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Preparing to Nest

A Rug Hooking Exclusive Pattern

By: Susan Feller/Ruckman Mill Farm

Preparing to Nest, 23" x 8", #5-cut wool on linen with hand-dyed wool binding. Designed and hooked by Susan L. Feller, Augusta, West Virginia, 2012.

I grew up in rural New Jersey and have always been fascinated by the habits of migrating birds as they return in spring. My favorite is the Baltimore Oriole. These industrious birds return yearly and need to repair the winter damage to their sock-shaped nests before laying eggs. Continuing a tradition from childhood, every year I collect threads pulled from linen and monk’s cloth and hang them out on the clothesline when we see the first orange flashes around May 1. For 10 days, males and females pluck threads off the line and fly with them into the woods to make their nests. I am chastised by these colorful “friends” when their supply is exhausted. 

The story I wanted to tell in this design is the flurryof activity created around nesting time. Each bird shape is exaggerated in length and positioned on a slight angle; some are entering or leaving the space. A diagonal line infers action—think of flight or falling.

The bird shapes are in different sizes: smaller ones give the illusion of being farther away. Remember your eye will interpret a story based on your own experiences. A flock of birds are very small specks until they fly closer and you begin to identify the wings and even see individual feathers.

You see distance in this work because of how I divided the long narrow space in which the birds are placed. Staying simple, I broke the 8" x 22" shape into several smaller shapes, keeping in mind that where the lines intersected a new shape was created. The birds overlap these new shapes, entering or leaving, emphasizing action. I included more diagonal lines (active) than horizontal lines (passive). These lines symbolize the mountains and the tall trees.

For depth, I placed extreme values next to each other. I chose dull, darker, textured wool for the shapes at the bottom. A dark value feels heavy, and although the birds are flying in the sky, the background implies anchored shapes, such as trees and hills. The lightest value surrounding the shape in the lower left pushes the darker shape forward because our eye thinks the two light shapes are connected behind it. This effect is contrary to the rule that “light value advances and dark, texture recedes.” Just for fun, the largest shape stretching from top to bottom edge is green. Notice it is not any darker than the other values in the background, just a different hue.

The direction we hook, especially with lighter values, is another tool. Keeping with the concept of simplifying and using the shapes to tell the literal story, I chose linear hooking rather than outline and fill. Four of the background shapes are hooked vertically, adding height, while the others are horizontal to show the wide vista of the overall design.

 A rug can sing or die with the right finishing technique. I imagined a thin dark line of whipping around the 8" x 23" piece. It wasn’t substantial enough. Maybe a mottled piece of wool would extend the blue sky? No, the birds were cut off. Back to the darker edge. My final choice was wool strips, 1 1/2" wide, hand sewn to the rug. Now the binding anchors the riotous activity and may even give the effect of viewing the birds through a window.  

Designing with Nature 

It comes as no surprise that nature is my inspiration for designing. There are a variety of ways to depict a flock of birds, each requiring a skill, technique, and appropriate materials. My visual experiences over the years give me emotional ideas. I start with a photograph to catch each actual detail. This year, I quickly sketched in a journal, creating a shape to imply action and guide me in the coloring. The simpler a design is, the easier it is for me to jump in with wools and techniques to coach the story to life. I decided to set a design goal to depict nature with shapes, colors, and values. 

Even if you are not confident in drawing a realistic image to start your design, you really can do it. Here is a way to start: Find a photograph. Hold the photo up to a window, place a piece of paper over it, and use a marker to trace the shape. You have a simple pattern to use to tell your story.   

The line drawings of our rug patterns are guides, identifying shapes and spaces. It is up to each of us to decide what techniques (punch, prod, needle felt, or even stitch) and materials (fabic type, cut) will be used and how to emphasize the motifs with colors and values.

Susan Feller has been designing rug hooking patterns since 1994. She is a regular contributor to RHM and has written several books, including her most recent, Design Basics for Rug Hookers. You can visit her online at

This article is from the June/July/August 2013 issue. To get this exclusive pattern or for more information on our issue, check out our issues page.


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This piece is one of my favorites. Great design.


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