I would never have thought that I would have enjoyed reading a book about rug-making cottage industry in Nova Scotia, but I have. Recently, a Canadian friend brought me a book that focusses on hooked rugs and their promotion by a lady called Lillian Burke (1879-1952), who was born in the USA.
Just in case you (like me before reading the book) have no idea what comprises a hooked rug, let me explain by quoting from Wikipedia: “Rug hooking is … where rugs are made by pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a crotchet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage.”
Edward Langille’s book discusses in detail Lillian Burke’s significant involvement with the hooked rug manufacture carried out by housewives in small settlements in the remote Cape Breton district of Nova Scotia. Ms Burke, who was born in Washington DC, was highly acccomplished in teaching, music, and art. During both world wars, she helped pioneer what is now known as ‘occupational therapy’. She was a highly-regarded teacher. It was this skill that brought her into contact with the family of Alexander Graham Bell, the scientist and inventor of telephony. The Bells employed Lilian Burke as a tutor for their offspring. She developed a lasting friendship with the extended family, who owned a country retreat in the region of Nova Scotia where hooked rug making was a prevalent occupation of the local housewives.
Langille describes how Ms Burke helped to develop what had been a local craft into a viable money-making venture. Using her highly developed artistic skills, she helped the housewives produce rugs with artistically sophisticated designs that made them appealing to fashionable interior decorators in the USA (mainly).
Traditionally, the housewives of Cape Breton wove their rugs with scraps of coloured material. Ms Burke designed the patterns and the housewives did the ‘hooking’. She encouraged them to begin using locally-produced wool which they had dyed. One thing that particularly interested me was that Ms Burke showed the ladies how to use knots and paper masking to dye a skein of wool in varying colours, so that a single thread of wool would vary in colour along its length. This technique is used in Patan in Gujarat (Western India) to produce the silk threads with patterns of varying colour, which are used to produce the highly valuable woven Patola textiles. I would be curious to know whether Ms Burke had been aware of this century’s old method of dyeing.
Langille’s book is a remarkable, well-written, and readable biography of a remarkable woman, who is probably hardly known outside of Nova Scotia and beyond a few enthusiasts of hooked rug making. She deserves to be better known, especially in the light of what Langille’s book reveals about her dedication to the development of rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Professor Langille’s detailed and carefully researched book may well help give Lilian Burke the wider recognition she deserves.
REVIEW BY AUTHOR OF “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”, about Indian patriots in London between 1905 and 1910