Art People: Jill St. Coeur | fabric artist

Last modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jill St. Coeur has spent the better part of her life working with fabrics and textiles. Whether knitting or weaving, designing clothes, working as a costume shop manager or printing fabrics, she’s always had a passion for merging her passions for texture, color and material.

“I think it may have all started in 4H camp when I took dressmaking classes,” St. Coeur said in a recent interview.

St. Coeur, who lives in Florence, has gotten involved in a new line of fabric work in the last few years: hooked rugs. It’s an American tradition that likely dates at least to the first half of the 19th century, she says, and was popular among New England women, who would use leftover materials from, say, crafting quilts or clothing to make other useful products.

The rugs are made by pulling loops of yarn through a stiff, woven base of a fabric like burlap or linen; rug makers pull the loops through tiny holes in the backing material by using a crochet-type hook mounted in a wood handle. Users prepare a pattern beforehand on the facing side of the backing material, that serves as a guide for where different-colored yarns should go.

“This was something I’d always wanted to do, so about four years ago I went to Florence Wool & Dye Works so they could show me how to get started, and I just took it from there,” says St. Coeur, the former costume shop coordinator at Smith College. She had enough background in working with fabrics, she notes, that she quickly caught on to the process.

“It’s a bit like painting,” she adds. “It’s very tactile, and it combines my love of color and texture and developing surface designs in a way I really love ... you’re kind of painting with fabric.”

To highlight the art of hooked rugs, St. Coeur has organized a show at Historic Northampton featuring a mix of her designs and the work of five other artists. The exhibit, which runs through May 30, is part of a series in which artists use elements from the museum’s collection as an inspiration for their own work. The show also includes a hooked rug, circa 1860s, from the museum and one other older design.

St. Coeur, who has contributed about a dozen designs to the show, has done a good bit of traveling, and she says her visits to other countries and exposure to cultures and folk art have inspired many of her designs. One rug, for instance, has the distinctive abstract shapes and geometric patterns of aboriginal art.

St. Coeur says she and the other artists are carrying on a great tradition in making hooked rugs, one that seems especially strong in New England, where long winters seem to spur much of the work — and where a warm rug underfoot can be particularly welcome (though many hooked rugs are also used as wall art).

Though St. Coeur sells some of her designs, she’s not in it for the money, she says. “It’s just a great, great hobby.”

— Steve Pfarrer

Historic Northampton will host a talk about the history and technique of hooked rugs on Sunday from 1:30 to 3 p.m.


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