Hooked and Handsewn Rugs of Southeastern Pennsylvania

By Trish Herr
Click on any image to enlarge it.

Figure 1. Amish horse and buggy rug. Courtesy of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County.

Having recently authored the book Rags to Rugs: Hooked and Handsewn Rugs of Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you some interesting examples of the floor coverings we have found in our area of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Of course, when you see the rug pictured in figure 1 of the Amish horse and buggy, there is little doubt where this was made. The actual maker's name is unknown, but she was a member of the Lancaster Amish community who probably hooked this in the mid-1930s. Typical of Amish "ruggers," she used precisely cut stripes of wool cloth hooked in even rows into a burlap ground.

In Lancaster and the surrounding Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, we have a mixture of German and English cultures. The English tradition includes the Quakers and Scots-Irish. The Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County, with the help of many rug hookers and collectors, documented hundreds of examples between 2004 and 2006. But the majority of rugs seen belonged to Pennsylvania German families.

Figure 2. Satin stitched rooster rug. The Herrs, collection.

Few examples of hand-hooked and sewn rugs made before 1850 survive. The rooster rug seen in figure 2 is one of the earliest examples found. It was made about 1860 using wool yarns that were satin stitched on a plain weave linen foundation. The technique is similar to that used in the 18th and early 19th centuries in needlework embroideries and samplers.

Figure 3. Rag carpet. Courtesy of Clarke Hess.

And you ask, "What was on the floor before the late 19th and early 20th century craze for hooking rugs took over?" Sometimes nothing! But in this part of the country the most common types of floor coverings used in the early 1800s were likely lengths of handwoven carpets. Two examples are pictured in figures 3 and 4.

The example seen in figure 3 is known as rag carpet. It was found in a Lancaster Mennonite home and was woven by a professional weaver about 1870. It contains bright-colored wool yarn favored by the Pennsylvania Germans on a heavy warp made of strips of recycled household textiles. Thus the term "rag." Later in the 20th century, and even today, Amish weavers are making this carpeting using strips cut from recyled clothing supplied by the homemaker.

Figure 4. Ingrain carpet. Courtesy of Clarke Hess.

Figure 4 is also a woven strip known as ingrain carpet made in the same time period as the early rag carpets. Found in many areas or the United States, this example came from the same Lancaster County Mennonite home where the rag carpet was found. Weavers producing ingrain carpeting were skilled in the use of patterns to create these decorative floor coverings from wool and cotton yarns. Both carpets seen in figures 3 and 4 are approximately 36" wide, the common width for this type of woven rug.

In the 20th century, homemade braided rugs also became popular and are still a functional way to recycle used woolen materials. Floor coverings of this type were not included in my book categories "Hooked and Handsewn."

Figure 5. Dauphin County cross stitched rug. The Herrs’ collection.

An example of an early and unusual group of floor or table coverings, found in the Dauphin County, is seen in figure 5. This particularly small example (20" x 36") serves as the "Rosetta stone" for this group of cross-stitched rugs worked on burlap. It is dated 1876, signed by the maker, "Mary Gingrich," with the location "Derry Church, Dauphin Country Pa.," and the date "1876." Before Mr. Hershey started making chocolate in that area of Pennsylvania, the small town where he established his business was known as Derry Church. Other related rugs have names and initials of Mennonite women who were related to, or close neighbors of, Mary. While the Hershey bar has flourished, these rugs remain rare with less than a dozen examples known.

Figure 6. Grandview farm hooked rug. Courtesy of Clarke Hess.

Local neighborhood scenes were frequently adapted by rug makers in designing their home floor coverings. The example shown in figure 6, is that of Grandview farm in Lancaster County and is attributed to Rebecca Horst Keiffer (1885-1963) who lived on that property in Center Church, Bowmansville, Lancaster Co. She probably made this piece around 1935.

Figure 7. Sheep hooked rug. The Herrs’ collection.

Animals were popular subjects for rug makers in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Perhaps this smiling sheep seen in figure 7 was a member of the flock living on the farm of this unknown northern Lancaster County maker. For collectors and historians she thoughtfully applied the date of 1897 to her finished piece. It was made from wool strips hooked on a burlap ground.

Figure 8. Girl and Goose hooked rug. The Herrs’ collection.

All of the above hooked and sewn rugs were patterns created by local women for their own or family and friends use. But commercial patterns were likely the most common source used by area women to design rugs. The example seen in figure 8 reminds us of a Mother Goose story. It consists of wool fabric and yarn hooked into a commercially printed burlap ground. Attributed to Sue Hummel, who lived in Elizabethtown, Lancaster Co., it was made around 1925. The Benjamin Grieder family saved their old wool clothing to be cut into strips and made into a gift for their daughter, Martha Greider Herr, before her marriage to Maurice Herr in 1927. Fortunately it was cherished by the family and kept in the guest room where it received little wear. Now it is a much appreciated part of our collection.

Rugs such as this "Bo Peep" girl chasing her goose have for many years been ignored, or worse yet, walked upon, worn, and thrown out. We hope that others will look at their hooked and handsewn rugs, sometimes well-worn with daily use, or forgotten in the attic, and preserve them for the next generation to appreciate.