The Alphabet of Sheep


The hooked rugs of Patty Yoder

I am in love with wool. I love to bury my hands in the living wool of our beloved Border Leicester sheep. I love the feel and smell of new sheared wool when I gather it into bags as our shearer does his work. I love the yarn produced from each individual fleece. But most of all I love the glorious pieces of dyed wool fabric stacked by color waiting for the perfect spot in a hooked rug that I will create. —Patty Yoder

Hooked rugs, much like quilts, in the past made only for utilitarian household use, are now often made and appreciated as pieces of fine fiber art. Work from one of the masters of the form, Patty Yoder (1943-2005), can currently be viewed at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in an exhibition entitled The Alphabet of Sheep by Patty Yoder. Each rug was inspired by friends, family and the sheep she and her husband Ramsey raised on their Black House Farm in Tinmouth in southern Vermont.  A children’s book, The Alphabet of Sheep, based on her rug series of the same name, was published in 2003 and serves as the basis for Yoder’s own descriptions of each rug on display.  All the labels in the show are in her own words.

Viewers of the show are struck immediately by the obvious fondness Yoder had for her family, friends and for her farm and the animals on it, and by how she captured their different personalities so effectively and often whimsically.  “Patty Yoder’s whimsical rugs show an attention to detail and an unsurpassed eye for color that have earned her a place among the most acclaimed contemporary rug hookers,” explained Kory Rogers, Curator of Design Arts at the Shelburne, who organized the  exhibition. “With her beloved sheep as her subject, Yoder painstakingly hand-dyed the wool she used in each rug, resulting in rich, deep colors that characterize her work.”

I is for Ian Who Had a Great Time on His Way to Tipperary2001, portrays a ram whose body is filled with heads of sheep of all ages, sizes and colors. B is for Brad and Brett, shows the buildings, gardens and pastures of  Black House Farm and incorporates Yoder’s son, Brad, her husband Ramsey, her beloved grandson Brett, her close rug-hooking friends, dogs and sheep.  All the humans have sheep faces.  C is for Clinton, a Man who Loves his Dog, 1996, portrays Yoder’s younger son, Clinton, whom she described as her “rug advisor” and “a dog whisperer” and his dog Amber. F is for Frank and His Friends in the Upper Barn, 2000, shows eight animal portraits hung as a grouping, including sheep, a goat and “our guard llama,” with purple, blue or black backgrounds serving as a pleasing contrast to the soft, neutral colors of the animals’ faces.  The description of one sheep, Earl, explains that he has now been let “out to pasture and spends his days munching hay and spinning tales of his wild, well-spent youth.” Z is for Zonie, 1996, depicts a family of three sheep amidst a harvest of pumpkins in barrels, the colorful orange pumpkins vividly contrasting with the sheep. Yoder said this scene was inspired by her appreciation for the “subtle whimsy” of New Yorker magazine covers.

W is for Wally, a Flying Horticulturalist, 1997, shows a sheep seemingly flying across the rug, highlighted by a vibrant  giant orange and black Monarch butterfly and huge golden sunflowers.  The subject matter came from a fall migration of Monarchs that Yoder had observed in Tinmouth and a local field of dramatic sunflowers in which the butterflies had rested.  X is for Xanadua Remarkable Ram, 2000, was inspired by the famous children’s book Charlotte’s Web, in which Charlotte the spider spins a large sign praising her friend Wilbur the Pig; here Xanadu the ram stands proudly on display with a decorative (or prize-winning) ruff around his neck and a sign behind him declaring him to be “a Remarkable Ram.”

Y is for Yoder, Lydia’s Family Name, 1999, a detailed and almost flattering portrait  of the “magnificent” ewe Lydia, replete with long, curly eyelashes and alternating light and dark colors of her luxurious coat.  It was inspired by  Chuck Close’s early portraits that Yoder had seen at MoMa in the late 1960s.  V is for Victor, a Natural Vegetarian, 1996, was inspired by the well known 16th century oil painting, The Summer, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a side view portrait of a woman formed entirely of vegetables. In this rug the sheep Victor’s whole body is made up of vegetables, including a purple eggplant forming his face, carrots for legs, and cabbage for a tail.  Yoder explained that she and her husband were “dedicated vegetable gardeners who loved poring over seed catalogues” and “fantasizing about the summer bounty to come.”  And last but not least, H is for Hannah and Saraha Civil Union, 2000,  shows two female sheep wearing wedding finery.  Yoder said, “[I] hooked this rug with a great pride in the state of Vermont and with great hope for the future of the United States of America.”

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska and raised in Ohio, Yoder came to rug hooking relatively late in life.  She began when she was almost 50, after having had a successful career as a teacher and designer, and having raised two sons.  She acquired her passion for rug hooking after she and Ramsey retired and moved to Black House Farm in the 1980s, after which they began to collect rugs together, including the work of Esther Knipe, a self-taught rug hooker from Dorset, Vermont.  Knipe inspired Yoder and became her mentor, attempting to teach Yoder everything she knew, although Yoder didn’t start hooking until 1990, five years after Knipe’s death. She took classes and seminars in rug hooking, attended the Green Mountain Rug Hooking School and traveled with friends throughout the U.S., studying various aspects of rug hooking. A perfectionist, she experimented with dyes, sometimes re-dyeing wool numerous times to achieve the exact colors she envisioned, and encouraged others to strive for similar perfection.  One colleague said she “wanted truth in color” and that her rugs “had to be smooth and flat.”  From 1992 until her death in 2005—in just 13 years—she completed a total of 44 rugs.  Her last completed one was a self-portrait done in 2005.

Yoder approached each rug like a painting, first sketching landscapes and portraits from photographs, then enlarging them and tracing them onto a linen backing. She sheared her own sheep and dyed her own wool. She used brighter colors than most of her predecessors and developed her own technique, creating a lower pile that served to flatten images and to intensify her color palette, and was highly adept as well in creating appealing and contemporary compositions. She became passionate about rug hooking  and wanted to help improve the quality of the end product in general and, in her words, “… to upgrade rug hooking in the eyes of the Art World.’

Yoder was closely associated with the Green Mountain Rug Hooking  Guild, serving as its President from 2002-2005 and through her affiliation helped to continue contemporary interpretations of this traditional New England tradition. The Alphabet of Sheep by Patty Yoder presents Yoder’s unique, modern take on this traditional form.  It is a joyous celebration of one woman’s life and a joy to behold.

The rugs in the exhibition were donated to the Shelburne Museum in memory of Patty Yoder by her family.  They are currently housed in the Patty Yoder Gallery, a new gallery dedicated to her and now reserved especially for the display of rugs. Next season more Yoder hooked rugs will be shown there.

For those interested in seeing more contemporary hooked rugs, the Green Mountain Rug Hooking Guild will present their 16th annual hooked rug show, Hooked in the Mountains, in November at the Shelburne Museum. The event features over 450 works of hooked art, workshops, guest speakers and educational children’s programs.  Every year one deserving applicant is named a Patty Yoder scholar, enabling the recipient to attend and participate in the Festival and to study hooking closely.

To learn more about Patty Yoder and her hooked rugs, please visit: The Alphabet of Sheep by Patty Yoder, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, through Oct. 28, 2012. 

Hooked in the Mountains, Green Mountain Rug Hooking Guild, November 10-17, 2012, Round Barn, Shelburne, Vermont; , 802-434-8191.

To read about Patty’s work: The Alphabet of Sheep, by Patty Yoder, Ivy House Pub. Group, 2003 (out of print).

Patty Yoder: In Celebration of a Life by Anne-Marie Littenberg,  Rug Hooking Magazine, January/February 2006