It’s art born of practicality; beauty born of thrift. Our skilled foremothers hooked rugs, just as they quilted—not as a leisure activity but to use up bits of cloth to make something useful, transforming rags into masterpieces in the process. Home Economics: 150 Years of Canadian Hooked Rugs at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto showcases about 100 rugs from the museum’s huge collection.
The rugs range from painterly compositions sold to tourists in Quebec, created using patterns depicting nature or scenes of country life; to simple stylized flowers; to funky modern art. And “art” feels like the proper word to use when you walk through the galleries hung with these striking works. They reminded of the saying that when men create something beautiful, it’s art; when women do so, it’s craft.
I remember my stolid grandmother with a large wooden frame set up in her farmhouse sitting room, a burlap sack stretched across it through which she steadily pulled a narrow ribbon of fabric into short, even loops. Rugs of this kind abound at the exhibition; I was grateful that, unlike the ones my grandmother made, they were preserved rather than destroyed through—as intended—heavy use.
Particularly fascinating are the tightly hooked mats made in the early 1900s after William Grenfell and American Jessie Luther introduced them as a way to generate income in a region of Newfoundland ground down by poverty [ ] . Workers were given kits containing the burlap backing and fabric, at first strips of cloth but later dyed silk stockings that allowed for especially short loops and compact mats.
Other highlights include the geometric First Nations patterns hooked on the Standing Buffalo Reserve in Saskatchewan, the myriad rugs created to mark special occasions, and the distinctive mirrored bird design hooked by none other than Emily Carr.
The modern pieces are by turns beautiful, playful and thought-provoking. Yvonne Mulock’s “Hit and Miss” cleverly celebrates the bright multi-hued rugs created to use up bits and pieces of scrap fabric. But of course, as the editor of a history magazine, I was particularly taken with Barbara Klunder’s rendering of Laura Secord and her apocryphal cow.
The exhibition closes Feb. 8, 2016, but plans are in the works for it to travel. Check the Textile Museum of Canada’s website for information about Home Economics and other travelling exhibitions.