Believe it or not, in certain circles, this question is controversial.
Many traditional rug hookers are adamantly opposed to hooking with yarn, and will tell you so! The thing is, they come by it honest, as they say. This rather forceful opinion has its roots with an artist and teacher named Pearl McGown, someone who we can pretty much thank for reinvigorating and saving the craft from extinction in the 1930’s. In her book, You Can Hook Rugs, published in 1951, she wrote “Any woolen material can be used in hooking rugs, but I beg of you, (emphasis added) do not mix it with cotton, silk or yarn.”
If you think about it, what kind of yarn was available in the 1950’s? Acrylics were all the rage, and very few people even knew what handspinning was. Good wool yarn was set aside for knitting, not rug hooking. And who can forget those tacky latch-hooking and punch hooking kits that were so ubiquitous when we were growing up? If that was what the market place had to offer when Pearl was teaching and writing, it is not at all surprising that she formed such a strong aversion to yarn in rug hooking.
But this is simply not the case today. There has never been a time, in the history of the universe, when more beautiful and durable yarns have been readily available and affordable. Unfortunately, this can no longer be said for woolen fabric. The fabrics that you can find in fabric stores are extremely limited as to color and texture, and are most often blended with polyester to make them easier to care for. They are also pretty spendy. This was not the case in Pearl McGown’s time.
In those good old days, you could walk into any fabric store and have a dozen or more bolts of 100% woolen fabric to choose from, at very affordable prices. (If you happen to live on the East Coast, you actually have rug hooking businesses that you can shop at in person, but the rest of the country is not so fortunate!) There is good rug hooking wool fabric available through mail order or the internet, but nothing beats the ability to see the fabric in person, to view it in the light, to feel it in your hands.
Then of course, we can cut up old woolen garments for rug hooking material, but we still run into the problem of wool blends. The inclusion of as little as 10% nylon can prevent the wool fibers from felting. And when you need to cut the fabric into strips that are as thin as 3/32 of an inch, felting is the only thing that really holds them together.
What it all comes down to is practicality. That is how rug hooking came about in the first place. According to the art historian, William Winthrop Kent, the craft was probably started by weavers, looking for a use for the thrums (the warp threads that were cut off the loom after the fabric was woven). These thrums were too short to be used again in weaving, and nothing went to waste, so some clever weaver figured out that the leftover yarns could be used to make rugs. In the 1700’s, the idea that someone would weave cloth in order to cut it into tiny strips to make rugs would have been laughable, but cutting up remnants leftover from garment making, or cutting up worn or stained woolen garments would have been sensible and practical. Times and fashions change, but through the centuries, yarn and fabric strips have been interchangeable, compatible and eminently practical.
This rug was unfinished when it came to me. You find so many unfinished rugs on ebay, and I hate to see them boxed up in a closet and totally unappreciated. Someone put in a lot of work and artistry into “Julie”, but unless someone can finish it, it will never be enjoyed. So I decided to finish it myself. Of course, I hook with yarn, so I went through my stash to try to match the 13 colors in the rug. As it turned out, I didn’t have to dye any yarn for this project. I was able to find all the colors I needed ‘off the shelf,’ either from yarns I already had or some I purchased.
This is one of the things I really like about yarn. There is a seemingly unlimited array of colors and textures available for use in rug hooking, and that doesn’t even include what you can do with a dyepot! It would not have been possible for me to finish this rug with fabric strips and have the union of colors that I was able to achieve with yarn. I would have had to dye all 13 colors, and the differences between the old fabric strips and the new would have been obvious. As it is today, you cannot tell when you look at this rug which parts were hooked with yarn or fabric.
Here is another unfinished rug, hooked originally with fabric strips. It was a family heirloom, but obviously could not be enjoyed because it was unfinished. I had to move around some of the purple fabric strips in the center section, then added another purple background to fill in the rest. I dyed some of the yarn for the scroll work, with very happy results! Now the rug enjoys its rightful place in the family’s home.
What if someone told you that apples make the best pies, and that you should never make pies with blackberries? You may live in a place where apples are hard to get or expensive. You may have blackberries by the bushel in your own backyard. You may prefer the taste of blackberries. Who wants to live in a world with only one kind of pie?
There are definitely differences between yarn and fabric strips, but both are practical, durable and beautiful. One way in which they differ is in the hooking method we use. In a previous post (https://judytaylor2013.wordpress.com/what-is-hooking-with-yarn/) I show step-by-step the process of hooking with yarn. The method we use for hooking with fabric strips is slightly different. Go to https://www.jeannesullivandesign.com/t/rughookingtutorial for a step-by-step guide for hooking with fabric strips.
The main thing to keep in mind when hooking with fabric strips is not to let the strip twist across the back (that might leave a bump on the back that might catch on something later). When hooking with yarn, we can make use of some slack in the yarn, pulling up until the yarn is tight across the back, then pulling the loop down to the desired height. This might cause a fabric strip to fray on the edges, so with fabric, we grab the strip with the hook close to where it came out of the back and gently pull the loop up to the top.
Why use different methods? You could hook with yarn the same way you hook with fabric strips but you would be giving up some of yarn’s advantages. Yarn is strong and durable, so when you hook with yarn, you can pull up and down over and over without damaging it. This allows you to go quite a bit faster, because with each step you are only trying to do one thing. Just like learning to knit, you may feel like you need to concentrate in the beginning, as you get used to handling the yarn, but pretty soon you are carrying on a conversation or watching TV and knitting away. Hooking with yarn is like that. Once you get the feel of it, it becomes automatic and goes very quickly.