Senior year in high school and I am trying to decide what my next academic study path would be. Archeology at the University of Arizona? Granted my mom’s best friend lived in Tucson so I knew people 2300 miles from home but….I was homesick going to Girl Scout camp, could I be that far away? Other career choice was Interior Design, Retail Management and so I went to Newbury Junior College in Boston. That was a five hour drive from home, a city not as intimidating as NYC (my immediate neighbor) and only a two year program. Long story short, I spent 10 years in Boston, graduated from U Mass with a degree in Art and History.
Now in 2019, living in West Virginia, I have had the honor to peel back the layers of a hand stitched rug made by Otha and Blanche McDonald in the mid 1960’s. I felt like that archeologist of my youthful dreams when each element of construction was revealed. Researching the sister’s work for a few years, I have seen many completed pieces. Because they are hand stitched, applique’ and embroidered motifs quilted together to make the heavy rugs we have not been able to see the inner layers. Until a few months ago that is. This rug was on the floor for it’s life, ending up in a summer house guest bedroom but still used underfoot. The wool, thin cotton, and knits did not stand up well to this wear. I was asked to repair and then mount the rug to be hung as art for its next 50 years.
First step was to clean the rug with a vacuum, and inventory the damage. There were four large flowers where the discolored cotton batting showed through and several small centers that had worn out. I studied how the flowers were attached to the rug and realized the random stitching we see on the reverse was the anchoring threads. With some unease I began to snip away, the flowers came off one at a time.
Next was to study the stitches used to edge the motif and separate the petals. I do embroider which helped. Overall they used the blanket stitch around the center motif and outer edges. Couching is the method to detail the petals. After working four of the flowers I got into an efficient rhythm. Begin at the center, get to a petal lay the thread and then couch back to center, continue. Then stitch around the flower. Grandma’s instructions to make my back as neat as front got in the way of channeling Blanche or Otha’s style. My first attempt was evenly spaced about an 1/8 inch away but they worked much tighter and irregularly. I caught on and when the flowers were added to the rug they are not noticed as new. One problem in being authentic was I did not know what thread they used. I matched the color to DMC 844 exactly. But that was 6 separate strands and theirs was one. I went back to the State Museum in Charleston and found a researcher who worked in textiles and coincidentally grew up in Glenville, near the sisters. She suggested a cotton finger weight yarn for making socks! Made sense to me.
Matching aged colors and similar fabrics took me months. Finally I came up with a walnut stained pillow case I had made and for the blue flowers a sample piece of discontinued upholstery fabric. The blue needed to be scuffed up a bit. Taking the flowers and stems off and turning them over to see the original bright colors was exciting every time. There are examples in the State Museum of rugs that have not been exposed to wear and light. I actually like the look of these two rugs I have worked with because they tell a story of living with loving family members. Following are some images of the individual elements and their replacements.
Sorry to see this new/old friend leave us. But after making a wooden frame covered with acid free fome core and black cotton twill, I used crochet thread in random all over stitches through the entire rug and fome core to attach the heavy piece. Then added wire to hang either vertically or horizontally and packed it in the car. I got to meet the owner who had purchased the rug from the sisters and we shared the admiration of their skills. So many lessons were learned by delving into the layers and “talking with the ladies”.
Please tell us how and why you create. The work can speak only so loud years later. Photograph, journal, show us the tools and materials and most importantly what inspires you and why you work with your hands. I do it to connect with the people who taught me, whose work I admire, and because of the tactile experience and meditative time each piece takes to speak my visions.