June 2023 Studio Hours Recap: Shelley Nicolle-Phillips’ Rug-hooking

17 July 2023

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Studio Hours in June focussed on place—Canada is a big place and the landscapes change so much across the country. Our land acknowledgments flowed into discussions of land and environment. Kate had recently travelled to rural Saskatchewan and found it so different from her home in urban Toronto. Kate then introduced Sarah Thornton (that’s me!), a textile writer, maker, and former biologist/scientist. I live on Vancouver Island, a place known for big trees and mysterious damp dark undergrowth (though we are currently in a drought and have wildfires around, just like much of Canada).

I’ve been writing these Studio Hours summaries for about a year and a half now. One thing I love about doing them is that I end up really engaging with the material presented, not just listening for an hour. We’ve had so many guests whose work shows respect and reverence for the land—from Lorraine Roy’s tree and insect pieces to Anna Hunter’s work in regenerative agriculture. In June, we had another such guest.

Shelly Nicolle-Phillips, a talented rug-hooker who lives and works in Regina, joined us for a conversation about rug hooking and her recent works, which are rooted deeply in the natural landscape of Saskatchewan. Shelly began by talking about Saskatchewan; it’s not all flat fields of wheat and canola! Northern Saskatchewan is a land full of lakes, trees, and rocks. In the southwest, hills, badlands, and ranching prevail, and there are pockets of untouched native prairie grassland such as Old Man on his Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Site.

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Shelly has deep roots in the Maritimes but has called Saskatchewan home for over twenty years. She took up rug hooking relatively recently and is largely self-taught. She finds rug hooking to be a meditative craft that is compatible with weaving, knitting, and crocheting since it uses scraps and leftovers. It’s easy to pick up and put down a hooked piece—you don’t need to figure out where you are like you might with a complicated lace pattern or weaving draft.

She gave us a quick rug hooking tutorial, showing us her tools and materials and demonstrating the only stitch, which involves pulling loops of threads or fabric up through a backing fabric of burlap or linen. Given the simplicity of the technique, colour and texture in the fabric and yarn scraps is very important.

Getting started in the craft can be very inexpensive because, in addition to the materials, you only need a few supplies. You’ll need a way to keep the backing fabric taut, such as an embroidery hoop or a lap loom. After Shelly had used these methods for a while, her father made her a floor-standing “Cheticamp frame,” named for the Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, town of Chéticamp, a hotbed of maritime rug hooking. This frame frees up her hands, allowing a much more efficient hooking style. You’ll also need a hook, which can be as simple as a large-handled (ergonomic) crochet hook or a simple hook with a larger handle made from sculpting clay or wood. Shelly explained the difference between a latch hook and a rug hooking hook and also showed us an older rug tufting tool (like the one Julie Rosvall showed us in January) and we discussed the evolution of the craft from hooking to hand tufting to the (rather intimidating) power rug tufter that Caitlin ffrench showed us last year.

After demonstrating, Shelly showed some rugs from her family home in the Maritimes, one of which is listed in the Prince Edward Island Rug Registry (Facebook link). These rugs were all made to be used on the floor and have either an abstract style or a pattern like traditional patchwork quilts; they are not representational or figural. Shelly generally doesn’t use her rugs as floor or seat coverings but rather frames them to display them as art. She showed us her first completed piece, a lighthouse and rocks picture from a kit produced by Deanne Fitzpatrick. Since that time, she’s developed her own style and techniques and draws all her own patterns.

One member commented on how prevalent rug hooking is in her region of Lunenburg/Mahone Bay (South Shore Nova Scotia), with the Hooked Rug Museum of North America nearby and the very active Rug Hooking Guild of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Others expanded on the earlier mention of the hooking in Chéticamp, Cape Breton, an area that primarily uses yarn, not fabric scraps, in the pieces. Another member recommended a retrospective of an exhibit from Big Tancook Island, Nova Scotia (YouTube link). A member shared a beautiful project from New Brunswick: The Barachois Historical Church will be 200 years old in 2026, and to celebrate they invited contributions of hooked pillow covers for the pillows in their pews. To date, 315 cushions have been completed, from several different countries.

Rug hooking is found across Canada, not just in the Maritimes. We talked about the rug hooking of Ontario and Quebec with its focus on representational works, with many pieces depicting winter scenes such as sugar maple tapping and kids sledding through trees.

Shelly and I then talked a bit about a large project she’s recently completed, the Prairie Alphabet. It was this project that initially drew me to her work. She made twenty-six pieces, each depicting a different plant or animal species that’s ecologically important to the endangered Prairie Grasslands ecosystem. (See upcoming article for more information on the project!) Shelly showed a few of the pieces, including the quaking (or trembling) aspen (Populus tremuloides) for the Q, and the Yellow-headed Blackbird which she used for the X, given its scientific name, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, where xantho is the Latin root for “yellow” and cephalus means “head.” The Prairie Alphabet hung on the gallery wall at Bushwakkers Pub in Regina for the month of May (one of the D&T members exclaimed in the chat that her niece is the pastry chef at Bushwakkers!) and Shelly is now looking for another gallery to display this beautiful, educational, set of works. With this brief view of the project, many members commented on how this would make a great published alphabet book.

We also were treated to seeing close-up views of a few more of Shelly’s pieces, including Sturgill the Sturgeon, a larger-format, long horizonal piece, depicting a long fish in browns and tans, outlined in black, and with whiskers almost tickling the few weeds and grasses growing out of a gravel bed. The background water is made from many shades and textures of blues.

Shelly also shared a piece she made as a protest piece. She has hooked the phrase “We fight for roses too,” surrounded by red roses on a tan background. She displays this piece each International Women’s Day (March 8). 

Show and Tell

Our conversation ran long, and we had very little time for Show and Tell. Member Lia Pas showed us a quick view of her most recent embroidery. Another member showed her Icelandic Spring Shawl (designer, Hélène Magnússon) created using dyed handspun wool from an Icelandic sheep farm in East Sooke, southern Vancouver Island, and natural grey Istex Einband from Iceland. And, in response to the Icelandic shawl, Shelly showed us a rug hooked piece she made that was inspired by her trip to Iceland five years ago—a white church surrounded by a rich landscape of reds and browns.

Photo courtesy Shelly Nicolle-Phillips.

Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
Sarah Thornton head shot

About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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