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Modern hookers

A show at the Textile Museum of Canada shines the spotlight on rug hooking's surprising range. Emily Urquhart reports on how the old domestic craft has found its way into many talented new hands

Hannah Epstein’s Animal.

Hannah Epstein’s Animal.

Last fall, in a church hall in Victoria, 20 women ranging in age from 30 to 60 gathered for a workshop in rug hooking. Midway through the class, organizer Sheila Stewart, owner of the Blue Heron Rug Hooking Studio in Victoria, leaned over and gave me an impromptu demonstration.

"You hold the hook in your palm," she said, placing the fat end of her wooden hook in her hand and grasping the narrow base between her thumb and fingers so that only the three-centimetre steel end was visible. It looked like a thick nail, bent at the tip to catch the loops of fabric.

I mentioned a callus that I got during the summer I spent rug hooking and interviewing rug hookers across Newfoundland for my graduate research. Stewart wasn't convinced it was caused by technique. "You have the wrong hook," she said with confidence. Stewart, it turns out, is serious about the craft. To her, and a growing number of women, the centuries-old practice is more than a passion. Rug hooking is business.

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That link between craft and commerce is the narrative thread that runs through Home Economics: 150 Years of Canadian Hooked Rugs, an exhibition on now at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. The show displays early rugs, which tended to have geometric or floral patterns and were influenced by the decorative arts, alongside pieces by contemporary artists working in the medium – sometimes in surprising formats. Take a three-rug sequence by Nova Scotia-born Hannah Epstein that's been digitized and runs in a continuous loop. In it, a human-ish cartoon being asks, "Am I an animal?" over and over. It's surely the only rug-hooked GIF in existence.

The piece marks an eye-popping shift in aesthetics from rug hooking's early days.

Joanna Close’s The Kitchen

Joanna Close’s The Kitchen

Collection of the artist

Compare Epstein's modern hooking to the work of Annie Hillier, the star rug hooker at Grenfell Handicrafts in St. Anthony, Nfld., and a fascinating trajectory takes shape.

Hillier works eight hours a week for the century-old organization, pulling loops of fabric the size and width of linguine through the holes in a burlap or linen base that's stretched tight across a wooden frame. Hillier can hook 80 loops per minute, an astonishing speed, shaping images of her northern home – colourful clapboard houses, clothing flapping on a line, an iceberg on the horizon and maybe a polar bear or two.

The pastoral scenes on Grenfell mats are hooked tight and low and the fabric is dyed to suit the pattern. Hillier, 72, is a second-generation employee: Her mother taught her how to hook rugs, and the two women would often work both sides of a mat to liven the pace of this notoriously slow craft. Hillier left to work in a fish plant as a hand-cutter (while raising seven children), but returned to mat making for Grenfell about 20 years ago.

Whether for vocational purposes or in-home practicality, rug hooking has always been dominated by women, and hooking for Grenfell has been a livelihood for generations of them in northern Newfoundland. At first, women were paid in clothing and medical services, but later they earned an income by selling mats on commission. Today, Grenfell hookers get two-thirds of the retail price of the mats, with the rest going to support the Grenfell House Museum and historical premises. Hillier works at home and is paid on commission, and the earnings are unpredictable. "Some weeks you might sell no mats and next week you might sell three or four," Hillier says. "That's how mat hooking is."

Deanne Fitzpatrick’s School of Fish.

Deanne Fitzpatrick’s School of Fish.

Collection of Ruth Mandel

The Textile Museum's exhibit draws on the long-standing link in rug hooking between art and enterprise. "We were interested in rugs as an art form and craft practice but also wanted to look at the social history and the connection between craft and commerce that's always been there," Shauna McCabe, the museum's executive director, says. "There's never been a separation between the craft of rug hooking and the economy of craft and domestic life."

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The origins of rug hooking are murky, but it's possible the skill came ashore with French and English fishers who immigrated to North America in the early 19th century, where it was first introduced in New England, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. The history of rural Canadians is hooked into the earliest mats: Worn farm shirts, outgrown children's clothing and threadbare shift dresses were all torn into strips then looped into rugs that warmed bare floors in homesteads from Atlantic to Western Canada.

The rise of collecting culture spawned rug-hooking cottage industries in the late 1800s and early 20th century, the most prolific being that of British doctor Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who operated a handicraft industry in St. Anthony that supported his medical mission in Newfoundland and Labrador. Similar craft-based economies sprang up in Chéticamp, N.S., and parts of rural Quebec.

Heather Goodchild’s Journey.

Heather Goodchild’s Journey.

Collection of Scott Lauder

As in Hillier's case, the skill was originally passed on from mother to daughter. Then, for a time, it wasn't passed on at all. "What so often happens is that it skips a generation," says Stewart. She remembers her Nova Scotian grandmother hooking rugs, but not her mother. Industrialization, women entering the work force and even wall-to-wall carpet played a role in this shift. In most cases, however, the generational skip was deliberate. Rug hooking was associated with poverty. Women didn't want their daughters working with scraps to get by.

Today neophyte hookers can learn by taking courses, purchasing do-it-yourself kits and following demos on YouTube. It's a more non-linear form of training, but a sense of identity and belonging remains inherent to the craft's culture. Saskatchewan artist Karlie King says the link between rug hooking and her Métis heritage came as a surprise. She'd learned to hook in the arts and crafts community while living in St. John's, but after moving back home she realized the craft was practised by her elders.

"There was, at one point, a very rich Métis tradition of hooked rugs, and what I discovered was that the technique and designs were very much akin to Newfoundland rug hooking," says King, whose two young children are now adept hookers. She's intrigued by the historical questions this raises, but hasn't had time to tie the threads together.

Perhaps what's most interesting about contemporary rug hookers is how the past informs the present in their work. Another piece by Epstein in the Textile Museum exhibition incorporates the economy of rug hooking into her art practice. In a comment on the somewhat absurd valuation system of the art market, Epstein and fellow artists created Cool Cash by printing, sculpting, knitting and hooking dollar bills in various denominations.

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Hannah Epstein’s Cool Cash.

Hannah Epstein’s Cool Cash.

Collection of the artist

"I made them thinking about the Chéticamp rugs that, when you flip them over, are made by the square inch because the women would be paid by how many squares they could finish in a day," says Epstein, who now lives in Pittsburgh and attends Carnegie Mellon University. "There was something I liked about measuring labour like that. Invisible on the surface but revealed on the back."

Epstein's Cool Cash is not so different from Annie Hillier's hooked mats, which are also a form of currency.

These days, much of the craft's market has moved online, where an increasingly diverse culture of hookers buy and sell not only finished pieces but fabric, patterns, stand cutters and, of course, a variety of hooks.

"Makers have always found a way to make the economy work for them," McCabe says.

Home Economics: 150 Years of Canadian Hooked Rugs continues at Toronto's Textile Museum of Canada until Feb. 8 (

Hookers to watch

Deanne Fitzpatrick, Nova Scotia

Every Canadian hooker working today knows Fitzpatrick, who has been creating work, writing books, offering courses and selling supplies out of her studio in Amherst, N.S., for 25 years. Her rugs are alive with movement, informed by both her technique and aesthetic. She also sells her DIY kits and her rugs online.

Yvonne Mullock, Alberta

Mullock's Hit and Miss mat, hooked in a Calgary art gallery with people from the surrounding community (and their clothing), puts a new spin on the meaning of local. Her Use Me mat is installed on gallery floors, asking everyone who walks on it to question the art/craft and decorative/utilitarian divide.

Joanna Close, Nova Scotia

Close's hooked images of her family farm are a testament to a former home, landscape and way of life. The sentiment is equal parts nostalgic and political, but the work in this series is 100-per-cent beautiful.

Barbara Klunder, Ontario

Klunder's background as an illustrator and graphic designer shines in her hooked rugs that are stylized but abstract, with hints of graffiti art and cave painting.

Heather Goodchild, Ontario

Atmospheric and emotionally charged, Goodchild's rugs are filled with threatening weather and mythic creatures, providing a hooked link to a beautiful, if somewhat terrifying, fantasy world.

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