Engineering student Karen Poetzinger came home for Thanksgiving during her senior year at Clarkson University in New York to discover that her mother had taken up rug hooking, the traditional craft of making rugs by pulling loops of wool through a woven base with a hooking tool.
"She was working on something, and I started playing with it," recalled Poetzinger, 53, of Cary. "My mother asked if I liked it, and I said, 'Yeah, it's interesting.' " So as a Christmas gift, her mother took her to choose a pattern and colors for her first project.
Three decades later, Poetzinger is a full-time rug hooker and teacher, and, yes, she still has her first rug, a 3-by-5-foot paisley pattern.
"When I teach now, I'd never start someone on something that big," she said with a laugh.
Poetzinger hooked as a hobby while working for IBM in upstate New York. She met her husband, Steve, at work, and they moved to Cary in 1995 when he was transferred. She quit her job to take care of their two daughters, now grown, and continued making rugs.
"By then, I'd seen every pattern I ever wanted to see," she said. "I wanted to take it to a different level. But back then, about nine years ago, doing your own designs wasn't really done. Now it's more common."
Her goal was to "take the rug into something more like art, more contemporary. I like geometrics, bright colors, landscape, animals, portraitures."
So Poetzinger, who had become an accredited hooking teacher, learned to make her own designs, relying in part on her engineering background and newly acquired art skills.
"I'm not an artist by training, but art concepts are across the board, and I'd learned some in teacher training. I started to buy art books and take classes."
Joining the guilds
She learned about Piedmont Craftsmen, a fine-craft guild in Winston-Salem, and was accepted based on her designs and finished work. Last year, she also joined Carolina Designer Craftsmen in Raleigh and exhibited her work at its annual show Thanksgiving weekend. She'll return there this year.
"Everyone told me the market for craft is better in the Piedmont and that people in the Triangle are more into fine art," she said. "I think that's true, but I wanted to give it a try here, too."
For several years, Poetzinger hooked mostly bright rugs with bold geometric designs, as well as a series of farm animals.
One of her biggest fans is Concette Grillo of Winston-Salem, who first saw Poetzinger's work at the 2006 Piedmont Craftsmen show.
"She has beautiful images and colors, and I was just completely enchanted," Grillo said. "I'm a knitter and inveterate crafter, part of the reason the technical side of her work also impresses me."
Grillo has bought several pieces over the years, including Christmas ornaments and two framed agrarian scenes.
"One is a sweet little calf that sits above my desk and the other is a farm scene for our dining room. I adore them."
This year, Poetzinger added still-life portraits to her repertoire.
"That's what I'm into right now, but I still love geometrics and animals," she said. "I usually have three or four things going at once."
Part of her inspiration came from an oil painting class at Red Canvas Studio in Apex with nationally known artist Carol Marine.
"I knew the principles, but it was hard to do the brushstrokes," Poetzinger said. "In that class I did a still life of an apple wedge, and I brought the painting home and hooked it."
Poetzinger draws her designs first, often based on photographs she takes. Her "palette" is strips of hand-dyed wool. (She buys wool flannel by the bolt and dyes it by the yard before using a machine to cut it into strips for hooking.)
"About 80 percent of hookers dye their own wool because there aren't many outlets for it," she said. "The whole process is very labor intensive and expensive."
It's not a shag
Poetzinger sells most of her work framed, but some are used as floor rugs. A common misconception is traditional hooked rugs are latch hooked, "like a shag rug," she said.
"That makes my hair stand on end. This is completely different, with loops coming up and through like ribbon candy."
On the side, Poetzinger dyes wool for other hookers, designs wool appliques for quilters and teaches out of her home and at the Whistle Stop Quilt Store in Cary. She's active in the Piedmont Rug Hookers, which has grown from about 10 to 50 members in the past decade, thanks to Poetzinger's classes and a renewed interest in the craft.
Poetzinger posts and describes much of work, in its various stages, on her blog.
"I really want to help people learn hooking and to promote it in general. I don't want to see this craft die."