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Wilma Hill is loopy – in making beautiful hooked rugs

Wilma Hill is loopy – in making beautiful hooked rugs

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Wilma Hill is loopy – in making beautiful hooked rugs

If all the wool that Wilma Hill has ever hooked could be measured, it might easily reach the Hooked Rug Museum of North America, which now houses one of her masterpieces.

Her 7-foot diameter wool rug, a replica of a fine mosaic tile emblem of the Louisiana State University mascot, is now in the Nova Scotia, Canada, museum.

It is 2,300 miles to Chester, Nova Scotia, where Wilma’s husband, Carl, drove her and the rolled-up, heavy LSU rug in July after the museum added it to its collection. Wilma notes it was also Carl who originally knelt on the floor of the 1932 Huey P. Long Field House along with her to painstakingly trace the mosaic’s pattern. The couple, who met at the University of Arkansas, lived for many years in Baton Rouge, La., where Carl was a professor of kinesiology at LSU and she was a teacher of music in public schools.

She doesn’t count the hours she spends hooking wool in simple loops through a linen backing – she says she considers her rug-making a creative challenge and relaxing pleasure.

Hooked wool rugs, she explained, are both works of art and a domestic craft. Whether in elaborate patterns or simple folk-art shapes, thin strips of wool fabric (not yarn) are pulled in single loops through a backing of linen or burlap to create a floor covering that gives warmth, color and comfort to a home.

The art of hooking wool rugs by this method can be found from the time of the early settlement of North America and is often associated with the Colonial states.

A thrifty art, hooking with scraps of wool made use of every bit of the sturdy textile that had been created by shearing a sheep, spinning yarn, dyeing for color and weaving it into fabric. Wool is tough, long-lasting, sheds water to a degree, and resists dirt.

After rugs began to be machine-made and expensive, humble hooked rugs were a craft men and women could make themselves. The rugs Wilma makes are elevated to an art form. Hooked wool rugs, primitive, antique or new, are highly valued and never go out of fashion. The craft, no longer a necessity, is enjoyed by many, she said.

In fact, this mannered, proper lady who was regularly asked to be former mayor Ray Baker’s pianist for official occasions loves to joke that she is a “licensed hooker,” because she qualified for a rug-hooking teaching certification. She first learned to hook in Chattanooga, Tenn., when Carl taught at the University of Tennessee.

While living in Baton Rouge, Wilma taught classes in her own home rug studio. She also held community classes here and is still willing to encourage those who want to learn the art.

“I usually start out beginners with a ‘table rug’ or a small piece,” she said. Those who are “hooked” on the craft may challenge themselves to the variety of projects Wilma has created – from area rugs to small mats, in patterns from primitive to modern, or wholly original designs with subtly blended colors of her own choice.

“I encourage my students to branch out,” she said. “I don’t color plan. I’m not compulsive about following a pattern.” She has freestyled an astonishing variety of designs over the years.

“Currently in the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, I have a hooked portrait of a hand holding a cell phone with a picture of my grandson, Ransom,” she said. “I had to find an iPhone to copy because I still don’t use one!”

Her work has been included in many exhibits and has received numerous awards. The LSU Tiger is also pictured in a large-format book “Hooked Rugs of the Deep South” by Jessie A. Turbayne. She originally intended the tiger rug for her son Barry, who attended LSU.

“He transferred to the University of Arkansas and is a Razorback fan, then married an equally avid Texas Longhorn. I can’t add another conference,” she laughed.

She and Carl considered offering the tiger to LSU alum and pro basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, but wasn’t sure it could be protected as long from “critters” as it will be in a museum. Moths and dampness are the mortal enemy of wool. Now, she is reassured her most intricate work can last for hundreds of years, as many carefully preserved wool rugs have done.

Disastrous moisture in the form of Hurricane Katrina drove the Hills back to Fort Smith, where they are very happy to spend their retirement. Carl can be found fishing as often as he can get away with it, while she hooks at least 30 minutes a day.

Wilma’s father, W.A. Downum, was pastor of Midland Heights Methodist Church and she attended Fort Smith schools. They are now active members of First Methodist Church. Their family history – and her beautiful art – make a warm and colorful home in Fort Smith.

By Lynn Wasson

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.
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