Laura Kenney: Keeping Rug Hooking Traditions Alive

Laura with "Crying Fish"

Laura Kenney creates hooked rugs with whimsical designs, featuring everyday objects. She has an appreciation for the traditions of rug hooking in the past, when people made them with what they had at hand, and incorporates second-hand wool clothing into her designs. “When you see a bolt of new wool, there’s no personality to it. It’s not like seeing an old pair of pants or skirt and thinking of the person who would’ve worn them – there is always a story to that.”

In 2010 Laura was awarded juried status with the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council, and her rugs have been shown in shops and galleries throughout the province. Laura lives with her husband and two children in Truro, Nova Scotia.

What is your background, creatively speaking?

All the women in our family keep their hands busy with sewing, knitting or hooking. As a kid, I remember my sister and I going to fabric stores, as my Mom always had a sewing project on the go. I have this one vivid memory of looking up and seeing all these colours, which must have been the bolts of material. It all seemed so beautiful, almost magical. It‘s funny, because with my rug hooking it is the colours that I want to get just right. If the design is a little off, that is ok, but if the colours aren’t working, well, I want to pull my hair out, pitch a fit and crawl into a fetal position…no kidding.

"Brown Dress"

I went to a rug hooking exhibit in Truro and once again, it was the colours that struck me. It was like I was that little kid again, looking up the bolts of fabric. I just knew I had to try it and I went out and bought a little kit and that was the beginning.

When I finished my first project, I went over to Pictou to look for another rug to make. I was looking through a rack of patterns and I didn’t find any I liked and I remember thinking “Well, I can’t really draw that well, but I can draw a fish.” So I left with a blank piece of burlap and I bought a Sharpie and free-handed my design. I now know that this is what women originally did in the early 1800s – they drew whatever was on their minds or in their hearts onto the burlap.

From that original art form, why do you think rug hooking is sometimes considered more of a craft today?

In the 1860s companies came along with stamped patterns, and women abandoned their own art for what they were told was better. This changed the path of rug hooking as it then became thought of as a craft and to this day, if you go to a rug hooking exhibit, many of the rug hookers still use commercial patterns. The rugs are beautifully hooked and there is a tremendous amount of skill needed, but you don’t learn anything about the person who hooked it. It’s like women’s voices were silenced because someone had an idea to make some money…I don’t know, it just makes me sad.

I’ve never thought of it that way before, about women’s voices being silenced.

Joel and Kate Kopp wrote American Hooked and Sewn Rug: Folk Art Underfoot and had this to say: “For the most part we have excluded the great body of uninspired rugs that were made from commercially manufactured patterns. Patterns made rug making easier and helped popularize the craft after the Civil War. But by eliminating the need to design, they stifled originality and creativity among those introduced to hooking these stenciled burlap rug bases.”

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has a few of the older rugs, as does the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, but many of the rugs have been lost as they were on the floors and when they became worn, they were just thrown out.

I have had people ask if I would sell my designs, but I always say NO! I used to give workshops and I would always have the students draw on their own design…I just feel so strongly about it.

I have been rug hooking for 14 years now, and I am seeing more and more women designing their own rugs, and this does give me hope for the future of the art form.

Where do you get your materials?

"Dejected Crow"

I use second-hand wool clothing and recycled sari-ribbon and yarn. Rug Hookers traditionally used worn wool clothing from their families to hook with. Well, unfortunately, I don’t have wool hand-me-downs but in Truro we do have two very lovely second-hand clothing stores Frenchies and Louis! Sounds fancy, eh? Pretty much every week I will drag my kids to these fine establishments and we will search for wool clothing…and then I take the kids to Tim Horton’s for being my helpers…everyone is happy.

I also use sari ribbon and yarn which is thready and shiny and gives the rugs an interesting texture. I buy the sari ribbon from Up Town Design and they buy it from a woman’s co-op in India. These are basically silk scraps left over from the making of saris, scraps that would ordinarily be thrown out. I am using recycled materials as not only is it better for the environment but I also feel that people wearing the clothing and the women touching the sari-ribbon as they sew each piece end to end, well, all that energy is going into the rugs and it is giving those things new life.

What inspires your designs?

Initially, it was our kids’ drawings. I just loved their simplicity and charm. You know, the trees that are all trunk, the cats with three legs…all very good Folk Art. I then became interested in dresses, and that was my focus for a couple of years. Then I got a little braver and started putting arms and legs in the dresses but no heads. Then I went through a headless ballerina phase…and then I became obsessed with fish… fish in a tub, fish in a vase, a woman walking a fish, fish in a tree. What about now? Crows, crows, crows. I can’t stop hooking crows.

I have my design and colours picked out… but I‘ll often abandon the plan. I just stop thinking and start grabbing different colours and… wonderful things happen, and a rug is born!”

Can you describe your process – how do you plan your designs, apply them to the canvas, etc.?

"Morning Routine"

Once I have the wool blazers, pants, and skirts home, I wash them and then often they aren’t quite the colour I like so I over-dye them with acid dyes. With the wool hanging on the line to dry, this is when I get excited seeing all those juicy colours. Next step, is thinking of a design… hoping an idea will pop into my head and when one does, I make a small sketch. The next part is a little scary, as now I have to go from this little sketch to drawing it on the burlap. A lot of procrastination will happen before this gets done. When I finally do get the courage, it is almost like I hold my breath while drawing, as I want so much to get it right. I often need to lie down after this step is done…or grab some chocolate…or both.

The next step is colour planning. I just throw wool and sari ribbon on the floor and I keep what works and throw the rest back into the basket. Next, I have a cutter which cuts the wool into strips and then comes the hooking. The hooking is the part where I get to relax, as the hard work is done and this is where some magic can happen as, yes, I have my design and colours picked out. A plan… but I‘ll often abandon the plan. I just stop thinking and start grabbing different colours and… the studio/third bedroom gets extremely messy and wonderful things happen and a rug is born!

What would you say are the benefits and opportunities of working in your particular art form in Nova Scotia?

Historians still can’t agree whether rug hooking started here in the Maritimes or whether it was in the Eastern States. But either way, I am near the beginnings and that has been a big help to me. In Truro we have a local guild, The Colchester Heritage Rug Hookers and I use to go there every week when I first started. Then there is a provincial guild, The Rug Hooking Guild of Nova Scotia which holds a rug hooking school every spring in Truro and I would attend a class every year.

"Walking in the Rain"

The Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival, which is held in beautiful Lunenburg every summer, has been a great help to me. I remember the first year I attended thinking if this goes well and people like my rugs, then that is a sign that this is the path for me. I did do well and that gave me the confidence to apply to be a juried member of the NSDCC, Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council. After I became a member and participated in the winter market, I received a couple of calls from galleries wanting to represent me. Harvest Gallery in Wolfville called and I nearly screamed as this gallery sells works by Alex Colville, Alan Batemen, and Holly Carr to name a few. It was hard for me to sound nonchalant but I think I yelled, “Yes, yes, represent me”! So yes, living in Nova Scotia has done nothing but help.

Can you tell me about the Titanica exhibit? What’s the story behind your rug that was displayed there?

The NSDCC members have an annual show and this year it we were asked to think of the word “titanic” and create works referencing any of the meanings of the word “titanic.” I submitted two rugs, and “Crying Fish” was accepted into the show. Why “Crying Fish?” I went to a talk at the Colchester Historical Museum in Truro this winter titled “Nova Scotia and the Titanic.” The speaker, Dan Conlin, mentioned that Halifax-based cable ships were sent off to look for survivors and collect the victims from the sinking of the Titanic. He described the scene that the rescuers witnessed and it was of seeing hundreds of victims in life jackets across the waters. All I could think of was bright yellow dots on the dark waters and it made me want to cry… and so surely the fish must have cried as well.

I did have a chance to speak with Dan at the opening, and he gently informed me that life jackets were white in those days not yellow. Oops.

"High Kick"

What’s coming up for you?

I want to enjoy the rest of the summer with the kids, then I have the Fibre Arts Festival in Amherst in October and the Christmas Designer Market in Halifax in November… so those will keep me busy. I would love to have a solo show some day but just as long as ideas keep coming to me and the rugs keep on being hooked…I am happy. A happy hooker.

Thanks, Laura… I hope others will be inspired to try drawing their own designs, for rug hooking or any other craft!

Be sure to visit Laura Kenney Rugs to see more of Laura’s work.

All images courtesy of Laura Kenney.


14 Responses to “Laura Kenney: Keeping Rug Hooking Traditions Alive”

  1. Gael
    August 21, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    I love these rugs, especially Dejected Crow. It’s a craft that isn’t widely used these days and it’s nice to read about someone who has the passion and talent for it.

    • August 21, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

      Dejected Crow is one of my favourites too. I didn’t mean to draw him so sad, but that is how he came out.

  2. August 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Great story. The statement on women losing their voice is sad but insightful. Love the rugs. Obviously a lot of thought goes into color selection Would love to see more

    • August 22, 2012 at 8:03 am #

      That statement really struck me, too. Sad that women were made to feel their own designs weren’t “good enough.”

      You can see more at Laura’s web site! Do check it out :)

  3. Susan
    August 22, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Laura, our family is so proud of you. Who would have guessed that you would have become an artist after studying chemistry. As Laura;s sister I now that I am very bias, but as I sit in my cubical up in Ottawa surrounded by 10 of her rug’s, I can only say buy her work. Her rugs can change your mood, they can brighten a cloudy day, they can make you laugh (Morning Routine) but most important they make you think.
    Thank you for interviewing her and showing her work to a large community.
    “The Big Sister”

    • August 22, 2012 at 7:58 am #

      What a lovely comment, thanks Susan! You must have one of the most colorful cubicles ever :)

  4. August 22, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    Thanks sis..I ‘ll pay you later. ;)

    • Susan
      August 22, 2012 at 8:42 am #

      Laura, You can pay me in rugs.

  5. August 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    Hi Laura–I read your interview & am so proud of you–beautifully said. I am a fellow N.S. rug hooker & folk artist & love to see Laura’s new work every year in Lunenburg–it is alway inspiring. You Go Gal !!!

  6. August 25, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Stopping by from SITS! This is a great post, and as a dancer I really love the “High Kick” rug!
    Kate recently posted..Frat Collection GiveawayMy Profile

  7. Maureen
    August 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    From one happy hooker to another…. well done!! Beautiful rugs and a lovely story. What could be better?

  8. Lynn Kinsella
    August 28, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Hi Laura -just read your interview and viewed your more recent rugs -FANTASTIC!!!! It’s so-o exciting to see someone that I met at Rug School grow so quickly as a fibre artist. I’ll always remember in class you finishing your rug by Wed,. and Thursday saw you starting another rug – WOW-what speed!! I was probably still thinking about my design -LOL!!
    Looking forward to seeing you in Amherst, but until then – HOOK, HOOK, HOOK!

  9. August 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    Thank you all so much for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

  10. Maureen
    August 30, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    One of these days I am going to get to Truro for rug school. Hopefully catch you there, Lynn, and maybe meet you, Laura. Am hooking with the Upper Toronto group, in the meantime. Fun, fun!!
    Cheers, Maureen

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