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Prairie Primitive Rug Hookers keep centuries-old, thrifty art form alive

The feature posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

Artists huddle in small groups throughout the hotel convention center. They lean over chest-high wooden frames. Think of a medium-sized art gallery frame, on a stand, without the glass. The frame itself is lined with a bed of tiny nails.

Onto those metal spikes, the women have stretched broad pieces of linen or muslin cloth. Within arms’ reach — piles and piles of colorful wool. Bolts of fabric have been sliced into strips, as have plaid shirts and tartan skirts. These are the materials of an art form.

Rug hooking is a centuries-old technique where artists transform strips of wool and stretches of linen into heirloom rugs. The Prairie Primitive Rug Hookers is a South Dakota group devoted to keeping the art form alive.  

Katie Hartner traveled to South Dakota from Tyler, Texas, where she owns a shop called A Nimble Thimble.

“Rug hooking is a technique of pulling wool through a canvas, usually linen, and creating loops on the front of the linen to create a rug," Hartner explains. "It’s kind of a primitive oriental rug, if you will, that we’ve pulled the loops through instead of a machine pushing them through.”

Hartner is one of the school’s multiple teachers. She’s been hooking rugs since she ventured into a shop and discovered books on the artform. Now the walls are lined with her rugs as part of her Nimble Thimble display at the rug school.

“This (rug) has wool in it that my grandfather picked walnuts for and made a little dye solution," Hartner says, pointing to a rug with an eagle motif. "My mother dyed the wool, and then I hooked the piece. It’s generational in that way as well. My grandpa was in WWII. The patriotic pieces always call to me. This was an eagle with two crests and the American flag on it. I hooked this one about 10 years ago. It’s one of my favorites.”

Although many hooked rugs will, in fact, find homes on floors, Hartner says this particular rug is better suited for wall display.

Learning from each other

Mary Jo Hane and Pat Mehr have traveled here from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. They are learning from Katie this week, but rug hookers often learn just as much from one other.

“It’s very creative because you can pick colors, you can pick patterns, you can make your own patterns," says Hane, a tulip motif rug spread upon the frame in front of her. "I am a quilter too, and I think if you do crafty things, rug hooking will draw you in. It’s a very old art. They did it years and years ago with just whatever they had. It’s caught on again. Katie tells us don’t throw away your little strips because you can work ‘em in!”

“Mary Jo is my mentor," Mehr adds. "I saw her well over 20 years ago hooking. I thought, ‘Oh that really looks interesting.’ Then my father passed away, and my mother said, ‘What am I going to do with all these flannel shirts, all these Pendleton shirts, all the wool?' And so every rug of mine has a piece of my dad in it.”

Rug hooking through the pandemic

Rug hooking is often a communal activity. COVID forced these women to stay home, like many of us, facing new levels of isolation. Jean Bartel, Alison Miller, and other rug-hooking friends took on a "challenge rug" project during the pandemic. Each artist used the same basic design, but they were only allowed to use the wool they already had in their personal stashes to hook the rug. Now the challenge rugs are displayed together in the hallway, and each one represents artistry and thrift, isolation and togetherness.

“For me, it was a way to while away lonely time," Bartel says. "My husband passed away a few years ago. When it was winter, I had a lot of time to just sit. I could think about what I was doing and miss my friends. But we were all working on something together, separately, and there’s something fun about that.

"I love South Dakota. I’m from Minnesota, near Rochester. For me when I travel across South Dakota I think about prairie women and how lonely they must have been and what a desolate country this is. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all. For me to be home alone … alone … a lot … this is just a really good, thoughtful, calming way to spend time, I think.”

Artists display their work in a rug show outside the main workroom. The hallways are lined with finished rugs. Details about each piece are written on scraps of paper and pinned to the fabric. Featured are primitive designs that evoke childhood drawings, bold geometric patterns, and complex painting-like portraits. So many hours go into the crafting of these rugs; None of them are for sale.

The art of rug hooking

Valerie Begeman is from Rapid City, originally from Centerville. She’s also a watercolor artist. Her rugs have been highlighted in an international competition.

“One I did research and did a story rug on slavery. I named it ‘Sweet Chariot,'" Begeman says, holding up one of her rugs. "It is toiling in the — it could either be sunrise or sunset — it’s up to the viewer to interpret the sky. Their journey through the night with the Northern star was the only way they could find their way, and most of them went up to Canada for freedom. So that’s fall, nighttime, and maple trees.”

Begeman says she's been hooking since 2006, inspired by her mother.

"My mother was a hooker," she says with a knowing laugh.

A family tradition

Now, a confession: My aunt is also a hooker. I’m here in Brandon, not just for the rug show, but to spend time with her after a long pandemic separation.

Over the decades, I’ve spent hours with my grandmother and aunt, watching and (hopefully) learning various fiber arts. For as long as I can remember, this has also been a time to hear stories — stories about sailors hooking rugs on ships, mothers urgently making rugs from scraps of old clothes to keep children alive during brutal winters, stories about my own family traveling across the prairie after an overturned wagon nearly caused them to lose everything. These artists save every bit of salvageable wool; I save the stories.

My aunt, Jackie Budd, from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, explains the power of women in community.

“Years ago, when the women got together, they got to talk about their kids. They taught their children how to hook when they were about three. They had little tiny hooks and little stools to sit on. They taught them how to hook. The children went along with them to these hook-ins. It’s a way that women have always gotten together to solve problems and talk things over.”

I ask the women if they've solved any problems this week. Jean Bartel quips that in the current political environment, it's hard to expect solutions to much of anything. Still, the women laugh and joke, strip wool, and even out their loops. It's an optimistic group of artists who understand both history and patience.

Perhaps solutions will take form, even as these rugs take shape — one small piece at a time.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.