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Category Archives: Museums

Talking Knots

By | History, Museums, Textiles | 2 Comments

Textiles are as old as the hills. Textile fiber can be braided, hooked, woven, felted, and used to create in a multitude of ways. But even as far back as the first millennium, in the Andes of South America and during the time of the Incan empire, knotted textiles were the primary counting and communication device. These “talking knots”, or “knot records” were called quipus.

Above, you can see a particularly lovely example of an Incan quipu (pronounced kē-pu), from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru. From Wikipedia: “A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. For the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization.”

Here is another example, this one from about 1300 AD, again from the Larco Museum, of this quite precise and highly portable system:

There are good records of quipus from the first millennium through the 1500s, and ethnographers have unravelled their secrets, by and large. The fibers were either spun and plied thread such as wool or hair from alpaca, llama, guanaco or vicuña, or, more rarely, from cotton. Some of the knots, as well as other features, such as color, are thought to represent non-numeric information, but these secondary elements have not yet been deciphered.

For an explanation of how the counting works, let’s turn to Wikipedia:

“Each cluster of knots is a digit, and there are three main types of knots: simple overhand knots; “long knots”, consisting of an overhand knot with one or more additional turns; and figure-eight knots. A number is represented as a sequence of knot clusters in base 10.”

Here is another quipu (also spelled khipu), again from the Larco Museum in Lima:

The use of quipus as a central part of record-keeping faded out after the Spanish conquest of South America in the 1530s, though the Spanish would sometimes use them to settle local village disputes. But today, they are still used for ceremonies and rituals, and continue to be a powerful symbol of native heritage. Here is another, even more complex example, this time from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, an ethnology museum in Germany:

Similar systems of counting were used by the ancient Chinese and native Hawaiians, and there is even a similarity to the bead-counting of wampum, in Native American culture. But quipus were a quite advanced system. The type of knot, the position of it on the string, the total number of knots and the sequence of the knots could all combine to create a potentially huge number of meanings. The whole method was based on a decimal system, like ours, with the largest decimal used being 10,000.

The Quipucamayocs (“quipu-authority”), were the accountants, those who created and deciphered the quipu knots. Quipucamayocs, once trained, could carry out basic arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They kept track of taxation, the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted everyone from infants to “old blind men over 80”. The system was also used to keep track of the calendar. According to one authority, quipucamayocs could “read” the quipus with their eyes closed.

Does this have to do with rughooking? Well, no. But it is a pretty fascinating and elegant use of textiles as a complex code, and as textile artists, something good for us to know about!

For more pictures of quipus, go to www.museolarco.org and if you would like a more technical explanation of the counting system of knots, look to this article in Wikipedia, or this good general article from the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Rejoice in your work, and hook on!

One more from Amsterdam…

By | Art, Composition, History of Art, Museums | 3 Comments

I took this photo directly across the street from the Hermitage-Amsterdam Museum – my “one more” museum stop before heading home tomorrow. And here is one more Rembrandt painting I saw. This is Portrait Of A Man Sitting At His Desk, painted in 1631, when Rembrandt was only 25 years old:

This man looks up from his work, as if surprised at our appearance – much like Rembrandt posed the later “Wardens of the Drapers’ Guild” portrait we saw the other day. His mouth is even slightly open in surprise, not typical in a portrait, but otherwise he looks entirely natural. Now look at this close-up I took of his hands, pen and books:


You can’t look at Dutch art without learning about the country’s culture and history. In the 1600s, other European countries were run by monarchs, sovereigns, nobility and the Church establishment. But the Dutch culture was based around trade and the individual, and in the mid-1500s, there was an uprising against the Church, and many religious artworks and statues were destroyed. By 1648, the Dutch rebelled outright against rule by Spain, and separated completely from the Catholic church. No more portraits of cardinals, popes and bishops. The Dutch “Golden Age” put citizen groups in the center focus of their art:

There were group portraits of leading merchants and citizens – militias for the public defense, guilds of tradespeople and craftsmen, and many civic groups that combined the power of running the city in an orderly way, with friendship and what we would call “networking”:

There are a lot of these group portraits, tracing the rise of the merchant class from hardworking “burghers” and traders to a class of incredibly wealthy merchant-nobility as the city prospered. Here is one single room in the museum:

And I was happy to see quite a few women represented:

These women were most often the directors of charity groups, running hospitals, poorhouses, schools. Men would oversee the finances of the institutions, but these women ran the day to day functioning, and had veto power over all decisions.

One other thing I noticed. In these group portraits, many times everyone would be looking out directly at the viewer. Each individual included would contribute to the cost of the portrait. But, in a few group portraits, as in this example, only one or two of the subjects were looking directly at us. Only the man closest to us, in the lower foreground (looking over his shoulder) actually meets our gaze completely:

And the effect of this not only gives him prominence, but it makes us continually look around at the others in the canvas. What’s going on here? Who is that guy looking at, who is this fellow talking to? What is this guy pointing at? It definitely adds movement to the composition. It took me a minute or two to realize what kept my eyes moving around the canvas, and why I kept returning to the guy down in front, who was looking straight at me!

Finally, at the end of this exhibit, there was a whole section of very recent group photographs of today’s prominent citizens of Amsterdam – leaders in industry, law, art, science, trades, medicine, education and cultural groups. The photos are now being made into paintings, as a way to continue the tradition of the classic “Dutch Golden Age” (and the importance of the individual) into the future:

And you notice, in this group photo, only one person is looking directly at us…
Very nicely done, and one more good memory to end a busy week in Amsterdam. Tot ziens!

More of Amsterdam

By | Art, Color, Museums | 4 Comments

This is the best picture I have taken here in Amsterdam. I had just come out of the Rembrandt House Museum, and crossed the street to take a photo of the canal and row of houses. I noticed the sky was getting very dark, but all of a sudden, the sun came out. And I spotted a bird flying over the canal: click!

Here is Rembrandt’s house:

It was quite a palatial home in the mid-1600s, since Rembrandt was already well recognized by the time he bought it, at age 33. The kitchen:

And the living room, or “salon” where he would welcome patrons and visitors:

By chance, I went on a good day, since there was a woman doing an etching demonstration in Rembrandt’s printing room:

And there was a man in Rembrand’s studio demonstrating how his paintbrushes were made, how canvas was prepared, and how, in the 1600s, paint was made from linseed oil and pigment:

Some pigments were so expensive that the painter would first paint a dress, for example, in paint made from less expensive pigment like red ochre, and then just lightly brush the more expensive paint made with vermillion pigment for the highlights. It gave an optical illusion that the entire dress was painted in vermillion. And Rembrandt and his students would be working on several paintings at once, and mix up a very small batch of the most expensive pigment, lapis lazuli blue, and apply it to all the paintings that needed it at once.

I walked through the city on the way home, and came across a fabric store, with a rainbow of buttons on display, that made me realize how much we take for granted the almost unlimited selection of colors available to us:

and a very limited selection of wool, most either in black and gray for making suits, or much too thick for most hooking:

Still, it was fun to find this store, and it was a good day.

A day at the museum

By | Art, Museums | 10 Comments

After a day at the Rejksmuseum, I can only say oh my! Oh my! I am on art overload. I took so many photos that my phone battery started declining rapidly! First, the photo above is just a view from one of the canals I passed on the way.

And I liked this painting, done in about 1560 by Pieter Piterzs, showing a woman with a small spinning wheel:

The curator label said the portrait carries a clear message – as she looks directly at us, she is having to choose between virtue (the spinning wheel) and vice (the suitor with the tankard).

And here is my photo of the very famous painting by Rembrandt, “The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild” (also known as “The Syndics”), painted in 1662:

The Syndics were elected for a year, to inspect the quality of dyed cloth, comparing the color of each batch to the official samples of each color. Rembrandt portrayed them looking up from their work, as though our arrival had interrupted them. The curator’s label said this was an artistic device to involve the viewer. I heard one of the tour guides also point out that the table they are working at is slightly tipped up, because Rembrandt knew the painting was to be hung high up on the wall in the Drapers’ Guild Hall. Very clever, that Rembrandt! Can one fall in love with an artist that lived five centuries ago? I think, yes.

And I do get the feeling that the portraits of these men gives us a very precise rendering of what they each actually looked like. Just transporting!

One more. Here is a photo of three Dutch fishermans’ knitted caps from the 1600s. Apparently they would be so bundled up during the winter, that each fisherman would wear a distinctively designed cap so they could easily recognise each other. The colors were quite bright, but I could not use my flash, unfortunately:

And one more, a plate that I thought had a scalloped border that was definitely rug-worthy:

That is all from me for today, my head is still so art-spinning, I have to go lay down for a while!

On my way…

By | Museums | 5 Comments

Today we leave for Amsterdam for a week. I picked this nice oil painting by Leonid Afremov titled “The Gateway to Amsterdam” to show you. This trip is really our “Ruby the cat” trip, planned a day after we lost her in July – a little consolation and to give us something to look forward to.

My first stop will be the Rejksmuseum, definitely one of the world’s finest art museums, packed with works by local heroes Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh as well as 7500 other masterpieces. When I was in Amsterdam about 6 years ago, it was closed for major renovations, so this time, I will hope to spend a whole day wandering around, or at least as long as my legs hold out!

And we are hoping to take a day trip to nearby Delft, just so I can tour one of the potteries where Delftware is still made, and all hand-painted:

I love that they have these vases specially designed, just for tulips!

So I may be in touch during my trip, or I may show you the highlights when I return. I did a search for Amsterdam rughooking, rugs, etc. but could not find anything. But you never know what surprises await!

Away We Go…

By | Art, Creativity, Museums | No Comments

It’s coming up on Memorial Day, kids getting out of school, road trips and, hopefully, some great day trips. I am off to Sebago Lake Rug Camp (in Maine) and since I have never been to it before, there is the excitement of going to a new place as well as the always-wonderful anticipation of going off to any rug camp.

I came across this photo, above, from the Belvedere Museum in Belvedere Palace, Vienna, Austria, and fell in love with the photo. I’ve never been to that museum, but the image of this little girl encountering that larger-than-life artwork communicates the experience of seeing any museum. The magic of going through a museum is about getting out of your own usual life and experience for a little while, seeing the creations made by artists from different eras of history, how they captured the people, costumes, landscape and milieu of their time and place, trying to grasp the designs and techniques that go into any fine work of art.

Just take a second look at the photo and let it sink in a bit.

As you set goals and think of outings for your summer, do try to work in a museum or two – it is so good for all of us! And try to take a kid or two along. You’d be surprised (or saddened) at how many kids have never been to a museum.

It doesn’t matter that you can’t easily get to Vienna or Rome. New England (and most states) have terrific big-city and regional museums, and most towns have little history museums, or historical homesteads.

Here in New Hampshire, there is the Currier Museum in Manchester, but also the Canterbury Shaker Village, Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, and the wonderful St. Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. There are railroad museums and town museums, a telephone museum and a great state history museum. It doesn’t matter what sort of museum you pick – they all take us out of our own lives and time, and enlarge our perspective. Look around for a museum, then go and, well, look around.

If you are going on a road trip, google the area and see what sorts of museums are along your route. You don’t have to go nuts, just pick one, and stop to check it out.

You do not have to see the whole museum. It is probably better to slow down and look at a few paintings or exhibits, instead of feeling like you have to rush through in order to see everything. Slow down. If you find yourself walking at a fast clip, giving only a glimpse and a nod here and there, you are probably tired, or have had enough. That is okay.

In each gallery or room, pick one painting or work (like the little girl in the photo) and just stop and look. Absorb what is going on with the lines, the curves, the diagonals – the composition. Why did he put that there? What has the artist done with the use of colors? If you could get to take home just one painting from the exhibit, which one would you pick, and why -that is, would you like looking at it day after day? If you could choose one or two details to make into a rug design, what would you pick?

Take a little notebook with you, just so you can jot down ideas. Once you start looking at creative works, often creative ideas will jump into your own mind. Catch them while you can!

If you are taking kids along, once you get home, ask them to draw a picture about going to the museum, or about something they saw there. See what happens.

Today, the Belvedere Museum houses the greatest collection of Austrian art dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. The home, studio and gardens of Augustus St. Gaudens (online here) in Cornish, NH, offers afternoon concerts, working artists, and plenty of gardens (with St. Gaudens’ wonderful sculptures) for kids to explore. The Currier, in Manchester, has a big Monet exhibit opening July 1st (online at currier.org). And here is a website listing museums of all kinds, state by state:

Breaking boundaries

By | Art, Contemporary rugmakers, Museums | No Comments

The other day I told you a little about the Textile Museum of Canada, and oddly, enough, through a completely separate search, this morning I ended up on the website of the Textile Museum of Sweden. It’s located in the town of Borås. I found a photo of this work, shown above, online, and just had to track down it’s creator.

The creator of this piece is Faig Ahmed, and the museum’s new exhibit for the summer highlights the work of Ahmed, who is a rugmaker and sculptor from Azerbaijan, in the South Caucasus. Bordered by Russia, Armenia, Turkey and Iran, it is a region where hand-crafted carpets have been made for centuries.

The catalog from the museum show gives more information about this wonderful work:

Entitled Virgin, by Faig Ahmed. This is a hand-woven carpet with a traditional pattern that gradually transforms into a thick red mass. The work continues on a series of signature textile works by Ahmed and reveals unspoken local narratives on male-female gender relations hidden inside the crafts and artisanal practices. More specifically the work draws from the early practice of unmarried girls producing one exquisite textile as part of the treasure she brings into the marriage. In other words suggesting the transition from a girl to a woman.”

I’m not sure I can get the full gist of the cultural symbolism, but the work itself dazzles me. Talk about breaking borders of a traditional craft!

Here is another work of Ahmed’s that is also in the show, and also dazzling:

“”He doesn’t answer questions, he poses them”, says Medeia Ekner, curator at the Textile Museum of Sweden, of the artist, who is known mostly for his unique way of transforming traditional Azerbaijani rugs into contemporary sculptural shapes. His method of deconstructing conventional patterns and symbols and reshaping them into original compositions often results in new, dramatic expressions.”

Yikes! And here I was thinking “breaking barriers” meant something like using extra-bright colors in a primitive design!

The museum’s web page about this exhibit is here.

Images copyrighted ( copyright enforced), and used courtesy of Faig Ahmed Studio. The artist’s own website, featuring other works, can be found here.

Enjoy the day, everyone, and be brave.

“their history was often lost…”

By | Antique rugs, Design, Museums | 6 Comments

A while back, I browsed through the online collection of hooked rugs at the Textile Museum of Canada, and of course found some beauties. Above, you see a rug dated 1925-1935. The maker is unknown, but it was made of synthetic material on burlap, on Prince Edward Island.

The Textile Museum of Canada is in downtown Toronto, and happily, the searchable collection is online, too. My simple “hooked rug” search brought up over 250 rugs (with photos) for me. And I thought their brief description of hooked rugs was interesting:

Rug hooking is a unique North American tradition that arose in response to the need to cover the cold bare floors of pioneer homes. Weaving cloth required long hours at the spinning wheel and loom, but rugs could be made from scraps of fabrics and fibres that were pulled through a burlap base to produce warm floor-coverings to brighten the home. It is rare to find a hooked rug whose maker is known; unlike quilts, which were treasured family possessions, hooked rugs wore out and their history was often lost.

Here is another rug, made in Ontario, dated 1900-1930:

The museum presents rotating exhibitions, changed throughout the year, drawn from their collection of over 13,000 objects, and the work of local, national and international contemporary artists are featured, both at the museum and in touring exhibits. “This diverse collection includes fabrics, ceremonial cloths, garments, carpets, quilts and related artifacts which reflect the cultural and aesthetic significance that cloth has held over the centuries.”

Here is a sweet rug, dated 1900-1930, from the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario:

You can search the museum’s collection by technique (as I did) or by type (clothing, headwear, etc.), materials, region or time period. Here is a hooked rug from 1940-1960 (maker unknown, region unknown) that I admired – quite an intricate floral design:

And here is another floral, also intricately designed, from much earlier, in the 19th century (dated 1875-1900):

I would say “Road Trip!”, but Toronto is almost 8 hours drive east from Burlington, VT, or just north of Buffalo, NY, and that slows me right down. But when you have a minute, go to the website of the Textile Museum of Canada, and take an “armchair road trip” through the collection. Here is the link:

Oh, and once you get there, look around at other things in the collection beyond hooked rugs. The museum celebrates textiles from around the world, like this intriguing apron from Papua, New Guinea:

All photos courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada.
Oh, okay, here is one more – you know how I love hit or miss rugs. This beauty was made in 1940, (yes, maker unknown) in Waterloo County, Ontario:

A museum full of newly available images

By | Art, History of Art, Museums | 2 Comments


Yes, you are looking at Claude Monet’s Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies (1899), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. And if you want to make a hooked rug version of it, or even create a pattern of it to sell, now you can. This is from the Met’s webpage announcement:

“Renowned for its comprehensive collection of work that captures “5,000 years of art spanning all cultures and time periods,” New York City’s world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently announced that 375,000 of its pieces in the public domain are now available without restrictions.

The new policy, called Open Access, allows individuals to easily access the images and use them for “any purpose, including commercial and noncommercial use, free of charge and without requiring permission from the Museum.” The available works represent a wide range of movements, styles, and mediums, and span iconic paintings by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh to centuries-old costumes and armor.”

“You can access the unrestricted images through the Met’s website. As you search its collection, all you need to do is check off the “Public Domain Artworks” option under “Show Only.”

Any excuse to take a few hours off from politics is a good idea, these days, and meandering through the “Public Domain” artwork on the museum’s website, imagining how one could use great pieces of art as a rug design, is just good for the soul. Just go to metmuseum.org. Look for the “ART” menu button at the top, then on the left side, choose these filters: “Artworks With Images” and “Public Domain Artworks”, and you are good to go. Well over 375,000 images in every conceivable medium and period of art history will appear before you.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, how about Cupid on a Tiger, drawn in 1652, by Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, Prague 1607–1677 London):

We really don’t see that many “Cupid on a Tiger” rugs, do we? Or maybe this 18th century Bag for Noh Mask (made of silk and twill) will give you an idea for a rug design:

Here is a Design Drawing by Christopher Dresser (British, Glasgow, Scotland 1834–1904) that was done in 1883 for you to consider:

You will find brooches, medieval armor, portraits and pastels, ancient weaving fragments, silverware, sculptures, photographs, watches, netsukes, hieroglyphs, statues and shoebuckles, just to name a few.

Not all, of course, lend themselves directly to a rug design, but look at this jeweled button, from 1775, with a design so traditional in hooked rugs, of flowers in a basket:

Of course, this button was worked in metal, rubies, sapphires and pearls, which adds a little dazzle.

And although all these images are now in the public domain, if you use one directly, I personally think your tag should read “based on a… by (name of artist) from the Metropolitan Museum” just to be fair. And if you are just informed by a particular artwork, I believe the right tagging would be “inspired by…”.

Maybe you could do something with this woodcut print by Hans Hoffman (German) from 1556:

Hans Hoffmann (German, Nuremberg ca. 1545/1550–1591/1592 Prague)
New Modelbüch allen Nägerin u. Sydenstickern, 1556
Woodcut; Overall: 7 5/16 x 5 5/16 in. (18.5 x 13.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930 (30.59.2(1-55))

Through this new release of images into the public domain, you need not just be inspired by a work. You can take it, print it out, make a copy, trace it exactly. But first, of course, you have to look. Hope you go exploring, and find many wonderful things.

“We were a very young country…”

By | Art, Museums | 6 Comments

image Gardner Museum Mosaic

I know I just wrote a post this morning, but we are in Boston for a long weekend, and I just got back from the phenomenal Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. What a place! One woman spent a lifetime (1840-1924) collecting great art, built her own “palazzo” in Boston to house all her treasures, then opened it to the public, with the proviso that everything had to remain the exact way she had arranged everything.

Above is a mosaic floor from ancient Rome, that graces the inner courtyard. Here’s a little bit about it: Mosaic Floor: Medusa, circa 117-138 AD, Roman (near Rome).

“In 1892 an ancient villa was discovered just north of Rome, near the villa of Augustus’s wife Livia. Several well-preserved mosaic floors adorned the baths of the villa. A second mosaic from the villa, showing two figures in Egyptian style, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jack and Isabella Gardner inspected the mosaics in 1895 and purchased this floor in 1897. The delicate tracery of this mosaic resembles those made in Pompei around 25 AD (the late second or third style), but brick stamps indicate that it was laid a century later, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian.” -Curatorial notes from the Museum

The Gardner Museum is jam-packed with treasures, from marble sculptures and delicate laces, tapestries and Greek columns to rooms filled with works from Rembrandt, Raphael, and medieval altarpieces to John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. Gardner. Here is an early photo of the amazing Mrs. Gardner:

image Mrs. Gardner

Gardner said in 1917, at the opening of her museum to the public, “Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.

Here is a photo I took of the mosaic floor, at the center of the inner courtyard. The courtyard is filled, as it was in Mrs. Gardner’s day, with flowers and plants year-round:


If you go to Boston, put this unique museum high up on your list. It’s such a personal collection, and a wonderful experience. It’s dizzying in the most wonderful way.

How am I recovering? I am watching a fabulous concert, “Fifty Years of the Beach Boys”, on a huge (50″?) tv in our hotel room. There’s a little dissonance between an afternoon of antiquities and “We’ll have fun, fun, fun til her Daddy takes her T-bird away”…but that’s ok. It’s all good.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is online at www.gardnermuseum.org.