Crystal Ross dabbled in several art disciplines and discovered textiles. Her grandparents were incredible rug hookers and she always had great respect for their work. When it seemed to become more accessible to Crystal, she gave it a whirl and has not looked back. She dyes her own yarn and her designs are inspired by traditional Nova Scotian crafts.
How did you get started designing handmade rugs? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
Both I’d say. I noodled around different art disciplines in life and in university, and eventually landed in the textile department at our local art school. The medium was a perfect fit (I was focused on a weird series of blobby soft sculptures with childish drawings scrawled all-over) but I was struggling with this notion that my artwork was just contributing to the “stuff” in the world… made worse by the fact that I was wrapped up in the feeling that I was *supposed* to be making things that were “serious” and “important”. Pffft. Neither of these attributes come naturally to me.
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So shortly after graduating I turned to baking, and built a small business that made really pretty things that people ATE. I took a lot of pleasure in pouring hours into something, only to have it disappear the following day. It became obvious over the years though, that I wanted to channel my creativity more freely. The pandemic brought that business to a halt, and I was fortunate to have found the time to re-evaluate what i wanted to do.
Thanks to my maternal grandparents (both incredible rug hookers who dedicated much of their lives to the promotion of the craft) I’ve always had a great respect and appreciation for rug making. Admittedly, I had considered it an untouchable art form, not to be meddled with stylistically because of it’s local cultural and historical importance. It was only when Arounna Khounnoraj of Bookhou published her book on punch needle that I found the courage to try crafting rugs my own way.
It was so exciting, exploring something so familiar yet new. I was able to create work that was functional, expressive, long lasting, and completely biodegradable, thanks to the magical properties of wool. Pretty neat!
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
I’m a real sponge for inspiration, always listening and looking, soaking in whatever I find interesting.
What I’d say has been the most influential though, is a life long love of folk and outsider art, artwork that playfully rattles our standards of beauty, made by artists from outside the established art world. Our province (Nova Scotia) has a really rich tradition of folk artists (most people have only heard of Maud Lewis, but there are so many others) and I’ve always loved their fearless approach to making beautiful things. Direct, and never wishy washy – artwork without airs.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
It was always there I think, and my parents often pointed it out when I was young. Always the awkward kid, burying myself in random projects.(Still am)
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
Hmm, If anything, it helped me foster the confidence to like what I like, and to trust in my own vision… or did that just come with age? I don’t know.. Art school isn’t for everybody, but it certainly connects you with a community and helps you find your place within it.
Have you always wanted to do what you are doing? If not, what made you decide to start?
Yup, I’ve always wanted to be a craftsperson of some kind. There’s really no where else I fit 🙂
What is your best advice for someone interested in rug hooking?
Try not to get too caught up in the rules and standards when starting out. Get yourself loosely aquatinted with the basic techniques, using a traditional hook or a punch needle, sketch out your own drawing, and have fun. Remember, this is a craft born from poverty. It’s easy to get swept up in the feeling of having to invest in all the latest gear, but the *most* gorgeous rugs have been made using old clothes, a bent nail and a potato sack. Let that free you from the pressure of perfection!
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
I look a lot at the early days of rug hooking, back before commercial patterns took the world by storm. These rugs were hand drawn by women looking to add function and beauty to their homes, taking inspiration from whatever was around at the time. This is such an exciting period in craft history!
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I should! But most of my designed are formed in my head, seconds before I fall asleep, not a recommended approach I’d say 🙂 If I’m lucky, I’ll remember them in the morning, and sketch them out on my iPad to work out a colour palette.
Which part of the rug process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
My least AND most favourite part of the process is the hooking and punching itself, it is a *slow* craft so keeping myself parked for weeks while working on any one design can be tough. Allowing myself to work at this pace is also a joy and gives me time to let my mind wander (for better or for worse). It’s difficult though when you have ideas piling up, and you’re itching to get going on them. I’m always excited to get started on my next piece.
Describe your creative space.
Oh boy. It’s small. Really really really small, so I tend to spill out into other areas of the house, but my family is pretty forgiving. My studio holds all my wool, divided into colour families, and the rest of my un-dyed wool is piled up like a mountain. I’ve got a simple work bench, an assortment of antique and modern tools, and a few frames that are usually set up with something and ready to go.
What are the indispensable tools and materials for rug making? How do they improve your work?
A quality cotton backing called monks cloth and some coarse, scratchy yarn (wool, minimally processed, not super wash) is essential to everything I do. The yarn has a lot of grip when working so I don’t have to fight against slippery stitches, and its structure is super sturdy.
My yarn takes up my protein dyes really nicely too, giving me lots of freedom and flexibility. Being able to make up any colour that I’m after is fundamental to what I do – I’m fond of such specific bright/ muddy/ swampy colours and I’m sure it would be nearly impossible to find these hues commercially. So it’s a happy thing that I can make them myself. My Chéticamp rug hooking frame is also a treasured tool, hand crafted by my grandfather – it gives me space to work on larger pieces without having to move the rug around on the frame.
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
Both are true! It’s born within us all, and if you decide to nurture it, it’s a never ending process of learning, unlearning, relearning.. and watching where it all goes.
Do you sell your work? If so, where can people find it?
I do! And I’m excited to share that I’ve been working on a fun project behind the scenes..If anyone is interested in learning more about the ins and outs of the craft, feel free to follow + sign up for my newsletter for the future reveal! The easiest way to find me is on instagram @crystalrugs and online at www.crystalrugs.ca
Interview posted June 2023
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