such as woollens, linens, and ravelings of knitted garments. With endless patience, these were cut and then dyed to desired colours.
The decorative motif of these early examples was a sprawling one of flowers and foliage on a somewhat conventionalised vine or tree. In essence, these early designs harked back to the crewelwork bed hangings and kindred needlework that was in America after the middle of the seventeenth century. Hooked rugs of this type are classed as the best and are rated as rare antiques, as are those recording some scene or journey. Here the hooker sought to make what she had seen at home or abroad the theme of her pattern, with some homely touches added to fill out the shortcomings of the pattern as it developed. Such rugs were made in various parts of New England as well as in some sections of eastern New York to which New England families had migrated. Of this period were the large hooked rugs of carpet size that were later discontinued.
At a slightly later period geometric forms replaced the floral ones and were in turn followed by designs combining both. The pattern, however, was still the invention and drafting of the hooker and, like those of the slightly earlier period, individualistic. Balance and form depended on the drawing skill of the rug-maker. The hooking might be almost as fine as needlework or several degrees coarser. In short, the rug represented some woman's urge to fashion out of her odds and ends something of beauty and of her own designing and production.
It is probable that about 1830 rug hooking seeped out of New England in two directions; across the northern border into lower Canada, which we now know as the Maritime Provinces, and Quebec; across the southern boundary to that part of Pennsylvania chiefly peopled by Palatinate Germans. The Canadians, of Scotch extraction, were partial to geometric designs and sometimes made superb, large carpets. Those of French descent, on the other hand, preferred highly coloured flower patterns and domestic animals. The Pennsylvania Dutch characteristically preferred their barnyard fowl and household animals, their cabalistic designs from their barn walls, and such sweet sentiments as joined hearts.
About this time a Victorian flavour became apparent in rug design in New England and the floral motif became crystallized in stiff and formal representations of roses and the like. Hooked rugs in America were for the first time touched by commercialism about 1850. E. S. Frost, who first operated from Biddeford, Maine, began to peddle throughout his state canvas backgrounds bearing stencil designs. He prospered and later shifted his base of operations to Boston, where he did a thriving business supplying New England farmers' wives with their highly prized "boughten patterns."
These Frost patterns were the height of the Victorian in design and are so well known to rug collectors that they can be called by number. Some rugs, clearly hooked on stencilled backgrounds of Mr. Frost's providing, have been found with dates and initials added, showing they were widely used before 1855. Then there are many others where the preponderance of navy-blue cloth, used in the hooking, indicates the Civil War period. About the last of the Frost patterns were those of the Centennial, bearing the dates 1776 to 1876.
Three or four years later, Frost and his ready-prepared patterns went the way of many things, probably because rug hooking had ceased to be carried on to any extent in New England. Some of it continued, but the centre shifted, largely to Canada. How large a market Frost had across the border is not dear, but in time his place was taken by John E. Garrett. He was first located at Burlington, Vermont, where he published his own "rug or mat patterns."
Then, following the principle of going where the market was best, Garrett moved to Canada, and made his headquarters at Halifax, Nova Scotia. There on a broadside of thin yellow paper he brought out what was practically a catalogue of his designs. Some thirty different patterns were shown printed in outline with black ink. These are current in Canada today although by no means all the modern Canadian hooked rugs are done on Garrett stencils. Many of them are simple improvisations; good, when the worker possesses native talent and a capacity for fine workmanship; bad, when lacking either or both.