Some history of Pearl K. McGown Hookrafters

For those of you who have stumbled upon the website and have no idea of what the National Guild of Pearl K. McGown Rug Hookrafters Inc. is, here is some history for you to consider. The craft of rug hooking goes back as far as the early to mid 1800’s (though, some say Ancient Egypt).

It is said that sailors used to make their hook (an instrument for pulling loops through burlap, linen, or cotton backing) by shaping a nail on a stick. These rugs were of very simple naive design-nautical and geometric. Later, rural housewives began the same technique-pulling wool strips through a backing forming a looped pile. Their designs again were naive-household pets and simple flowers. Those rugs were used for warmth on a bed (called bed rugs) as well as brightening a cold dark floor. Professional designers came on the scene during the late 1800’s and the craft flourished

Pearl McGown was born February 27, 1891. As a child growing up, she sat on the floor below her mothers hooking frame (supported on the backs of four chairs) feeding woolen strips into her mothers hand, helping with the process. During the late 1920’s she began designing and selling rug patterns for the students of Caroline Saunders, a rug hooking teacher in Clinton, Mass. Pearl was also a Legal Secretary for Mrs. Saunders husband. Because of the invention of commercial rug looms, Pearl feared that a waning interest in the craft might eventually doom the art.Pearl began her own pattern business at the age of 39. She worked at the law office all day and returned home at night to work until the wee hours preparing patterns for customers, who by this time were ordering from all over the country (Pearl had over 1000 original designs!). But she couldn’t keep up with the orders and so she put her teenage son to work, and his friends, and their friends. But with all the activities that a teenager has it just wasn’t enough help. Pearl’s sister May joined the crusade, and for a long time printed the patterns her sister created.She decided that since she was selling the patterns, she should also hook some so people could see them completed. Thus more supplies, and frames, and wool. Her closets bulged, she stored boxes under her kitchen table, not an inch to spare in any room. Her biggest obstacle was space!

In 1938 Pearl’s first book was published The Dreams Beneath Design. Lots of other big events took place that year too! Pearl’s son (Winthrop) got married, her father-in-law retired and was now glad to assist May in printing the patterns, May started helping teachers in the Studio with their choice of patterns, and Pearl realized a need for a graduated swatch of color to bring realism to hooking a flower. For this, Pearl turned to her good friend, Hattie who had a flair for color. Together they dyed swatchettes of every color, trial and error, until they came up with the perfect shades. Yet another room was devoted to these (imagine how beautiful it was to walk into this room full of every imaginable color in the rainbow!).

By 1940, Pearl realized the need for teachers to get together and discuss problems and solutions. It would also be a great avenue to help guide and suggest to those less knowledgeable. Pearl invited teachers to the first group meeting, and encouraged them to bring finished rugs to display. The first Teacher’s Annual Exhibit was born. This first meeting (and the following year), was held at the historic Old Colonial Inn, in Concord, Mass. The third year meeting was held in Copley Plaza Hotel, in Boston. Of course, by this time the war was on and there was a gas shortage, so closer to home the meeting was held at the Horticultural Hall, in Worcester, Massachusetts.Pearl also began a newsletter called the LETTER SERVICE. It was for general instruction in the art of shading certain flowers, a leaf, or a detail of a design. But it did more than just that, it also kept the moral of lonely women hopeful, and held together a dedicated group of rug hookers through an awful period in history.

During the war, when burlap was very scarce, ladies would send her their old potato sacks so that she could apply the inked lines for the designs. In 1943 Pearl got a request to volunteer service in teaching the craft under the Arts Skills program of the Red Cross in the Military Hospitals. The thought was to ease the long and lonely hours of the service people by keeping them busy with various types of recreation. Pearl was assisted by 28 women four days a week in a program which kept an average of 140 hookers busy all the time! “So many incidents stand out in my memory from that experience.

One was the cleverness of one patient. He asked for a plain piece of burlap and said he was going to make a valentine for his wife. Asked if he had hooked before, he said: No, but I think I can manage. At first we were skeptical, but after we had provided the various hues he asked for, we watched him take a snapshot from his pocket and sketch a few lines on the burlap from it. The first few loops he awkwardly pulled into the burlap, but he soon caught on. Then gradually we saw something happen to that burlap. A large heart was drawn to form a frame, and the area around it was hooked in red. Within, a face of delicate light tones began to take shape. Dark brown formed the hair. Dark shadows fell upon the neck. Deep blue eyes and subtly shaded lines gave character to the face. A fuchsia lower lip and an orangey upper lip made us gasp! But, lo and behold, when completed and hung upon the opposite wall, every detail was perfect, and the orange of the upper lip became a highlight. We later learned he was a most accomplished photographer.

“One boy made a rug while lying flat upon his back. The frame was suspended over him just high enough so that he could reach the lower part. His technique was perfect! Every loop was pulled in evenly and with great precision.” Doctors, with hand injuries, who had themselves been helped through hooking, advised all patients with similar injuries to hook to limber up their muscles. “One teacher even taught a blind boy to hook!” His facial injury was beyond description, so he was always alone and behind a screen. She hooked the outlines of a geometric square which formed a sort of hooked Braille. Then, from a medley of colors, which she placed in certain positions on his frame, he could choose the desired color. “He had beautiful hands! When he left for Valley Forge for face surgery, he was much less lonely than he had been before he started handcraft.”

At the end of the war in 1945 Pearl’s fears of the craft becoming extinct resurfaced. New teachers, old teachers and everyone in between wanted to hook, but there were few people who knew how. Pearl had a teacher come to her house and conduct classes. That meant that Pearl was busier than ever with people going through her cramped house. With the shortage of building materials, adding on was out of the question. So when the 1850’s yellow cottage across the field went up for sale, Pearl knew she had to have it. And have it she did on a wing and a prayer.

After a little bit of fix up and some conversion, her new home provided a studio (also known as the BeeHive), two offices, a classroom, an extremely large workshop, and a barn was converted to a printing shop.The house had such character that Pearl had felt it needed a name. That name came from the executor who sold her the property. Her uncle had originally purchased the farm and named it Rose Cottage fifty years before Pearl bought it. Pearl thought the name was fitting and roses were planted all around the property. And so the name lived on, and everyone knew Pearl’s house as Rose Cottage. Now the home, still meticulously well-cared-for and obviously very much loved, is a bed-and-breakfast owned by Michael and Loretta Kittredge.

In 1951, Pearl started the McGown Teachers Workshop. This was to be a workshop of teachers, sharing the ideas and talents with each other in order to perpetuate the craft. Experienced teachers would, over the years, bring in their protégés, who would in time take up the banner and carry it forward. It was a wonderful relationship. Pearl’s business truly became her life. Pearl’s one son, Winthrop, helped with the business as well. He, although married with his own family, gave up one full day a week for many many years to perforate (prepare the paper pattern for printing) for Pearl. He also did all the accounting and tax work as he was a CPA. In 1966 Pearl’s granddaughter, Jane, began to work and travel with Pearl.

In 1970 (Jane at this point had one infant and one toddler) Pearl sold her business to Old Sturbridge Village. This was a very difficult decision for Pearl. She desperately wanted the business to stay in the family but she knew that two babies and a business was not a good combination. Both Pearl and Jane continued to work for Old Sturbridge Village until they sold the business to W. Cushing Co. in 1980. By this time,  Jane’s children were old enough so that Jane could give more attention to the craft. And so, together Jane and Pearl (at age 89) started Jane McGown Flynn Inc. The entire focus of the new business was the continuation of the McGown Teacher workshops – Northern, North Central, Southern Central, Southern, and Western. Attention to the workshops and rug schools required that Jane be away from home and family for one third of the weekends each year. In 1998, Jane’s husband sold his business and retired.

And so, feeling the need not to ever regret having more time with her husband, Jane sold her business. Jane continues to design for the Honey Bee Hive http://rughook.com or email  patterns@rughook.com. All patterns from Pearl, Jane, and the newest additions are available by contacting Melissa Pattacini at the above e-mail address, or by phone toll free: (877) 784-4665.

1. McGown, Pearl. You…Can Hook Rugs. Buck Printing Company, Boston, Mass. 1951.