As Norma Sturges video-chatted with her granddaughter in Oregon, she noticed the rug through the computer screen, laying on the nursery floor.
Sturges, of Casper, hand-braided it 26 years ago for her daughter’s nursery. Her granddaughter talked it out of her mother when she had kids. And, on that Skype chat, Sturges’ 5- and 3-year-old great-grandchildren sat around it, singing and carrying on, just as their mother used to do.
A new exhibit opening today at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center features 28 of Sturges’ rugs. “Step on It: Braided Rugs by Norma Sturges” celebrates Sturges as a nationally regarded fiber artist and pays homage to a uniquely American craft art.
“This exhibit is a modern-day connection to our pioneering past,” said Alex Rose, Trails Center interpreter. “This takes us back to a different time and place. A time before mass production and industrialization, when people knew how to make things with their hands as a result of hard work and creativity.”
While quilting and knitting originated in Europe, braided rugs are all-American. Colonial settlers used thick wool to braid rugs that warmed cold floors. Pioneers — forced to repurpose nearly everything in order to carve a life on the harsh Western prairie — cut strips from old clothes.
This is likely the first braided-rug exhibit in Wyoming, Rose said. While he can’t say it’s the first in the country, his research uncovered no similar exhibits at other museums.
“That’s part of what makes this exciting. There are quilting exhibits around, but an exhibit for braided rugs is very rare and very special,” Rose said.
Sturges won’t divulge her age to impolite reporters, but she has been braiding for more than 60 years. She figures she’s made more than 60 rugs, and several are spread across the country between her three children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She wrote two books about it and has taught the technique for decades.
“I’m totally shocked that it has been overlooked as a fibert art,” Sturges said.
“It belongs with the quilts and the knitting and the other fiber arts.”
Sixty years ago, Sturges was an isolated young mother raising her family in Connecticut. They didn’t have a lot of furniture, but Sturges thought she could make a rug. She used scrap wool from nearby mills.
She taught herself, then she taught her mother. She taught others through county extension programs and, when her family moved to Denver, she had a teaching job waiting for her.
By the 1990s, she realized the last good book on American braided rugs had been written in 1957. Her students encouraged her to write an updated version, and she did.
She published “The Braided Rug Book” in 1995. It is considered an indispensable guide to the American folk art. She formed the Rocky Mountain Rug Braiders Guild in Denver, members of which will be in Casper on Saturday to demonstrate braiding.
Today, artists around the country are combining wool braids into hooking arts and creating detailed landscapes with the braiding technique. The updated version of her book, published in 2006, includes braiding artists from around the country.
“I am a great-grandmother, determined to see that we braid the stories of our generations together into rugs that we continue to treasure,” she wrote in her book.
Sturges moved to Casper four years ago to live with her oldest daughter, Dorie Kupko.
“One of the first rugs she made was for me, the baby,” Kupko said.
Kupko grew up and took the rug to her house. When Kupko’s daughter grew up, she took the rug with her. Kupko, eventually, took it back.
“It’s at least 60 years old. It’s worn, but it still looks good,” Kupko said. “It’s history. It’s heritage. It’s a family heirloom.”
You can see the rug in the Trails Center exhibit.
Each rug takes between 25 and 90 hours of work. Sturges hand sews strips of wool into long, circular stips. She braids the strips and sews them to the rug, row by row.
She is now working on a pattern, saved from a 1949 Good Housekeeping article, that works its way up to 13-strand braids. She’s at seven strands now, in pastel shades of green, purple and pink.
“I call it my signature rug because nobody else is doing it,” Sturges said. “They are trying to figure how I do it.”
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