Saturday, 10 March 2012

Elephant No. 160: Latch-Hooking

A couple of weeks back, I happened upon a box of latch-hook yarn in a thrift store, and thought it might be interesting to use for an elephant. My sister warns me that this can be a somewhat tedious activity, so my elephant will be small.

Although wool has been knotted into floor coverings for centuries, the most direct antecedents of latch-hooking are likely the hooked rugs made in England during the early nineteenth century. Workers in Yorkshire weaving mills were allowed to collect "thrums"—short pieces of yarn measuring 23 cm (9 inches) or less in length—since these were useless to the mill itself. These bits of yarn were then cut into shorter lengths, and looped and knotted through a base of burlap or other rough material.

Latch-hooking itself dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when the eponymous hook was invented. Unlike earlier forms of rug hooking, the latch hook has a little hinged "latch" that locks around the piece of yarn, allowing the relatively quick formation of a cut-pile surface. Well, quicker than knotting everything by hand, anyway.

Most latch-hooking is produced from kits which include canvas with pre-painted design, pre-cut pieces of yarn, and a hook. These kits first hit the market in the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1970s and 1980s, latch-hooking was a wildly popular craft, with people producing everything from rugs to cushions to wall-hangings. Latch-hooking has a characteristic "soft-focus" look due to the relative coarseness of the weave. This can either be appealing, or not so much. It also looks like shag rug sometimes. Also either appealing or not so much.

Jack Russell latch-hooking kit by Pako.

Today, latch-hook kits are still readily available, although canvas and the pre-cut pieces of yarn are harder to find. I was fortunate in that I got the yarn virtually for free, and my sister had a bunch of canvas left over from a project that is currently on an extended hiatus.

For today's elephant, having been pre-warned that this is a somewhat boring activity, I decided to make the smallest elephant I possibly could. Since I'd never tried this before, however, and know next to nothing about it, I didn't know how small I could actually go, and decided not to make the mistake of cutting the canvas too small before starting. I cut something that was about 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 inches). Turns out that was too small for the detail I would have liked. Oh well.

The photograph below shows the box of yarn I got. I don't think there was one colour in here that appealed to me all that much—but at least they were pre-cut. If I wanted something else, I could cut the yarn myself. That sounded like a very bad idea, however, as it would only add to the tedium. Let me

This is the canvas. Since I'm more used to needlepoint canvas, the holes in this looked disturbingly large, and I wasn't sure I could imagine exactly how long it would take to fill them with an elephant of some sort. I decided to wing it, rather than painting something on the canvas.

This is the hook I used. The box of abandoned yarn contained two latch hooks, but the one with an ergonomic handle felt sticky and weird, as though the rubbery plastic was disintegrating. So I went with this one, which will probably cramp my hands.

The technique is so simple that the online world abounds in how-to videos made by seven-year-olds. Here, however, are the steps, without commentary:

I wasn't sure what colours to use of the oranges, greens, yellows and pinks before me, but while rooting around in the bottom of the box, I found some loose bits of grey, so I started with that. Within a few knots, I realized that I was never going to have anywhere near the amount of grey I'd need, so I started adding a sort of steel blue that I also found loose in the bottom of the box.

The photograph below shows more or less how far I got with the grey and steel blue, along with a bit of white for a tusk, and some flesh pink at the tip of the trunk, inside the mouth and inside the ears. Obviously, even the steel blue wasn't going to be enough, so I pulled out a bundle of pale blue—to at least try to stay within the same colour family.

I actually rather liked this fragmented look, but it seemed like cheating to leave it at this, so I filled in the rest. There was no way I was going to have time to fill in the background, so I only did the elephant.

A few tips if you try this:

1. Cut more canvas than you think you'll need.

2. Make sure you have more yarn than you think you could possibly need, in colours you like.

3. Be prepared to cut extra yarn from some other source if needed, as these bundles of yarn are not easy to find. Many latch-hooking enthusiasts do indeed cut their own yarn.

4. Because of the size of the holes in the canvas, yarn with a bit of a "tooth" is better than anything too fine or slippery. The pressure of the yarn tufts against one another is partly what holds things in place, and yarn with a bit of a tooth also bites into itself, holding the knot a little better.

5. You may have to "groom" your final piece. This could involve trimming the ends so that the pile is all the same length, or even "landscaping" it by cutting the pile in various lengths. Grooming can also involve pushing the tufts into shape so that you don't end up with blue specks that have migrated into the white tusk area, for example.

I didn't love doing this, but I didn't hate it as much as I expected I would. I think I might even learn to like it if I were working with a finer canvas, and finer yarn. It would be way more tedious under those conditions, but I think the look would be more my style. As it is, I find today's elephant slightly hideous. Or maybe I'll be kind and say, as the French do, that it is joli laid—a colloquial expression meaning something (usually a person) that is both ugly and attractive at the same time. Or "pretty ugly", if you want to be literal about it.

At some point, I'll fill in the background to this. I didn't like any of the colours I had today, however, so the background will have to wait until I feel like buying and cutting a pleasing colour of yarn. I also ran out of time, as this little elephant took me two and a half hours. It certainly wasn't difficult, however, and it was an interesting introduction to the concept of a knotted rug.

It also gave me new appreciation and respect for everyone who's ever made a hand-knotted rug of any kind. I'll never look at a Turkish or Bokhara carpet the same way again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In February 2012, an Australian scientist suggested a novel way of preventing brushfires: elephants.

The idea comes courtesy of David Bowman of the University of Tasmania. Gamba grass, which is native to Africa but has invaded northern Australia's savannas, is a major source of fuel for the wildfires that plague the region. Gamba grass is also tall and tough, making it too big for marsupials such as kangaroos, or bovines such as cattle and buffalo.

Enter the elephant. Elephants thrive on gamba grass, and adding elephants and even rhinos to the landscape would definitely reduce the incidence of gamba grass throughout the region. This, Bowman suggests, would be a much better way of removing gamba grass than chemicals or physical clearing.

The downside? Elephants don't just eat gamba grass. They are also very fond of trees, bushes, and farmers' crops. In fact, elephants are highly destructive to any landscape into which they are introduced, often completely altering the ecosystems in which they find themselves.

Given some of Australia's previous experiences with the introduction of foreign species, perhaps another fire-prevention method should be found.

African elephant in gamba grass.

Elephant's World (Thailand)


  1. Hello, I have been looking at your blog since you started your project. I am impressed with your dedication and your creativity. You must be very proficient at the whole thing. How much time does it take you, on average, to create an elephant every day then research the history of the art form and then blog? My hat is off to you for keeping it up. I have trouble finishing a quilting class.

  2. Thanks, Barb! You're very kind.

    It takes me anywhere from two to ten hours to do one of these, depending on how hopeless I am at whatever it is, and how inspired I am for the writing bit. The worst part is sometimes the elephant lore section. Other times I just don't want to make anything, and wish I could repeat some easy activity that I've already done. Or even better: slap up something that I've already made. Without people like you to keep me going, I probably would have given up a month or so into this thing!

    Love your blog, by the way. The latest post on quilting was hilarious! I too am a class-taker, and the twelve steps are spot-on. And I definitely admire your quilting tenacity. I'm dreading the idea of making a proper quilt block for this blog. Precision and I do not get along...

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