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Life and Work

Hooked on rugmaking

Kris McDermet’s rare technique and style becomes basis for a book

For more information and photos of Kris’s work, visit her website.

DUMMERSTON—Kris McDermet makes rugs to tell a story.

Recently, she received her first commission from a family in her hometown of Dummerston who wanted her to document their house’s 225th anniversary. Through images, textures and colors, she celebrates all the different people and their histories who lived in this house for over two centuries.

In doing so, McDermet created a work of art.

Yet she is a little hesitant to call herself a “fine artist.”

This reluctance might seem astonishing after one sees the beautiful rugs she creates, but McDermet feels her work straddles the world of both craft and art. In fact, she insists on this uncertain place because she wants to honor the tradition in which she works.

“Early American women, in the privacy of their homes, with the supplies they had such as rags and old clothing, made objects for their family that while beautiful were also practical,” she said, adding that her goal is to “use old techniques in a contemporary style.”

McDermet developed her idea over 30 years ago while taking a class when living in Maryland. She learned techniques for making both braided and hooked rugs. Neither style by itself caught her imagination, but her instructor suggested she put braided elements on hooked rugs.

She was not sure that was such a good idea.

At first, McDermet attempted to combine braided rugs with needlepoint, yet needlepoint turned out to be not strong enough to sustain the weight of the braided fabric. Only then did she slowly begin working through the aesthetic possibilities of taking her instructor’s suggestion.

The Shakers were known to surround a hooked rug with a border of braid, but McDermet appears to be the first to integrate the two styles of fabric art. Her rugs are a tapestry of contrasting textures, with the finer hooked portions completing the bolder braided sections.

Traditionally, hooked and braided rugs were perceived differently in American homes. “While over 50 percent of hooked rugs can now be found hanging on the walls, most braided rugs were relegated to the basement,” she said. “Consequently, there are not a lot of antique braided rugs left.”

New book

This month marks the appearance of McDermet ’s large, glossy book exploring this new style of rug making.

Combining Rug Hooking & Braiding: Basic, Borders, & Beyond is described as “the comprehensive reference on rug hook and braiding skills for all fiber artist, especially those looking for an all-inclusive guide to combining the two arts into fascinating and creative projects.”

When the publisher, Schiffer, approached McDermet about doing a book about her craft/art, she initially turned the offer down, especially since the company would require her to do a video along with the book. She felt she was not competent enough to take on such a huge project alone alone.

However, while attending a rug-making workshop, she asked the two woman who happened to share the table with her if perhaps they might want to write a book with her. They agreed. Although neither specially did combination rugs, they both brought strongly needed skills in rug making and the art of putting a book together.

The co-authors of the book are Christine Manges, a Pennsylvanian retired doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, and Dianne Tobias, a northern Californian pharmacist specializing in geriatrics and quality improvement.

In fact, all three authors are involved in the health care system. McDermet wears another hat as a occupational therapist, working in home care.

The three lived far from one another, met regularly online via Skype, as they worked out the details of what turned out to be a very complicated endeavor.

McDermet’s art takes a long time from start to finish. Sometimes, she dedicates over a year to finish a single rug. She begins with an inspiration and then proceeds to create a design in which she can tell a story, often about nature. She then sketches out a pattern. Sometimes she searches online for pictures that are in the public domain.

“You can not take any image anywhere, because much in rug making is protected by copyrights. For instance, when I put the Shakers’ Tree of Life in a recent rug, I had to write to the Shaker Society for permission to use it. Illegal use of images make it impossible for a rug to be sold, be used in a book, or go into an art show.”

McDermet hand cuts and then dyes her wool fabrics in small batches. It is difficult to ascertain the precise amount to dye, so often she will run out of a certain color and have to dye more. Hand-dyed fabric batches can never be exactly the same. These fluctuations in color add texture to her work.

She then slowly hooks and braids these fabrics into her pattern. Working with small hooked and braided pieces, she ultimately will combine the parts to create the larger rug.

McDermet creates rugs as big as four by six feet, though often her rugs are much smaller.

McDermet’s patience, care and attention to detail has paid off.

Her work has placed in the top 10 in the last three shows of Hooked in the Mountains, the rug and fiber art show of the Green Mountain Hooking Guild.. She will also present at the next Hooked in the Mountains show, which runs at the Shelburne Museum from Nov. 12 through Nov. 20.

Besides her book, McDermet regularly teaches rug making classes throughout the country, including a recent 4½-day workshop in New Jersey. She also has taught locally, including classes at Not Just Yarn in Brattleboro, though she now mostly teaches privately.

Every Monday night, you can find her hooking rugs with her sister-in-law. Once a month, she goes to the Rug Social at the Chesterfield Inn in New Hampshire, where fellow artisans come together to share what they know about the craft.

She is also a member of Brattleboro-West Arts (BWA), an association of artists and craftsman working in the villages of West Brattleboro and Marlboro, dedicated to supporting the artistic and economic growth of its members and community. She will be part of the BWA’s 2011 Studio Tour on Sept. 24 and 25.

McDermet concedes that hooking and braiding rugs is primary a woman’s craft, which partly can be explained by its origins in hearth and home. She estimates that 99 percent of the people she has encountered in rug making circles have been women.

But not all.

In fact, she met her husband, Stewart, because of rug making. Many years ago, when still living in Boston, Stewart himself was attempting a rag rug himself, following instructions in an article he had read in Yankee. Collecting discarded fabrics in dumpsters throughout Boston, he constructed what turned out to be what she described as a rather crude rug.

Nonetheless, the endeavor impressed a friend of hers enough for her to call Kris and say, “Boy, do I know someone you should meet.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #115 (Wednesday, August 24, 2011).

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