The punch needle community is filled with creative, talented makers who constantly amaze us as they create beautiful works of art and push the medium in new directions. In this series, we go "behind the skeins" to learn about various artists and feature their work to our community. Read on to be inspired!
After a short hiatus, our featured artist series is back! To kick things off I am thrilled to introduce you to Crystal Ross, the Canadian artist behind Crystal Rugs. When I first saw Crystal's work I knew this was an artist familiar with traditional rug hooking! Her work evokes the playful spirit of primitive hooked rugs, brought to life (and the 21st century) by her wonderful sense of design, color and balance. With designs including birds, flowers, cats and dogs, her rugs and pillow are joyful and completely charming! Read on to learn more about her familial connection to rug hooking and her own journey as an artist and craftsperson.
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. What led you to the work you do today?
My background is a meandering one, but I’ve always liked making things and it was pretty clear from the start that I’d take a creative path. I went to NSCADU and came away with an interdisciplinary BFA, spending much of my time in the textile departments, playing with hand drawn repeat patterns and soft sculpture.
Finding my place as a craftsperson wasn’t a straight line - I spent years working at a sweet little art gallery here in Halifax, and eventually found myself working in the wedding industry as a cake maker while stay at home mom-ing. I was pretty lucky to have found some success as a baker, but always felt too busy to really work creatively.. It took a pandemic to shift and reset my focus so that I could find my way back to textiles.
My maternal Grandparents (Gérard and Annie-Rose Deveau) were well respected rug hooking artists and instructors from Chéticamp, Nova Scotia, a place renowned for its place in rug hooking history. This small French-Acadian community hails itself as the birthplace of rug hooking, and has its own distinct style. My grandparents devoted much of their lives to promoting the craft and its history, and I like to think they’d be really happy to see its rise in popularity from a new generation of artists.
How did you get started with Punch Needle? What about this technique appealed to you?
Up until a few years ago, I had a pretty rigid understanding of rug hooking, where rugs (we call them mats) were only made with fine (thin) wool yarns and hooked with tiny traditional hooks to exacting stylistic detail. I love this style, but never really felt I could fit myself within that framework. Thanks to Arounna Khounnoraj’s (@bookhou) contemporary take on the craft, I was able to expand my limited vision - That was such a gift really, popularizing Amy Oxford set of tools, and showing us that we can all develop our own style of rug making. That spark sent me on an obsessive / deep dive into the craft, with non-stop making, researching, and eventually a new body of work.
The punch needle allows me to work with some speed, and handles my favourite bulky yarn easily where I’m able to work in big playful shapes, in varying pile heights for interest. And If my wrists are tired, I’ll pick up a traditional hook, but more often than not I’ll use a punch. The tool works beautifully without any compromise on quality.
We'd love to hear about your creative process. How do you come up with new ideas? What inspires you? Do you have any practices or processes around this?
My process could still use some refining, ha! At the moment I rely on the ideas that pop up in my mind while I’m winding down. I spend a lot of time creating digital sketches, but more often than not it’s those random late night/ quiet mind ideas that make the cut. Sometimes I have lots of ideas, sometimes I have none.
I take a lot of inspiration from Nova Scotian folk artists, and while it’s not easy to sum up this group and their influence, I can say that I’ve always loved their fearless celebration of imperfection, and playful, un-arrogant way of making very beautiful things.
How has your work evolved over time?
I would say that I’m still at the beginning stages of my art practice, but looking back at earlier pieces prior to rug hooking, I know that my sense of colour has changed - I’m not afraid to use it anymore. I still waffle between thinking less in more, and feeling more really is more, and I’m not sure I’ll ever settle that argument… but it’s kinda fun hovering between those two mindsets.
What is your favorite part about the work that you do?
The physicality of the making. The repetitiveness, and meditative effect that it has. Both through dyeing the wool, and in making the rug. I have ADHD and the act of punching (and pulling) the wool is deeply satisfying.
Is there a message behind your work? What do you hope others see or take away from your art?
In any particular rug, no there’s not really a message, I’m not trying to make any grand statement or anything, I usually just like to make things that I think are pretty.. but on the whole, I think the craft comes with a lot of feminist weight behind it that I like to think about and acknowledge, including women’s forgotten place in art history and the importance of handcrafts and decorative arts. I’m also passionate about using wool, for its minimal ecological impact (compared to other materials like acrylics) its longevity and ability to biodegrade in the proper conditions. And I think the act of making things slowly by hand is my small way of sticking it to the insatiable desire we have for cheap, mass produced wares.
Tell us about a favorite piece that you worked on, or one that had a lot of meaning to you.
I recently completed a commission for a cousin of mine - she shares that connection to rug hooking through our grandparents, and I’m honoured that she has one of my pieces.
What punch needle materials and tools do you use? Do you have any favorite supplier recommendations for tools, materials or yarn?
I love my simple gripper strip lap frame! I’m also fortunate to have a couple of old wooden table style rug hooking frames that my grandfather built (known as Chéticamp frames) it’s a style of frame that’s excellent for producing large rugs, since you can roll your finished end and continue on without pulling loops off your gripper strips. My favourite punch needle is (no surprise here) Amy Oxford’s set of needles. I use a bulky 4 ply rug wool, and Amy’s regular sized needles work perfectly for me, eliminating pulling, snagging or having to make any tool adjustments. I typically use a combination of her regular size 8, 9 and 10.
There’s a local supplier here in the Canadian Maritimes, Kevin LeMoine, who’s absolutely wonderful. He’s got a great selection of backing, wool and punch needle supplies, and you can find him here: https://www.punchneedlerughooking.ca
What advice do you have for other artists or creatives looking to try punch needle?
Tap into online communities for advice before spending boatloads of money on materials. You won’t need much to get started, but make sure you don’t get taken advantage of via companies producing cheap supplies that don’t work the way you want them to. Deana David runs a phenomenal Facebook group called “Rug Hooking & Punch Needle Club by Ribbon Candy Hooking” - an enthusiastic community of makers, happy to share their knowledge and encourage you forward. Once you’re fully hooked, try looking to historical sources of information outside of the instagram crowd, who knows, your community may even have it’s own rug hooking guild with in-person hook-in’s!
Where do you see your work going in the future?
Ultimately my goal is to be able to continue on as a full time craftsperson.
It’s an enormous privilege to be able to make/sell my own work for a living.. though I wish it wasn’t such a difficult thing in modern society. I hope we continue to appreciate the things that are hand crafted by real humans, giving our living spaces a sense of life and distinct personality.
How can the punch needle community support your and your work?
I’m still just getting started, so sharing is a massive help! It’s my hope that many of us find a way to carve out a career using this art form.. so don’t undersell yourself!
What is something that you are excited or curious about these days?
I’ve been thinking a lot about combining traditional rug making techniques! Like braiding borders and working in some appliqué.
What are 3 other fun facts about yourself that you would like to share with the Punch Needle Community?
- I live just a quick drive from the Rug Hooking Museum of North America, an unassuming building that houses a vast collection of hooked rugs, chronicling the history of our craft. It’s a hidden gem, and is very worth the visit!!
- We *just* got a puppy. (Patti!) The cat is not impressed.
- My studio is the size of an inchworm, but I’m glad to have my own space.