If you’re planning a trip to Central Otago, give serious thought to arriving in the small town of Roxburgh on a Thursday. That’s when the local wool craft group gathers at the Tally-Ho wool shop to knit, spin, weave, and chat. It’s also where you’ll find Allen Gray, head bent over his rug-making frame as he stitches and hooks his unique creations with locally carded Romney wool.
A previous environmental-horticulturalist landscaper, Allen designs the rugs himself and sees a great deal of similarity between this skill and that of landscaping a flat, rectangular urban section.
“They both involve how best to create within a rectangular area; how to make the available space attractive. In Japanese landscapes, for instance, you may try to engender a reflective, meditative state of mind. You can do that with a good rug design, too. It’s all about what makes spaces beautiful to look at and be in.”
Although Allen sometimes employs dyes in his rug making, his first love is the natural combination of simple brown and white fleece.
“If I use dye, I’m looking for a good solid, colour. I prefer to buy simple food colourings and set them with white vinegar, or I’ll order online from Dharma Dyes in America. But just as I prefer to take photographs in black and white because it shuts out distraction, I think a rug looks best in fewer colours.”
Allen’s interest in rug making has a slightly unusual beginning in that it developed out of a need to find a use for the kilos of wool he found himself spinning.
“I had a young daughter to care for at a time when there wasn’t a lot of money to spare so I looked for a cheap form of entertainment. I ended up buying a spinning wheel and taught myself to spin. It was something useful and practical at the same time. But then I had to think of what to do with all the spun wool!”
The last one to call himself a mathematician (he insists he’s come last in any maths class he’s ever been in), the task of designing rugs was originally a tedious job of laying the pattern out on graph paper before working from it with meticulous stitching. Just one mistake could destroy the desired balance and harmony. As an example, Allen points to a large floor rug, the pattern on which closely resembles a drawing of a gothic cathedral’s floor plan). But those days of complex patterning are now over and Allen prefers to draw patterns, free-hand, directly onto the canvas.
“When designing anything (rugs or landscapes), I use what I know about ecology and beauty, and come at it from a Zen Buddhist perspective. Sitting and observing in a semi-dreamlike state, ideas will eventually arise.”
These ideas are worked out on the canvas through a combination of stitching (using a bodkin – a blunt-ended needle with a very large eye) and hooking (using a rug hook). It’s the interaction of the two methods which brings texture to the surface of the rug.
“I’ll often hide a row or two of stitches between the hooking, or the stitching might cover the greater part of a rug. I never weave – you have to be a mathematician to do that!”
Up until now, Allen’s rugs have all been floor size. From hall runners that are almost 3m long and close to a metre wide to floor rugs that measure around 1.2 x 1.8m and weigh 7kg, they adorn his Central Otago home and act as serious providers of warmth in a cottage that is too low to the ground to allow for any other form of floor insulation. But large rugs are not practical where sales are concerned.
“From the time I start spinning until a floor rug is completed, it takes about a year, so they’re not the sort of craft you can make a living from. I’m now working towards designing and making wall rugs which are smaller and could be completed more quickly.”
In whatever direction Allen moves, his enjoyment of his art-come-craft remains the same.
“I like all parts of the process for different reasons. Spinning involves a meditative simplicity, design satisfies a creative urge, and the actual making of a rug brings satisfaction as you watch, coming to fruition, what was in your mind when you first designed it. And each rug takes on a personality and has its own character.”
Well settled in Roxburgh, a town he has always regarded as ‘home’, Allen shows no signs of giving up on what is an almost life-long craft.
“It’s not physically hard on your hands so as long as the few twinges of arthritis I sometimes feel, stay away, I’ll keep designing and making rugs.”
Tricks of the trade
Canvasses aren’t always readily available. Allen buys his from Spotlight or Threads Needlecraft, Centre City Mall, 133 Great King Street, Dunedin, (03) 4774514 but orders in advance and buys plenty when it is available.
When working on a rug, Allen uses a rug-making frame that was gifted to him by the Roxburgh wool crafting group. While it’s possible to make a rug ‘on your knee’, this becomes more difficult as the rug grows in size and becomes heavier.
Allen favours Romney wool for its strong, coarse staple. He has it carded by Tally Ho Wool Carding which takes orders from all over the country.
If you’re interested in designing your own rugs, Allen recommends developing an interest in rugs from around the world. He has seen, first-hand, rugs and rug-making in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India.
Begin at the beginning by learning to spin.
When starting out on rug-making, Allen recommends working larger, not smaller, so begin with a moderate-sized floor rug, not a miniature piece.
Join a wool craft group – you’ll learn a lot about the raw materials you’ll be working with.