Vernacular Rug Hooks. Exemplars of Practical, Comfortable, and Efficient Tools

A collection of handmade rug hooks bought in Prince Edward Island, CA.

I purchased this small collection of rug hooks while on vacation in Prince Edward Island, Canada, this past summer. Most of them have handmade hooks, and the handles are repurposed, altered, or custom carved. There is a compelling beauty to these humble and utilitarian objects.

Not only are they simply constructed, but they are extremely well used, which implies a degree of excellence. A poorly designed or made tool usually does not see much use! They are purely functional, with no decoration or even extra polishing on the hook end. Things that are well used and worn are an increasing rarity in our current culture. I sometimes refer to this as  “use value”, but there must be a better term.

A precisely shaped hook at the tip.

They all have a square shaft end where the handle is mounted, and look hand forged. The overall length is almost exactly the same, so that they fit into the palm of a hand and the tip reaches near the end of a slightly bent index finger. Gravers have a similar length, and one of them has what looks to be a graver handle that is missing the ferrule (the second one on in from the left on the bottom).

Several of them have file marks near the hook, indicating they were sharpened, fixed, or altered. The thickness of the shaft in relation to the size of the hook makes perfect sense: I imagine the thick area pushing apart the backing, and the hook small and sharp enough to pull the material efficiently through.

The first one (top row, far left)  reminds me of a Jim Croft awl handle, with its comfortable looking hand carved handle, worked just enough to knock any sharp edges, but not going overboard with sandpaper to make it smooth as if it were lathe turned.

Simple and ergonomic handle.

I imagine them gradually being shaped to the hands that used them over a long period of time. None of them seem to have any extra finish applied, so they feel like natural wood and oil from the hands. The shapes of the handles are all different, and likely the most individual choice.

They all demonstrate the two key aspects of successful tool design; the tool fits comfortably in the hand and fits efficiently with the material worked. They all look like they could comfortably jump into your hand and go to work.

 

Detail of what a hooked rug looks like. They were often made of strips from worn out clothes.

 

 

Is Restoration Dying?

First Ed. Tom Sawyer, seen at the 2019 NYC Armory Book Show a few weeks ago.

Twenty years ago this Tom Sawyer, and other expensive first editions, were often extensively restored. This often involved a lot of conservationally questionable work. Redying or painting abrasions in the cloth, sophisticating the text with better boards from later editions, mixing partial textblocks with better condition plates were all common practice. Anything, really, that would make the book appear in more pristine condition.

Dust jackets, often worth more than the book they covered, were treated similarly with invasive, invisible, and often irreversible restoration done to make them look brand new. And now, the untouched ones are worth more than ones that has been messed with. Uh-oh.

And if the label on this Tom Sawyer is a harbinger of the market, things are changing for the books too. I personally became interested in old books because I liked the way old books looked, and didn’t want to change that. Generally speaking, old books and other old things are becoming more valuable when they are genuinely old, exhibit use value, have wear, patina, history, and character. Authenticity, in a word. Three reasons for this come to mind for this change: we spend more time virtually, are overwhelmed with disposable objects that can’t be fixed or retained, and there is a dwindling supply of unaltered old objects. I’m sure there are others.

A recent NY Times article about high end watches neatly summarizes some reasons for the appreciation — romanticization?— of older watches, which also could apply to books. “… old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen [DeGeneres]) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans… .” A millennial friend of mine likened the record player in her living room to a fireplace: of course it is not necessary, but it is comforting to engage with a durable antiquated technology that takes a little bit of attention and care. It wasn’t an audiophile’s opining: she liked the thingness of it.

There is an imposing presence when you hold an older book in your hands.  A Benjaminian “aura”. Somehow just knowing this object has seen so much over the years impacts us.  The scars, damage, wear, uniqueness, and trauma an object has encountered can often add aesthetic and sometimes even informational value. An extreme example might be the books that were damaged while by stopping a bullet, possibly saving a life. Despite being mass produced, nineteenth century titles are often unique, due to the amount of handwork that went into them at various stages of the binding, and the physical traces from their existence in time and space.

Yet I fear the book dealer’s sign on this Tom Sawyer may swing the pendulum too far. Although I only looked at this book under glass, I could think of a few very minor treatments that would greatly extend the life of this object when handled, without impacting its aesthetic value, use value, patina or other inherent qualities. Is “free from repair” a good thing if the joint continues to tear with each opening? Or was the dealer sophisticated enough to distinguish between restoration, repair and conservation?

A professional conservator (i.e. me) takes their ethical obligations to the object entrusted to their care seriously, and most of us pledge to do this in writing.  The AIC guidelines for practice specifically discuss compensation for loss and reversibility.  Restoration treatment may or may not reversible: conservation treatment always should be. This may be the main reason for the notice on the Tom Sawyer book: a future owner could move forward with a more invasive treatment, depending on the intended uses of the book, but could not go back. And this affects the value.

Are we finally witnessing a place for conservation oriented book treatments in the marketplace and recognition in the public sphere?

 

How Many Soles

How many soles have tread on this board shear clamp pedal?  How many decades did it take the original deep crosshatching  to become almost completely eroded in the center of the pedal? How long did it take for the original japanning to become mirror polished? How many different people have used this machine?  How many shins has this pedal bloodied?  How many blades has this machine had? How many cloth case bindings have been cut on this machine?  How many boxes? How many curses have been hurled at this machine,when something was miscut?

And how many times has this board shear subtly retaliated, going minutely out of square, cutting one book board a hair short, tearing material rather than cutting, or even pinching a finger in quiet defiance, only to be stepped on once again?