BETHEL — Although Ellen Marshall never knew her grandmother who passed away in 1941, she feels her influence every day.

“She was a rug hooker,” said Marshall, of Albany. “I grew up with her rugs and loved them. That’s how I got into it.”

A class several years ago with Connie Fletcher, then-owner of Artful Hands, a fiber arts store in Norway, got Marshall started in rug hooking.

She now has an Etsy store, Two Cats and Dog Hooking, where she sells original rugs, pillows, chair pads and other finished items, along with her own patterns and hand-dyed wool fabrics.

“I’ve always done crafty things — all my life — but this is the one that really spoke to me,” she said. “It’s kind of like painting with wool. It’s very forgiving, but at the same time, very creative.”

She quickly graduated from following patterns created by others to designing her own, and has since thrown herself wholeheartedly into the craft. Learning to dye her own wool for rug hooking has taken her several steps deeper into the creative process.

Although she has been using mostly commercial dyes so far, after attending a workshop on dyeing wool using natural materials with Marty Elkin of A Wrinkle in Thyme, Marshall said she is inspired to experiment more.

“I’ve got a huge tub of onion skins saved right now, waiting for me to use them,” she said. “And I have plans to grow some flowers and herbs next year that can be used to dye wool.”

She dyes her wool fabric in small lots, up to three “fat quarters” (about a square quarter-yard piece of fabric) at a time. The intensity of the color depends on how long the fabric is left in the dye.

Marshall writes down all her formulas and keeps them in a notebook, so they can be replicated — in theory.

“They’re not perfect,” she said of craftwork. “They’re all individual, and everyone’s experience is individual.”

Marshall owns and treasures her grandmother’s rug hooks, which she said were probably made from whatever materials she had on hand. Some have wooden handles, while others appear to have been made from the handles of old flatware.

Like most rug hookers of the past, her grandmother cut up worn woolen clothing to create her rugs.

“My grandfather was afraid to leave home because he was afraid she would cut up all his clothes to make rugs while he was gone,” she said.

A practical craft

While fiber arts historians believe that the technique of creating decorative floor coverings by pulling loops of fabric through a woven background cloth may have originated many centuries ago, perhaps in ancient Egypt, the craft as it is practiced today developed more recently.

In the early part of the 19th century, workers in weaving mills in Yorkshire, England, brought home scraps of yarn that were too short to be used commercially and pulled loops of yarn through a backing fabric to create patterned rugs and mats.

In the 1830s, as wealthy New England families first began to purchase machine-made carpets for their homes, the less affluent began searching through their fabric scraps to find a way to emulate these factory-made floor coverings, which added both style and warmth to bare floors.

They adapted the technique employed in Yorkshire, using narrow strips of fabric cut from worn clothing in lieu of yarn.

By the middle of the 19th century, burlap fabric had become widely available, often in the form of used feed bags, and its loose weave provided a suitable background through which to pull the loops of cloth.

Burlap’s biggest shortcoming, however, was its tendency to rot and fall apart quickly. Hand-hooked rugs from the 1800s were fragile and saw hard use, and as a result, few of them still survive.

Rug hooking was a common winter pastime, and it was not unusual for rural women, assisted by their daughters, to create a new rug each year for the most-used room of the home. Rugs from previous years would be relegated to bedrooms and eventually discarded when they became too worn.

Workshops and collaboration

Marshall regularly attends a weekly workshop on Tuesdays at Parris House Wool Works, owned by Beth Miller of Paris Hill, where rug hookers can work side by side on their current projects while enjoying an exchange of information and ideas.

One member, Terry Ensslen of Gilead, has begun leading a weekly fiber arts circle on Saturdays at Art @ 57MAINe in Bethel, where Marshall’s hooking patterns are also available. Ensslen’s husband, Bob, also builds and sells hardwood rug-hooking frames.

Several members of the Tuesday hooking group who have Etsy shops, including Marshall, have joined together to promote each other’s online sales efforts. They offer completed projects, patterns, kits, wool, hooks and other supplies.

Bethel Historical Society exhibit

Marshall and other local rug hookers are putting together a display of their craft that will be on exhibit at the Bethel Historical Society’s Robinson House beginning later this month. The exhibit will be on display throughout most of 2017.

They plan to feature a changing array of old and new work, with occasional demonstrations and guest speakers.

Cathy Newell of Greenwood has been working for about a year on a large rug that will be one highlight of the exhibit, combining her love of both handcrafts and local history.

Her original pattern is based on a circa-1890 photograph that BHS Executive Director Randall Bennett chose for the cover of his 1991 book, “Bethel, Maine: An Illustrated History.”

The image shows the Bethel Town Common and many of the adjacent buildings on Broad Street. In creating her pattern, Newell opened up the view to include several Church Street buildings and a background of the White Mountains.

Once the background and buildings were completed, she searched out other old photographs and added dozens of historically accurate figures to the foreground, including a farmer with his team of oxen, a group of boys playing marbles, chickens pecking the ground and a rider on horseback.

‘Hooked’ through Adult Ed class

Newell had first tried her hand at rug hooking about 20 years ago with the purchase of a simple kit, from which she created a small cat pillow — but it wasn’t until 2012, when she enrolled in an enrichment class, that Miller taught through the Adult Education department of School Administrative District 44, that she became completely “hooked.”

Like Marshall, she said she enjoys the “painterly” aspects of hooking and has used photographs and her own imagination to create projects that feature favorite scenes.

“I am very fond of a pillow that illustrates the visiting rabbit being scared off by a combination of Clancy (the Newell family cat) and a chipmunk,” she said. “It has the back of our house and the pond in the background. I also like a little pad that has two chickens on Stan Howe’s porch, done from a photograph.”

With an affinity for history and authenticity, Newell said she likes the “recycling aspect” of the craft.

“Most of my pieces are a combo of new wool and stuff from my closet, Goodwill, etcetera,” she said. “It is getting harder to find 100 percent wool (clothing), and on a big project like the Common rug, I needed to buy new wool to be sure I had enough to finish the project.”

Lois Ruff, then an instructor for SAD 44 Adult Education and now its director, was also enrolled in Miller’s rug-hooking class in 2012. She, too, became intrigued and has continued to pursue the craft.

A longtime knitter, she enjoys creating practical items for gifts or for her own use.

She said she had always liked old handmade rugs, and she leans toward abstract or geometric designs for her own hooking projects. She has made chair pads, table mats and several small rugs.

Although she primarily uses patterns designed by others when she hooks, she has tried her hand at designing her own patterns as well.

She uses a combination of new and repurposed wool, and enjoys the thrill of the hunt for second-hand wool garments she can cut into strips and incorporate into her projects.

“I like finding large-size wool skirts at thrift shops,” Ruff said.

Growing interest

While the number of people who have taken up rug hooking has soared in recent years, it is not the first time the craft has enjoyed popularity in the local area.

“Florence Hastings did hooking, and her work was on exhibit at BHS when her family honored her with the Crafts Fund in her name,” Newell said. “Then, when Ellen, Lois, and I did a one-day exhibit in the fall of 2015 at BHS, Rachel McKay came and mentioned that the Extension Service Homemaker groups were into it and her mother, Mrs. Brown of the Variety Store, and her contemporaries were involved.”

Newell said many of these earlier local rug hookers used patterns from the same supplier, Pearl McGown, who designed and sold rug patterns and supplies beginning in the 1920s.

McGown and her granddaughter, Jane McGown Flynn, later traveled and taught workshops, and are credited with doing much to ensure the survival of the craft.

Interest in rug hooking continues to grow. Besides an ever-expanding number of home studios and Etsy shops, there are specialty shops focused on rug hooking throughout Maine and New England and across the country.

Marshall said an all-day “hook-in” planned for Belfast on April 22 is expected to draw up to 100 crafters, as well as vendors offering patterns, supplies and equipment.

“There’s always something new to learn, which makes it kind of fun,” she said.


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