My final words on 'The Hidden Stone'

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to be able to record autobiographies of my rugs. My blog has taken on a life of its own, far away from this original intention. So given that yesterday I dyed another hue in my palette and I don't wish to bore you with another photo of dyed wool, I thought I would take a minute to finish talking about my memories of The Hidden Stone, my first rug.

I submitted a story about my rug and pictures to Rug Hooking Magazine in 1996. I still have the handwritten postcard sent to me by Brenda Wilt telling me that she wanted to publish it as a First Rug on the Last Page article "but in all fairness I must tell you that it may be a while until we get to it," she writes. "We have quite a few 'first rug' stories already, and so it may be a year or more until we get to yours." Well, it was two years later when it came out in the November-December 1998 issue. But I remember being proud as a peacock seeing my first rug in print.

I exhibited the rug in the Manchester County Fair 1997 (Michigan) where it took first place. I also exhibited it at Sauder Village Traditional Rug Hooking Exhibition 1999 where it took Honorable Mention.

I remains my favorite rug and has hung in my living room ever since I hooked it.

The message of my first rug

My first rug, The Hidden Stone, was completed in a year's time. It was a good size rug - 3' by 5' - and has hung prominently on the living room wall of each of my homes since then. I recall designing it in stages as I hooked. First the center of the rug, then the border once I had hooked the center and "knew" what the rug wanted on the outside.

The outside border is a mosaic pattern from a floor of an ancient Greek residence. I choose it after browsing through some of my archaeology books, because the rug needed a round repeating pattern. At the time I didn't know that it is best to include your major colors from the center of your rug in the border. But this happened naturally as I played with different ways to hook the contiguous circles and tried to make them distinct from each other. When I experimented with the light blue, I found that it really popped the border design and tied the rug together. So that is what I settled on.

In an interior border, I included the message of the rug: a famous latin phrase from the medieval Hermetic tradition. Visita interiora terrae, rectificando invenies occultum lapidem: Visit the interior of the earth; through purification you will find the hidden stone. I had known from the beginning that this would be the rug's message because I had conceived the rug as a prayer rug in a Hermetic tradition.

Hermetism is an ancient religious tradition that grew out of old Egyptian religion and ancient Greek philosophy, stressing that the divine is not something distant from us, but in fact is within us and makes up our true selves. The Hermetics taught that human beings are really divine beings - that the stone is hidden within us - and that the life journey is about recovering that stone and transforming ourselves into the divinities we are. The Hermetic tradition was revitalized in the middle ages when alchemy emerged and philosophers and early scientists began experimenting with chemistry, particularly distillation and attempts to change metals into gold. Their physical experiments were perceived to mirror the spiritual transmutative process, when the human being was transfigured into the spirit.

I tried to capture that process on my rug through verse and picture. Thus the stone is hidden in the belly of the dragon which is unformed matter. Out of the dragon grows the tree of knowledge, and the universe itself, its cosmic spheres, the sun, moon, and stars, and the four elements, earth, water, fire, and air.

Running out of wool

It took a year to hook The Hidden Stone from May 1995 to May 1996. One of my panic memories of creating this rug was running out of the background material. I had over-dyed a bunch of gray wool with Cushings Wine in order to have enough of the same wool to hook the background. Then I ran out of the dyed wool!

Since this was my first time dyeing, I didn't know that I should keep track of what I had originally done just in case I ran out. So when I over-dyed another coat, of course it came out different. When I tried to hook it into the rug, it looked like a different block. What was I to do?

I decided that I needed to make it look like I had meant the rug to have two different fabrics for the background. So I pulled out strips from the area I had already hooked, rehooked them in the unfinished area, and hooked into the old spot a strip from the second dye batch. In this way I created a mottled background that not only works, but adds real interest to what would have been a fairly flat looking background.

Salvaging wool for "The Hidden Stone"

Until fairly recently all of the rugs I hooked were from wool that I had salvaged from rummage sales and garage sales. Half of the fun was finding the wool and half of the art was figuring out what I could do with what I had found.

In my first week of rug hooking in May 1995, my mother and I spent a couple of days scouring church basements and yarn sales buying up every piece of wool clothing we could find. For the next few months, Mom and I would get the Friday paper and plan out our routes over tea at breakfast. Off we would go early in the morning to the places we thought would have the most clothing, and what a hoot when we found a bright colored garment that I didn't already have. I remember finding a gorgeous turquoise textured jacket and a big red wool coat our first week out, both of which I hooked into The Hidden Stone.

We would load my car down with bags of wool clothing that I had bought for a couple of dollars, and head to my apartment where I would disassemble the garments and launder them immediately. Knowing that old wool clothing can harbor moth eggs, I never brought salvaged wool into my home before putting it through a hot wash and dry cycle. It didn't take long before I had boxes of wool under my bed and lined along my bedroom wall since I had no storage to speak of in my one bedroom apartment. And who can't love the fantastic old buttons I collected. I don't know what happened to that jar of buttons, but I wish I still had it. I also wish I had known to collect the button-up front panels of men's shirts since they make great strip organizers.

I remember those days with fondness, sharing rummage-day Fridays with my mom, who since passed away in 1999. Those days were filled with our anticipation, with our laughter, with our shared joy over a find, with our wonderment about what I might create with the found wool, how it might be given a new glorious life.

In these recent days of recession, salvaged wool is a wonderful option for those who are creating rugs that don't require careful shading. Salvaged wool can give your rug a very unique look because you will be able to incorporate wool that is not available to other hookers by the yard. Although it is a time commitment, and does require quite a bit of hands-on work taking apart the garments and laundering the wool, who can say no to yards and yards of wool for two dollars or less, much less the buttons and memories you will collect!

The manuscript basis for my rug The Hidden Stone

The first thing that I remember about hooking The Hidden Stone is that I was so excited to work on a piece that I had designed. I had taken the elements from an old medieval Hermetic manuscript which showed a dragon in a circle with his tail in his mouth and the tree of knowledge growing out of him. The flowers were charming, sprouting as the tree.

I started hooking the dragon in the center from a purple coat. Since I didn't know how to hook yet, the dragon looked terrible. In fact everything I hooked looked terrible until I got the first concentric ring finished on the rug, about the size of a large dinner plate. Once I started hooking beyond that, something clicked, and I got the rhythm and the height of the loops right. I was so excited. I could finally hook.

I began hooking this rug in the open-aired barn at the historical Waterloo farm. It was spring 1995, so everything was fresh and new. Even me. It was here that my art was born.

Manuscript details: This is a page from the Alchemical Manuscript of 1550 housed in Basle University Library. It is called "The Flower of the Wise." In the center is the cosmic egg surrounded by the dragon Uroboros which is the symbol of unformed matter. Out of the egg grows a red flower representing gold, a white flower representing silver, and between them a blue flower of wisdom. Underneath them are the sun and the moon and the philosopher's star.

Starting my first rug

One of the reasons that I started this blog is to write a rug autobiography. So I want to begin that biography in the chilly little parlor of Waterloo Historical Farm where I learned to hook. It was 1995 in Waterloo, Michigan, a sleepy village just north of Ann Arbor. I learned about rug hooking when I saw a group of hookers demonstrating in front of the little log cabin on the farm's grounds during their autumn Pioneer Festival. One woman was hooking the most gorgeous peacock I have ever seen. I had always been a fiber enthusiast - weaving, sewing, clothing design - and when I saw the creative versatility of rug hooking (you didn't need a big loom or have to follow a pattern!) I knew it was something I wanted to do. So when the farm offered a course in rug hooking, I signed up along with my mom and my sister. This introduction to rug hooking is the main reason that I am so enthusiastic about demonstrating rug hooking at local festivals myself.

The teacher, Robin Rennie, was a wide-cut primitive hooker at the time (she has since become McGown certified and hooks all sorts of widths). She started us on burlap (there was no linen backing available yet!) on a geometric chair pad. She had us work with 8-cut worms and refused to tell us how to hold the hook. She said that we had to find the way that was most comfortable for us. I ended up palming the hook, never considering using it like a pencil.

The chair pad I hooked was dismal, with twisted loops and frayed worms because I had yet to get the knack of cutting straight. I didn't really know how to go around corners or curves. It was bad. And I struggled with hooking even that. But at the same time I loved it.

When I got home, I threw the pad away, bought some more burlap, and designed a 3 by 5 rug using elements from old Hermetic manuscripts - a sun and a moon, a cosmic dragon, flowers, a latin phrase, and an elaborate figure-8 border. My mom and I went around to all the rummage sales we could find that week and I bought every coat I could get my hands on. I wanted to hook with as-is or what I called "found" wool.

The next meeting for the rug hooking class, I brought my first rug design and the wool I had found. Robin looked at it and said, "April that is ambitious. Are you sure you want to hook something that big and complex for your first rug?" Of course I said yes. And that is how The Hidden Stone was birthed.