A few years ago, I was doing some transcribing from oral history recordings from Northumberland Archives and came across a miner telling his clootie pudding story. The story made me laugh for ages, and any mention of the word ‘clootie’ still makes me smile as I remember it.
So, when I saw the Ouseburn Farm poster about learning proggy mat making, also known as hooky, clippy, clootie mats (or rugs), my attention was caught. The fact that it was Ali Rhind, teaching the taster course made me decide to find out if I could get on this course. I have admired Ali’s work for years, and in danger of being a bit too gushing or too shy when I first met because I admire her work. Since I was 18 or 19, I have met or communicated with nationally and internationally renowned artists from time to time, and yet I still get tongue-tied and can be ridiculously shy when I meet artists.
So, on a Sunday morning, I was at Ouseburn Farm earlier than I’d been at it before, and found a small group of other people gathered there who would be my fellow learners for the day. Ali had set out temptingly gorgeous piles of colour and books to inspire.
The first thing we had to do after the introduction was to make ourselves a tool from a traditional wooden clothes peg. We had to split off one leg of the clothes peg and whittle away the leg of the headed half until it was a pointed proddy device. I needed help splitting mine. I was concerned that I had lost too much strength in my hands but it was a particularly strong clothes peg.
The hessian that would form the ground of our small pieces was stretched on large frames, resting between tables, at which several could work at the same time. Ali showed us both the proggy and hooky methods and made it look very easy. We didn’t find it quite as easy as it looked. The basic techiques are straightforward but it’s a matter of getting used to it.
It took me ages to get my first pieces of cloth into the hessian. I made a complete mess of it initially but after a while Ali put some pieces into mine to help me along, and I started doing it better after watching more closely how she did it.
I didn’t have time to try the hooky method too. The hooky method uses (as the name implies) a hooked tool, rather like a fat crochet hook with quite a fine hook at the end. I do have a vague recollection of doing something like a hooky rug in my childhood (I do remember clearly that we made woollen yarn rugs with latched hook tools).
I had the chance to have a quick look at some of the books to see proggy and hooky work Ali and others. The imagery varies a lot, and a lot of it looks a long way from the traditional mats. I liked the look of the teapot cosies – which gave a surprisingly contemporary twist to both the traditional form of tea cosy and the traditional domestic mats made from recycled materials. I was intrigued by the photos of tools made in different materials and customised in different ways, for example, iron and horn tools.
The examples of work by artists in the book started my mind whirling off faster than my progging! I could see some of my still life paintings translating quite well into hooky mats. I could imagine doing a project where… well, maybe I won’t write those thoughts down yet.
I wish I could have worked a bit faster that Sunday morning but I got an idea of it and started to do it better before we had to stop. The end product feels surprisingly dense and very tactile. If you have a problem with echoes in a room, commission Ali to make you a proggy mat wall hanging! It would look stunning and stop sound bouncing around too much. Everyone else, male or female, young or old (or somewhere in between), I recommend having a go at this. If you’re in or around Newcastle, Ali might be running a course this autumn. She’s lovely, encouraging, and inspiring – and has a wonderful eye for colour – so she’s a good person to lead you towards making something you will like.