Textile Artist Susan Feller on the McDonald Sisters of Gilmer County

Susan with Progress in the Mountains, purchased for State Museum collection
Textile artist Susan Feller of Hampshire County

Words and photos by Susan Feller

My upbringing in the 1950s and 60s rural Appalachians, where I earned Girl Scout badges and was taught handwork by generations of women, were the experiences that influenced my craft work and historical research. When I learned how to pull wool fabric loops through a loose weave backing– rug hooking– floor coverings with American decorative motifs began to fill our Hampshire County log home. These designs lead to a business making patterns for rug hookers, selling at rug shows nationally, teaching workshops, and eventually writing a book addressing the elements and principles of design. Twenty years later I sold the business to a fourth-generation Vermont company and have more time to use all the handwork skills in my contemporary art for the walls.

#1 State Museum MacDonald Tapestry
McDonald Sisters tapestry (left) at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston

In 2011 I was exploring the craft display in the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston and there was a 6 x 4 tapestry with “rug hooking!” The label said it was purchased from the McDonald sisters of Gilmer County in 1970 during the Arts and Crafts Festival in Glenville. WOW! It was thrilling to see the technique I was immersed in, displayed in our state museum collection. I had to learn more. The records for this item were slim, but indicated that the ladies were from Letter Gap, WV. Over the years my investigation has led to the research library at Glenville State College where I studied the archival material of Fern Rollyson, founder of that festival, and even took a personal trip to the McDonald sisters’ grave site and homestead.

Blanche McDonald Sisters (6) 10 X 11 300dpi
Blanche McDonald

With funds from the Tamarack Foundation Fellowship, I have met the owners of and documented several rugs and footstools Otha and Blanche McDonald made, and heard personal stories about their personalities, the skills they learned from their mother, and how they marketed to galleries and the Smithsonian– culminating in the Pasadena exhibit, “Islands in the Land” with fellow Appalachian craftsmen.

Blanche McDonald on cover of first Hearth and Fair
Blanche McDonald on cover of first Hearth and Fair, the precursor to Goldenseal Magazine

The ladies’ clothing, drapery fabric, yarns and threads used by Blanche and Otha in their exuberant compositions are examples of recycling and make-do in creating objects valued by visitors from metropolitan areas. I have tracked one rug sold to a collector in Ohio, then to a vendor in Iowa who subsequently took it to New York City and sold it along with many quilts and textiles.

McDonald Sisters' tapestry WV State Museum full
The McDonald Sisters’ tapestry in the West Virginia State Museum

The McDonald sisters did not hook through the backing like I do, but sewed their loops in the borders of drapery fabric (a tighter weave), and in one instance, little boy’s pajama fabric. The stuffed flowers and embroidered leaves fill most of each creation, making the rugs heavy because of the layers. I am interested in getting in touch with anyone who knows of rug hookers in the Glenville area during the 1960s-70s that may have influenced the ladies to add this style to their work. Perhaps they picked up the technique from reading women’s magazines featuring antique hooked rugs.

Blanche and Otha McDonald with work in progress, note the peacocks, unusual subject and backing. Prior to 1975
Blanche and Otha McDonald with work in progress. Note the peacocks, unusual subject and backing. c. pre-1975

It is interesting to see how my work incorporated the mixed techniques as the McDonalds years before I found the rug in the museum. These days, I feel as if I am channeling them whenever I pick up a needle and thread with my hooked designs. What would they say if given the opportunity to work with my hand-dyed newly milled 100% wool fabric? Or be able to select silk, bamboo, and colorful cotton threads as embroidery lines and pull strips of fabric through an open weave linen to quickly make the loops? Would their comment be something like the old lady who worked with the wool strips and taught me to braid who asked, “Susan your rug will be like a store bought one?” I say, NO– they are better because they are made by hand, and there is a charm to the McDonalds’ work I cannot replicate. If anyone has one of their pieces, knows about their process, or similar work please contact me through ArtWools.com or drop a line to PO Box 409, Augusta, WV 26704.

Flowers for Blanche, Susan L Feller 2018
Susan Feller’s “Flowers for Blanche,” 2018

For more information see my January/February 2017 article in Rug Hooking Magazine and pages archived on my website at ArtWools.com/McDonalds. This summer at the Augusta Heritage Center from July 22-27, I will teach ‘Rug Hooking, Applique’ and Embroidery Together’.

McDonald sister grave 002 with Susan Feller
Susan Feller at the McDonald Sisters’ grave in Gilmer County

Susan Feller lives in Hampshire County, WV with her partner in the log home they built. With a degree in Art and History from UMass/Boston and a life-long interest in handwork craft, she learned to rug hook in 1994, a medium allowing her to “paint with wool.” This skill was the entry into the niche market of rug hooking– designing patterns, selling hand-dyed wool, and teaching as far away as Australia, throughout the US and Canada. These days, Feller works in her studio creating fiber art for the walls. Juried as a Tamarack gallery artist, and a recipient of a purchase award from the WV Division of Culture and History, she serves on the Board of Directors for Tamarack Foundation for the Arts and The River House board in Capon Bridge, networking with and advocating for artists in the state and beyond.

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