About the same time I bought Mercy Huntting's rug at auction in 2007 (facing page, top), I was given a full run of The Magazine Antiques. Before shelving them for reference I paged through every issue, and to my surprise, found the rug illustrated in May 1951, in Florence Peto's article "Some Early American Crewelwork"; she stated that the rug had been made by Mercy Huntting, who attended Mrs. Lyman Beecher's School in East Hampton, NewYork. As most rugs are relatively anonymous, this was a spectacular rediscovery and started me on the quest to understand sewn rugs in their appropriate context and to dispel longstanding myths that they were essentially folk art or the products of home craft like hooked rugs, with which they are often confused.
Sewn rugs form a distinctive body of fine early American needlework created primarily in New England from the late eighteenth century into the second quarter of the nineteenth by women of education and privilege. These rugs were not casually used as utilitarian floor coverings nor placed before blazing fireplaces, susceptible to flying sparks. Instead, they were expressions of gentility, imagination, and skill. Making them required large amounts of leisure time and expensive materials, and they would have been displayed with pride
House with landscaped yard rug, American, 1810-1820. Yarn-sewn wool on linen, 28 by 59 inches. This is an excellent example of the advanced needle skills required to produce a yarn-sewn rug: a multitude of different stitches, which define the images, and mastery of the subtleties of color in the crewel yarns. Joel and Kate Kopp wrote of the rug in their important book America's Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot (New York, 1975): "The woman who made this rug was both an extraordinary craftswoman and a superb artist....Each detail-the swirling plants, the wisps of clouds, the rutted road, and the border of roses-demonstrates the variety and intensity of this woman's artistic moods tempered with an expert control of her medium." America Hurrah Archives.
Rug made by Mercy Huntting (1781-1843), East Hampton, New York, 1806-1810. Yarn-sewn wool on wool, 32 by 69 inches. This rug was seminal to the recognition that sewn rugs were worked at female academies by privileged and educated young women. Not only was Mercy Huntting from a prestigious Long Island family, but her teacher, Roxana Foote Beecher, belonged to the Foote family of Guilford, Connecticut, members of which made the elegant and well-known Foote bed rugs in 1778. This rug uses a running stitch and darning stitches on a twill-woven ground, similar to the bed rugs. The overall design connects to the crewel-embroidered bed hangings and bed rugs of eighteenth-century Connecticut. Jan Whitlock Textiles and Interiors.
Elephant rug, Rhode Island, 1810-1825. Bias and chenille-shirred wool on cotton, 35 by 61 inches. Printed sources of all kinds provided images for needlework projects. More than thirty different menageries traveled the country in the 1820s, and their promoters advertised them in local newspapers and with broadsides illustrated by woodblock prints. Both the prints and the live animals inspired designs for needlework (and other decorative arts). The backing of this rug is a reused patchwork quilt with a newspaper lining from Rhode Island. The bold colorful flowers are made from coarse knit stockings. Courtesy of America Hurrah Archives.
Critter rug, found in southern New Hampshire, c. 1810. Yarn-sewn wool on cotton, 24 by 58 inches. The format of this visually appealing rug with its large central element flanked by rolling hills and small animals mimics that of samplers of late eighteenth-century New Hampshire and Newburyport, Massachusetts. Jan Whitlock Textiles and Interiors.
My study, which covered three major types of sewn rugs-yarn-sewn, shirred, and patchwork-has brought a clearer understanding of how they were made, the sources of their designs, and their relationship to other schoolgirl arts. Indeed, one of the most important results of the study was the identification of some forty schools that advertised rug work as part of their curriculum, confirming it as an accomplishment on a par with the fine needlework that is widely recognized as testament to schoolgirls' skills.
Graphic patchwork rug, American, 1810-1820. Wool and silk on wool, 57 by 76 inches. Patchwork rugs were made from pieces of cloth sewn together and ornamented with appliqués and embroidery. This technique is not to be confused with the so-called penny and cookie-cutter rugs made later, which were much simpler and required little skill. This extraordinary rug is comprised of eight large center blocks and smaller eight-block borders on two sides. Great swirls, pinwheels, huge floral sprays, pots of flowers, and geometrics combine to form a masterpiece of needlework. Jan Whitlock Textiles and Interiors.
Field of roses rug, 1806-1810. Yarn-sewn wool on wool, 27 by 67 inches. Discovered in Southampton, New York, close to East Hampton, this rug shares elements of design and technique with Mercy Huntting's. The twill-woven wool ground is only partially worked giving the yarn-sewn leaves and flowers a raised effect, as on the Huntting rug; and the central mound of earth that anchors the floral vines is too similar to Huntting's not to attribute this rug to either Huntting herself or to the Beecher school. Collection of Ronnie Newman.
A sampling of these rugs is shown here, demonstrating the breadth of designs and the techniques used to make them, as well as some of the important discoveries made in the course of study.
Bed rug by Mary Foote (1752-1837), Colchester, Connecticut, 1778. Yarn-sewn wool on wool, 83 ½ by 77 ½ inches. This is one of four spectacular bed rugs made to commemorate the weddings on November 5, 1778, of three siblings of the Foote and Otis families, prosperous farmers and landowners in the Connecticut River valley. The women likely spent the prior year spinning, dyeing, and sewing the rugs, all of which contain a center of stylized flowers enclosed within a reverse-curved border. The outlines are sewn with a running stitch and the designs are filled in with a darning stitch, requiring careful planning. Winterthur Museum, Delaware.
Apple tree farm rug, probably Massachusetts, 1830-1850. Chenille-shirred wool on linen, 33 by 58 inches. Chenille shirring uses a strip of fabric stitched down the middle lengthwise and then gathered up tightly; the result tends to spiral and create a caterpillar-like strand. This is then sewn to the foundation fabric following the pattern. Here the foundation fabric, a coarse linen tow, is stamped "J.D.P.," quite possibly for Jonathan Poor (1807-1845), a nephew of Rufus Porter, who worked as a wall muralist in Maine and Massachusetts-and perhaps also designed rugs. Historic New England.
This article is drawn from research for the forthcoming American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples by Jan Whitlock with Tracy Jamar