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Artisan: Color on Canvas 

Rug-hooking moves from necessity to art.

"Rug-hooking started in the 1800s or sooner," Henck explains to her students in a Saturday afternoon class at the Visual Arts Center, "and it was pretty utilitarian, using burlap feed sacks for the backing. Their primitive designs were made out of used clothing that might have been cotton, homespun or wool."

The art has evolved with a wider range of fabrics and contemporary patterns, but the technique remains the same. Rug makers cut their chosen fabric into pencil-width strips and use a wood-handled hook to pull the strips through the backing material, making rows of level loops that blossom into a design.

This is not the same process as latch-hooking, where the ends of each fiber form a plush pile. In rug-hooking, the fiber loops give a firmer finish, and the designs emerge from the interplay of colors in the rows of loops. The back must look as finished as the front.

Henck, intrigued by some vintage and antique rugs she saw a dozen years ago, studied the technique in one class and a few workshops but is largely self-taught. She tells students that color planning is the most important and satisfying part of the process, and that precision and proper finishing methods are essential. She shows them some of her creations in shades of purple, gold and turquoise, with accent colors and embellishments that suit the style of each project. There are Oriental-design rugs, a folk-art cat wall-hanging, floral purses, table mats and small accent rugs in geometric patterns.

Henck creates custom pieces for clients who understand that handmade goods equate to not-from-China pricing, or about $125 a square foot. Buyers collect hooked rugs as heirlooms and expect them to live well into the next century, with proper care.

Many prime examples of hooked rugs hang in museums worldwide or are shown in galleries and publications and at rug fairs, where enthusiasts find that camaraderie is a significant part of the learning process. "It's a great community of people," Henck says, "and you really develop friendships. There's a lot of networking by e-mail around the world — Japan and Canada, England. Rug-hookers are very passionate about what they do. It's like talking about your kids. It speaks to the artistic side of you and brings out that passion."

Henck runs a business, Mary's Wool Garden, and leads camps, festivals and classes devoted to the art. She works on projects while traveling on airplanes, waiting for appointments and whenever she can find time to add a few rows to a piece in progress. It becomes an obsession, she says, and people who take it up learn to live with the wool dust that tends to fly as the fabric strips are being cut. That's surely easier than hearing hooker jokes for the umpteenth time, like the one about the all-day hook-in scheduled for next spring. Henck, not altogether unwittingly, furthers the comparison: "The art is in your technique and to be visually interesting."

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