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In The Loop : In the '50s, Jean Maclyman latched onto making hooked rugs from recycled rags. Although intended to be strictly practical, their beauty has survived.

October 22, 1994|MARESSA ARCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Walking into the Maclyman house in Seal Beach is to step back to a time when everything in a home was used until it was completely worn out. To a time when recycling old things was seen as a financial necessity, not as a way to save the environment.

But, without Jean Maclyman there to explain, a visitor would never know that the picture hanging over the fireplace and the artwork dominating the living room wall were made from old clothing. Or that the antiques throughout the house were thrift store finds purchased when her family was young and new furniture was costly.

The picture, the wall hanging and many of the rugs throughout the house were hand-hooked by Maclyman, 77, when her children were young.

"My husband was a Long Beach policeman and worked nights when he first started out. I started (hooking rugs) at night, after I put the children to bed, to keep from worrying about him," she said.

That was during the early '50s, when Maclyman could buy wool coats at thrift stores for less than 50 cents and tear them into strips that would eventually become hooked rugs, pillows, pictures and chair seats.

The 8-by-10-foot rug that now hangs on the living room wall took Maclyman two years to complete. When her children were growing up, it was the rug under the dining room table.

"When Mom moved in here with me, I just couldn't see that rug being walked on anymore. It's too precious a work of art," said Maclyman's 47-year-old daughter, Jean.

The two women share their house with Jean's 7-year-old son, Patrick, who understands that his grandmother handmade many of the treasures that fill the home. When he told his neighborhood friends that a newspaper was running a story about his grandmother's hooked rugs, they wanted to come in and see them.

"I showed them around and told them about how I made the rugs," said Maclyman, soft-spoken and modest about her work. "I don't know if they were impressed, but they seemed interested."

It is hard not to be impressed by the more than a dozen rugs and other hooked items in the house. Even after decades of use, their colors are still vibrant, and they seem as unworn as if they were recently made.

*

The process of hooking a rug is not very complicated. Only a few materials are required: burlap or canvas for the backing, yarn or any kind of fabric, old or new, and a hook.

Rugs are made by pulling cloth through interstices in a backing. Many rug-makers prefer using a wooden frame to hold a piece in place as they work, though some simply rest their work in their laps. Maclyman said she used both practices but preferred a frame for large rugs. A quilting frame is what she used for the floral rug hanging in the living room.

Hooked rugs have been made in this country since its earliest days, although few of those pieces have survived. They were made with coarse yarn that could not be tightly woven; consequently, those rugs were not durable and didn't last.

By the 1850s, hooked rugs were a common element in every home, probably due to cheap jute burlap imported from the Indies. Burlap is the most common backing used to hook rugs. Rugs made prior to the Civil War were either colored with dyes derived from natural sources or simply held the color of the rags from which they were made.

By 1860, burlap with printed patterns was available, making it possible for people who weren't good at drawing to hook rugs with intricate designs.

Most hooked rugs being sold today as floor coverings are made by machine and imported. The cost for a large, room-size rug made from wool can be $1,000 or more.

There is also a growing market for antique hooked rugs, but many of the pieces on the market are machine-made rugs created in the 1930s, according to William C. Ketchum, who has written several books on hooked rugs.

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Maclyman's foray into pre-patterned rugs came after reading an article in The Times in the 1950s.

"The article was by Dorothy Lawless, so I wrote to her, and she sent me burlap with a stamped pattern. We were still writing each other as late as the early '70s," Maclyman said. "I'd write to ask about getting the sky right in a hooked picture and such."

Maclyman said for her first rugs--small area rugs she calls her "primitives"--she drew the patterns freehand and used bold colors with no shading. She learned shading by taking a community class at a local high school.

"The art is really in the dyeing process. It would take hours. You dyed the material when it was still in big pieces, such as the sleeves or backs of coats," she said. "If you'd dye after cutting them into strips, you'd loose too much material from fraying."

To get the colors right, Maclyman would increase or decrease the amount of dye. "Also, the longer you left the fabric in, the darker it would be," she added. The fabric was then rinsed in salt water or vinegar to set the color.

"I remember as a child coming into the kitchen, and my mom would have huge pots boiling on the stove to dye the cloth," says Maclyman's daughter.

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