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Telling stories

image Heather Ritchie

I was so taken by Heather Ritchie’s storytelling rugs that when I saw a NH Humanities’ program coming to our very small town on Sunday, about “Storytelling”, I went to see what I could learn. But first, above, is another wonderful rug from Heather, Guiding Light. Heather’s description: “When Heather’s father, Victor, became blind he relied on her to guide him through the streets around their Sunderland home. He memorised the routes so that he could go out unaided.”

So here is just a bit of what I learned about storytelling. The reminiscences we know and share about our families – those stories we heard growing up from parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, give us a sense of our “intergenerational self” – “I’m me, I have this family, who has this history”. The stories give us a sense of perspective on our own lives. And we, in turn, are story bearers for the younger generation.

We learn about values, about tragedy and overcoming it, of hard times and the best times. And all the little stories about different family characters, their histories and quirks, become little parables – perhaps about how to handle money, or sickness, when to take risks, the good humor between friends, about the woes of a bad marriage or addiction, or the joys of accomplishment or adventurousness.

This made me realize I have never made a true storytelling rug. I mean, I can tell you a story about many of my rugs, but none tell a particular family or life story the way that Heather’s rugs do. And the best part of the program was the second half, where the leader talked about how to trigger memories and stories.

Triggers to memory and the stories that go with it are often just stopping to think about shared times – what was a typical Sunday dinner, who was there… or what were family sayings, and how did they get started. Try to get beyond the often-told stories by using your senses as a trigger. My sister, when prompted to think about sound triggers, remembered the sound of my mother’s sewing machine and that brought back all kinds of associations she had not thought about in years – the possibility of a new dress being made, maybe! And I remembered a sound-memory – coming home from school and hearing my mother ironing clothes while listening to a Red Sox game on the radio, which brought back all sorts of other “coming home” memories. To this day, there is something quite soothing to me in hearing the sound of a ball game in the background.

And there are smell memories- the smell of burning leaves in a bonfire, your grandmother’s perfume, ginger cookies or fresh bread, skunks, or for many, the fond smells of walking into a barn.

There are simple “story prompts” – questions that just start you down a certain remembering path. Can you remember a favorite hiding place you had? Can you describe a walk around your childhood neighborhood? Were you ever dared to do something you didn’t want to do? Did you ever break something that belonged to someone else? Can you remember when you had to move from one house to a new place?

The point of these questions to to just get family or personal stories to come to the top of your mind. There’s no right or wrong, and there may be stories we like telling, and some we don’t want to tell, which is fine, too.

Here is another of Heather’s rugs, about her village. It’s called The Reeth Parliament. Heather describes “This rug shows a group of men sitting in the Reeth shelter. They sat there every day putting the world to rights: locally it was called the Houses of Parliament!

image Heather Ritchie

There have been thorough studies that show that kids who know family stories and history (what kind of work did your grandfather do, how did your parents meet, where did they go to high school, is there a family story about when you were born, etc.) have a much, much easier time getting through adolescence, and are better at facing challenges throughout life. And a good book was recommended: Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us, by Elizabeth Stone. It can be found here.

I was afraid this post was not overtly about rughooking…but when I look at Heather’s rugs, I realize it is. Even when we are hooking someone else’s patterns, or drawing our own cat or dog, we are expressing something about ourselves in our hooking. How much more could we express if we set out to purposefully create a “memory” rug that tells some piece of our own stories!


  • Janine says:

    Lovely post! I have not yet done a story rug, but I am thinking about it. When you wrote about smells and sounds, that really brought back some memories! Thank you.

  • Jeni says:

    I have heard that smell evokes the strongest memory. The smell of bleach is comforting to me. Reminds me of a wonderful summer day with my mom hanging clothes in the backyard. She told me it was warm enough to go barefoot. Oh happy day!

  • mjanep says:

    Thanks, Jeni and Janine, for commenting – glad this was of interest to you!

  • cathy says:

    I recently did a rug in memory of an old cat that we had that had passed. But I have never thought of doing one of my history.

  • jeni says:

    Cathy, there is a great rug hooking book out there by Barbara Brown called Preserving the Past in Primitive Rugs., It was printed in 1999 . Barbara was my teacher. I know it’s out of print, but you may still be able to buy it on Ebay or ABE. I’m lucky to have 2 copies. She hooked many stories from her life.

  • mjanep says:

    Jeni, Thanks for posting that, I just ordered Barbara Brown’s book – I already have Heather’s, which is also good!

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