Binding Us Together...We All Want Rug Hooking to Survive
I am continually humbled by my in-person and online fiber art community. Your participation in important ongoing discussions and your willingness to confront problems head on is truly appreciated. You demonstrated this in a really BIG way last week when I posed the following on the Parris House Wool Works Facebook page:
"Let's have a discussion.
I think given that racial inequality is so front and center in the minds of many Americans right now *and* because it's Pride Month, it may be time to just directly ask the questions:
Why do we see so few BIPOC and LGBTQ people in rug hooking? Other textile arts are starting to increase in diversity, but I don't think we are seeing that in rug hooking. Why is that?
For that matter, why are we seeing so few people under 40, or even under 50, hooking rugs? Or men?
What would it take to attract more people to rug hooking?
This is not rhetorical or academic. This is existential.
If rug hooking does not become inclusive, starting with young people, people of color, LGBTQ people, no one will be talking about rug hooking at all in a short fifty years.
Some elements to the solution may include:
- availability of more contemporary patterns & kits
- focus more on encouraging students to design their own
- turning kids on to rug hooking in school and camp programs
(black kids, white kids, brown kids, little kids, teens, tweens)
- not thinking our way to approach this art is the only way - we
have a lot of diversity in the way we hook and the "rules" we
hook by already
- teaching college and university fiber clubs (I have done this -
it's a blast)
- have social media outlets, galleries, journals of the craft, etc
that are not afraid to show "controversial" content
This is a conversation that needs to happen in the rug hooking world. We have a beautiful, adaptable, versatile art form to share with the world. We can do that and keep it alive in part by participating in our often touted American ideals of equality, free expression, and inclusiveness. How do we get out there and make it happen? Who will you invite to learn your craft?"
WELL...this prompt received 51 reactions, 99 comments, and 11 shares on my Facebook page alone, which in turn prompted more discussion and private messages to me from a variety of rug hookers and guild members/leaders. I was astonished. To be completely honest, I thought the post might be sufficiently provocative to make people want to scroll on by, but no...you stopped right on that post and delivered a lot of useful information and ideas. You stopped and delivered even though we're in the midst of a pandemic, even though we are facing economic crises, even though we are wrestling with a long-overdue hard reckoning on racial inequality in America and in the world. Thank you.
So what was the takeaway? Here's what I heard you say, and please feel free to call me out if I have missed anything or just get in touch if you want to add something.
- The common perception is that rug hooking is too expensive for many people, especially young people, to take on.
- BIPOC and LGBTQ community members don't feel as though there are available designs/patterns/kits that speak to their experience as there are in other crafts. When I asked a member of these communities on my thread about the problem of inadvertently appearing to engage in appropriation/exploitation in providing a more inclusive catalog, she - and she only speaks for herself as no community is a monolith - suggested donating a portion of proceeds to an advocacy organization and sustaining the offerings throughout the year.
- Related to #3, many agreed that when we gather as rug hookers, we look awfully homogeneous. I love every single one of you who attends the Paris Hill Hook In every year, but close your eyes and picture that room. We are overwhelmingly white, older, and female. The natural reality is, most of us won't be alive in fifty years so we have to pass this craft on lest it die with us.
- Quite a few responded to say that rug hooking had become too rigid and rule bound. Too many "musts" and a technical vs artistic orientation are turning off would-be rug hookers.
- Hand in hand with #4, several respondents mentioned unwelcoming rug hooking groups or guilds where they were made to feel as though their work could not be accepted if it didn't fit that organization's norm or that there was a hierarchy in place that they would never crack. One person mentioned that she was asked, "Who was your teacher?" less, seemingly, out of curiosity and more as a litmus test. Can we agree that a craft we want to take in to the next century needs more open-minded mentors than gate-keeping matriarchs?
- Young people with full time jobs and small children mentioned that we do not often meet or have programs at times that work for them.
- Some mentioned that our primary journals of the craft do not want to publish projects/artwork and articles by emerging, BIPOC, LGBTQ, or "controversial" artists, erring rather to publish "safe" content instead. This begs the question, safe for whom?
- Many of you indicated a need for more contemporary designs in the marketplace and more encouragement of students to create their own design.
Whew! That's a lot. Almost a week later, I have still not processed everything I, as one single teacher/studio owner, need to do with this information. It's everything I already intuitively knew about our craft and yet, with it spilled out on the page, it's a bit overwhelming.
I have to take this the way I take all overwhelming situations: figuring out the next best step, one at a time, until things begin to shift.
I want to be clear here. There are many studio owners, teachers, and artists in rug hooking taking these problems on. There are quite a few amazing human beings inspiring creativity, freedom, and inclusiveness in our craft. I'm thinking of Susan Feller, Karen Miller, Laura Salamy, Meryl Cook, Liz Alpert Fay, Patti Mullens Colen, Deanne Fitzpatrick, Donna Mulholland, Alexandrya Eaton, and so many more across the United States and Canada, Australia and around the world. If someone isn't mentioned here it's not because they're not doing the work. It's just that I can't mention everyone. Feel free to add your own examples.
But I have to focus on what I can do to help, right here at my studio in Paris, Maine. Here are some things I can do to make a start.
- We are putting together a small, inexpensive, starter pack for people who may have their own materials at home and want to give hooking a go. This will include a 12" hoop, a hook, and a serged piece of rug warp. These are the most basic items you need to make a start. Karen Miller did a great video on how to get started with just these things (you can watch that HERE) and we will put together a little tutorial too. We will have this starter pack in the studio and online shops soon.
- I will be offering one-hour Zoom sessions on your schedule for a modest fee so that we can "meet" face to face and get you started or work through any issues you may be having if you are already hooking. If you just need someone to cheer you on or look at a potential design, I'm there for it. Whatever it is you need, these sessions can serve. These will also be available to sign on to in the shop soon.
- I will be creating a line of more contemporary patterns and kits, some of which will be smaller and more easily do-able in a short time frame, to align more with what our younger customers have been asking for. Additionally, in response to suggestions on our Facebook discussion, I will be designing some work specifically for the LGBTQ community and donating a portion of the profit on those to a worthy advocacy group.
- For some time, I've had a project in the works with a larger fiber art company to create small, colorful, contemporary kits to appeal to their demographic and that will also appeal to the younger hookers we are trying to encourage. Coronavirus has delayed this collaboration but we are getting back on track next week.
- Once coronavirus restrictions lift, I will be looking to offer classes to children, teens, and young adults in schools, colleges, and camp settings. I will be particularly interested in teaching in places where students come from diverse backgrounds, including schools with international students. I will never forget a group of college students I taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology. If you think rug hooking can't be imbued with youthful energy and imagination, I can tell you I saw otherwise first hand.
- We will continue to do what we've always done in the physical studio in Paris: provide a caring, open, welcoming, collaborative space for every rug hooker who walks through the door. Additionally, we will, once the pandemic is truly over, still do our Zoom hooking group initiated during this time to offer that same kind of space online. It may just need to move to a different day once our in-person Tuesday group resumes.
- I will be considering adding either a weekend day or a weeknight bring-your-own-beverage hooking time to our studio schedule, perhaps once or twice a month for young working people and/or parents.
- We will always offer a space to a wide variety of artists on our social media platforms, showcasing art that may be considered provocative, political, or even strange. We will never shrink from this in an effort to keep everyone comfortable. Everyone has the option to scroll on by. In that pursuit, I'm starting to think about offering 3 day Instagram take-overs to other artists so that they can host our IG page for a time and reach a different audience. Our social media following is not huge, but it is devoted and highly engaged. It might be a fun place for others to guest host.
- I will continue to offer our design class, which is all about you making your own design and our alt materials/techniques class which has introduced some hookers - for the very first time - to hooking with things other than wool and in ways other than the basic loop.
- I will be challenging myself to an evolution in my own work, which, to this point, has not been particularly ground breaking. I think it is important for every one of us to look at our own work and say, "Is this compelling? Does this say something I want to say? Is this furthering the art?" Don't get me wrong; not all pieces have to meet that criteria. In fact, in my view, many don't. Sometimes we just want sunflower throw pillows in a sun room or a cheerful and clever Christmas tree skirt and that is absolutely more than ok. I have no intention of stopping making beautiful and useful decor items for myself and others. I love having those things and I have a deep respect for the craftsmanship and tradition they represent as well as the heirloom qualities they possess as they are passed down generations. But...what if some percentage of our work really pushed our own comfort zone in terms of design, materials used, techniques used, statements made? What could we learn? What could we pass on to others? Who would we attract to the craft?
I want to put in a caveat here. I am not for one moment suggesting that we throw out solid practices that are part of the history and heritage of rug hooking. While I believe that there are probably scores of ways to do any one thing in rug hooking and that we should not be rule bound, I also believe that we should strive to master our history, knowledge, and fundamental techniques that serve as the basis for our own individual experimentation, finding our own ways, as we move forward. It is often said that knowing the rules then allows you to know how to break them. I know that sounds like threading a fine needle, but I also trust that many of my readers know exactly what I'm trying to say. (If you don't, message me and we'll chat more.)
We had 99 comments on our Facebook post last week, but I think what we had in common was this: we all want rug hooking to survive. We want it surviving and thriving in another century in ways we may not be able to imagine right now. If you want to continue the discussion, by all means comment here (comments are moderated only because we sometimes get spammed by strangers, not to edit out any of your ideas; all legit comments will be approved) or send me an email with any ideas you'd like us to consider going forward.
Thanks for reading and thanks for being interested in/devoted to rug hooking and fiber art.
- Elizabeth Miller