Handmade rugs have been around for a long time. For example, Oriental rugs have existed for centuries. These gorgeous silk rugs are dyed, knotted, and clipped to perfection in the most intricate patterns, and are often high-priced, sought-after items that become family heirlooms. Another handmade rug, the traditional hooked rug, is the country version of an Oriental. What it lacks in refinement it makes up for in its simple crafting and maintenance.
Traditional rug hooking saw its heyday in New England during the 1800s. People wore 100-percent woolen clothing because synthetics hadn’t been invented yet. Wool that’s properly cared for lasts a long time, and, being the frugal folks they were, people back then found new uses for old, worn-out clothing: They created beautiful hooked wool rugs that we now treasure.
Traditional rug makers use a plain hook and long strips of fabric. The long strips are pulled through the backing, and tension keeps them from pulling out under normal circumstances. Back in the day, people repurposed old items to make their hooking supplies. Burlap feed sacks lent themselves for backing; a handy person could take a bent piece of iron and add a wooden handle to make a hook; embroidery hoops were plentiful for small creations that were displayed on the wall; and stands for larger floor rugs were homemade from materials on hand.
I’m going to show you how to make a traditional hooked rug similar to those fashioned by people in the 1800s.
Before starting, you’ll first need to decide what you want your design to look like. Start where you feel comfortable, keeping in mind that beginners do well with simple designs. Pick fabric colors that complement your design. Most wool fabrics are made for men’s suits, so the colors likely will be neutral.
Tools & Materials:
- Burlap, monk’s cloth, or linen for backing
- Embroidery hoop or homemade stand (see Homemade Stand, below)
- Permanent marker
- Tulle for tracing design, optional
- 100-percent wool fabric (Note: The rule of thumb is to have four times as much fabric as the size of the section of color.)
- Mechanical wool cutter or scissors
- Rug hook
- Rug-binding tape
- Buttonhole twist or quilting thread
- Tapestry or yarn needle
- Clean, dampened towels (2)
- Iron and ironing board
Step 1: Attach the Backing
Attach the backing to your form (embroidery hoop or stand), centering it, and cut off the extra, leaving about 2 to 3 inches all around for the hem. Make sure the backing is as tight as possible.
Step 2: Draw the Design
Draw your design on the front of the burlap. You can draw it freehand directly onto the burlap. Or, if you aren’t confident about your artistic skills, take a section of tulle bigger than your surface, draw your design on the tulle, place it on your backing, and retrace it onto the material. The marker will go through the tulle and leave traces on your backing.
Step 3: Cut the Fabric Strips
Cut the wool fabric into strips that’ll create the rug’s design. Make them about the thickness and general length of linguine, or, if you want the loops more pronounced, cut them to the size of fettucine. To do this, you can either borrow or purchase a cutter (expensive, but the most accurate and easy way), or you can cut your fabric with scissors, which makes for an imperfect, natural-looking strip. Another option is to use a heavy metal straight-edge and a rolling cutter. No matter which method you use, try to make the strips as equal in size as you can.
Step 4: Hook the Fabric
Locate the spot where you want to begin, and choose the right color for that section of the design. If you’re right-handed, your left hand will be underneath the backing, holding the strip between your thumb and forefinger close to the underside of the backing. With your right hand on the face-up side (where your design is visible), push through the backing with your hook, catch the tail of the strip underneath, and pull it through the backing. The tail doesn’t need to be especially long, just a bit taller than your loops will be. Later, you’ll trim the tail end with scissors. If you’re left-handed, this will be done vice versa.
Next, you’ll make your first loop. Push your hook through the backing again from the face-up side, next to where you pulled the tail up, and catch the fabric strip underneath. With your underside hand guiding the fabric, pull the hook back up, pulling a loop of fabric to the face-up side.
At first, you’ll probably make the loop too big. Simply adjust the size of the loop by pulling the loop back down with your underside hand. Try to keep all of the loops the same size, and as tall as the width of the fabric strip. Pull two or three loops through the backing right next to each other, then skip a space. This keeps the loops from getting too tight. You’ll begin to get a feel for how close together you want your loops to be as you work. The ideal look is the loops standing up straight and not flopping over. When it looks like this, they aren’t too tall or too loose. Also, try to make the bottom flat and tight; you can feel with your underside hand if it is.
It’s typical for beginners to pull out their previous loop. Holding the loop with your fingers to keep it from being pulled out helps to avoid this. As you get more accustomed to the tension, you’ll be able to sail along without holding on. If you pull your loop up and away from yourself, that’ll also help you keep from pulling out the previous loop. Trying it and messing up is the best way to learn. The beauty of this process is that if you make a mistake or want to change things, it’s easy to pull out and start over.
Once you’ve reached the end of your fabric strip, pull the tail up like you did in the beginning of the strip. Then, take your next strip and pull the start of the tail up through the same hole as the ending tail of the previous strip. Continue hooking loops as before.
Keep doing this over the burlap surface until you’ve filled it in to your satisfaction. When you’re done, sew rug-binding tape to the edges of your backing, fold the edges under, and hand sew using a whip stitch. You may also choose to cut the tails at the end or as you go, as they’re normally a bit taller than the loops. To do this, gently tug up on the tails and snip them straight across to match the loops’ height, then release.
Step 5: Add the Finishing Touches
The final step is to shrink and tighten the rug. To do this, place your rug face-down on an evenly damp towel, and then place another damp towel on top. Pick up an iron heated on the wool setting, place it on top of the rug, and press to cover all surfaces, being careful not to burn the rug. You don’t need steam at this point, as the moisture in the towels will steam your work.
My handyman husband made a homemade rug hooking stand out of a wooden TV tray. He simply cut a “window” in the middle of the tray, and attached tack strips (used for laying carpet) to the edges to hold the backing in place. It works well for making big rugs because it’s easy to reposition the backing to whatever area you’re working on.
Rug Hooking Tips
It’s easier to work if you hook toward yourself, rather than away from you, so you’re able to observe the leading edge.
Thick strips make a nice, puffy loop, but are harder to pull through, especially on burlap.
Burlap is the traditional backing material, but it’s somewhat messy because it sheds little fibers. If you want a less traditional and cleaner finished product, monk’s cloth will shed less. It’s also not as stiff as burlap. (Use a lint roller on the finished product to remove the loose fibers.)
100-percent wool fabric isn’t as easy to find as you might think. If you find it in a secondhand store, be sure to wash the wool before using in case it harbors any moth eggs. Many high-end fabric stores sell new fabric remnants at discounted prices, such as Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. However, be aware that smooth finish, worsted wool that’s used for men’s suits isn’t as suitable as nappy woolens. The ideal weight is 12 to 14 ounces. If you’re unsure, weigh a 36-by-36-inch piece, folded in half, on a digital scale.