Hi everyone. This week I’m doing something a little different with my blog. I want to cover some of the materials and tools rug hookers, and I in particular, use in our work…specifically I am talking about backing today.
Why am I covering this? Because recently I had some people look at my work who were unable to tell the difference between burlap and primitive linen. While I think these people should have known the difference, I also think it is our responsibility as rug hookers to be able to explain what we use and why to those who are in a position of viewing, buying or jurying our work.
Rug hookers use a variety of backings depending on the materials they use to hook their rugs and the style they hook. A narrower strip or fine yarns necessitate a backing with fine holes or more threads to the inch. A primitive or wider cut strip of fabric and thicker yarns (as I use) requires a backing with fewer holes per inch or fewer threads per inch.
Ideally the backing needs to be strong enough to support the weight of the hooking on it as well. A lightweight backing will not support heavy primitive or wide cut hooking.
Most new rug hookers are looking for an economical way to start the hobby. Teachers will often recommend burlap for this purpose. But it is not your average run of the mill burlap purchased at Fabricland or Joann’s (though Joann’s does sell packages of special rug hooking burlap in parts of the U.S. I understand). This is a special high quality burlap made from 100% jute, with few slubs and threads of consistent thickness. It is even weave and looks a bit yellow brown.
In fact it does yellow with age, and may become brittle and break, or rot over the years, depending on the climate it is kept in and how you store or treat your hooked piece. Burlap, if left in water too long, will weaken. Burlap lasts about 30 – 50 years in floor rugs in my experience before it starts sprouting holes. For a beginner it is a good choice.
Monkscloth is another economical backing for the beginning rug hooker. It is often recommended for places where you know there is going to be a lot of moisture, like the bathroom or in front of the kitchen sink. It can take a little getting used when you hook on it, as it can be a bit springy. But some people prefer this backing and use it all the time. It is made from 100% cotton. I don’t like the springiness of it, so I don’t use it.
Then there is Verel, or other polyester types of backing. These are suitable for fine to medium cuts and are often used in sculpted rug hooking used for wall hangings. This is a special area of rug hooking that results in a somewhat 3-D finished product, also known as the Waldoboro style of rug hooking. You hook yarn various heights and clip the tops off the loops to sculpt a shape from your work. The background may or may not be hooked, and at a lower height if it is.
Polyester backings can also be used in areas with moisture.
Next up is rug warp. Rug warp is a strong 100% cotton fabric that holds fine cuts well. I have hooked a #6 cut on it, but I would not do it again. It is heavy for the backing and the rug will need strapping to keep its shape over the years as a wall hanging. Rug warp is considered second to linen as a desirable backing.
The king of the rug hooking backing world is linen. There are two types of linen backing: fine linen for fine cuts, and primitive linen for wide cuts. Both are made from 100% flax. The fine linen I’ve seen and used is great for fine cuts and if you are hooking wearables, like a cape or vest. It drapes beautifully and is the most expensive backing we rug hookers use.
Primitive linen looks a bit like burlap, hence the confusion to people unfamiliar with rug hooking. It is grayish brown, rather than yellowish brown. And it is smooth to the touch, whereas burlap is rough to the touch. It supports heavier fibres such as silks, velvets, and wide cut woolens. It is much easier on the hands when hooking – the hook just slides in and out of those holes. It often comes in 11, 12, or 13 threads to the inch. It is two to three times the price of burlap. Linen, unlike burlap, is stronger when wet. It lasts easily 50-100 years, and some beyond that, depending on storage and care.
This is just a quick run down of various backings. New products and fabrics are being created all the time, and rug hookers are stretching the boundaries and frontiers of hooking on different backings. I once tried hooking 28 gauge wire on aluminum screening. It worked, but the wire was too heavy when hooked – the screening did not hold the shape of the 3D sculpture I was hoping to attain.
I would be interested in knowing what backings any rug hookers out there have used and what their experiences with them have been. What is your favorite backing and why?
Since I have been juried in with the Saskatchewan Crafts Council I have used nothing but primitive linen backing for my primarily silk and wool wall hangings. In fact, that was the one concession I made to the SCC in order to be juried in…all my pieces were on primitive linen. The strength and longevity of linen have proven the test of time. I sell my work to discriminating buyers across North America and I want them to have the best.
But other people’s purposes and pocketbooks may vary, and that’s okay. As long as we are honest about materials used in our pieces, and understand the advantages and disadvantages of that material, we will be okay and so will our piece. There are enough options for a variety of expression in this craft. That’s the beauty of rug hooking…there’s something there for everyone’s pocketbook, large or small.