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Western Reserve Rug Hookers keep the craft alive in Geauga County

On the first Thursday of any given month, a large group of friends from across Northeast Ohio gathers in Geauga County for a meeting of the Western Reserve Rug Hookers Guild.

“We use the word ‘hookers’ and everybody laughs," said Shirley Hairston, the guild’s president. “I remember at work once saying, 'I'm a blue-ribbon hooker.' And what it is, is I won a blue ribbon at the county fair.”

Rug hooking was a craft originally born out of necessity – a practical, handmade floor covering woven from pieces of scrap wool. It eventually evolved into an artform with carefully drawn designs, bright colors and intricate details.

A woman pulls a strip a wool through a fabric backing to create a rug.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Shirley Hairston, current president of the Western Reserve Rug Hookers Guild, demonstrates how to pull a strip of wool through a linen backing with a rug hook. Hairston has been hooking rugs for 50 years.

The Western Reserve Rug Hookers Guild is local chapter of the Association of Traditional Hooking Artists, an international organization dedicated to teaching the skill of rug hooking and preserving the craft for future generations.

Hairston, a resident of Chardon, said her passion for hooking was passed on from a previous generation.

“I first learned to hook with my grandmother 50 years ago,” Hairston said. “I would go to her house and we would sit on her patio and we’d hook a rug. And I’d go home with a new rug.”

Rug hooking starts with a fabric backing, such as burlap or linen, stretched over a wood frame. Strips of wool, called worms or noodles, are pulled through the backing with a small hook, creating a loop.

Different thicknesses of the worms define the different styles of rug hooking.

“They go from a two to a nine,” explains Kelly Kanyok, a guild member from Independence. “If you’re a fine hooker, you’ll be using the twos, threes and fours. If you’re what they call a more primitive hooker, you’re going to be up in those sevens, eights and nines.”

The fine hooking style allows for greater detail and depth in a rug, while the primitive style creates more texture.

A woman creates a rug by pulling pieces of wool through a fabric backing.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Kelly Kanyok works on her current rug hooking project during a recent meeting of the guild in Munson Township.

“When I found rug hooking and I found wool and the texture, that was it,” Kanyok said. “Pulling wool, creating something, there’s a point where it’s just so peaceful.”

Many members of the guild, including Kanyok, draw their own patterns. Other members enjoy dyeing their own wool to create custom colors for a design.

A man demonstrates how to weave fabric with a loom.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Dave Lewis demonstrates how he weaves wool yarn into fabric using a peacock loom.

Dave Lewis of Canton takes it one step further and makes his own wool yarn by hand.

“My particular focus has to be in the preparation and development of wool from the sheep,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who raises his own sheep, has been spinning wool and weaving fabric for more than 30 years. Rug hooking is a fairly new interest.

“Why did I get into rug hooking?” Lewis said. “Friends. To me, the most important part of doing all this stuff is the people.”

At the monthly meetings held in spots around Geauga County, the Western Reserve Rug Hookers gather over coffee, snacks and similar interests. Among the laughter, members exchange techniques and admiration, no matter the years of experience or level of talent.

“The cool thing is, there’s a place for everybody,” Lewis said. “Everybody appreciates everybody else’s work.”

Kanyok said she hopes the tradition of the craft will continue to be passed down through the generations.

“It’s a place to go – somewhere you can just relax and go into your creative mode,” Kanyok said. “I’m really hoping the younger generation finds the value in that. We’d really like to see it continue to grow and not become a lost art.”

An arrangement of handmade rugs shows bright colors and beautiful patterns.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Members of the Western Reserve Rug Hookers Guild display their favorite works during a recent gathering at the Bainbridge branch of the Geauga County Public Library.

Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.