Years ago, when Heather Ritchie moved to Swaledale, neighbours taught her to make traditional, thrifty, rag rugs. Heather was inspired to ‘paint’ with coloured rags, and her rugs became pictures.
It’s not only Heather who was inspired. People who saw her rug pictures were also inspired. Since then, Heather has travelled the world teaching rug making – and the world came to Swaledale to learn from Heather. In October 2018, Heather brings the International Guild of Handhooking Rugmakers (TIGHR) conference to Reeth.
Heather bubbles and fizzes with the joy of sharing her craft. It creates an energy that brightens the lives of those around her. “When I give a talk,” she says, “I take my rugs, and unroll them one by one to tell the story of my life.”
There’s a picture of her as a little girl, guiding her blinded Father in the streets of Sunderland. There’s Granddad on his allotment, Grandmother in her flower garden. Her parents exchanging a loving kiss. Heather herself on the moors with her dog. And there’s Scarcote, the place that began her love affair with the Dales.
Heather grew up in Sunderland, but, she says, “My Mother was evacuated in the war to Arkengarthdale, and retained her friendships there.” Hence, the family holidayed at Scarcote, near Richmond.
Heather recalls, “At the age of eight, Dad put me on the bus in Sunderland, with a packet of sandwiches. He said to the driver, ‘See her right to Richmond’. The driver would see me onto another bus at Darlington, to Richmond. Then Auntie Beattie came her old van to take me to Scarcote farm.”
“I hooked a rug with all the lovely things I remember at Scarcote. My brothers camping in a tent – getting squirted when the cows were milked. The cockerel that used to attack me when I went to the nettie. And Gerald.”
“Gerald was Auntie Beattie’s nephew, and he had a car. I adored him. He drove me around, he introduced me to Reeth.”
“Then, I came one day, and he wasn’t there. He had emigrated to Canada. I was devastated.”
As the years went by, Heather met Naval man Les Ritchie. They married and made their home in Reeth. When Les was away at sea, and the children in bed, Heather made rugs. “I made some of my best work then,” she reflects. The children grew, Heather became a rug-making celebrity, and Les retired from the Navy. Les began making the special tools that Heather’s students needed. An author published a book about Heather’s art.
Then, five years ago, Heather bumped into Gerald’s mother in Richmond. Heather mentioned that she was about to teach in Canada. And Gerald’s mother said, he lives there, here’s his email address.
Gerald happened to live in the town where Heather was to teach, and invited her to visit.
That is how Heather’s rugs bring people together. This October, people will come from across the globe to the rug making conference, and while they are here, they plan to meet relatives in Britain – relatives they may not have seen for decades.
“They’ll all have a whale of a time,” smiles Heather. “It’ll be big excitement, Grinton Church will fill with all the screaming and cries as they meet friends they’ve not seen for years.”
Read more about Heather’s life and rug making in Dalesman Magazine, October 2018 issue
Rug Exhibition, open to the public, St Andrew’s Church, Grinton, Tues 9th – Thursday 11th October 2018, 10am-4pm. Parking in field, tea/coffee, biscuits, entry by donation. Further information from firstname.lastname@example.org
Classes must be booked in advance, through The International Guild of Handhooking Rugmakers
Heather founded a charity, Rug Aid, to help blind people in the Gambia.
Hooked Rug Storytelling: The Art of Heather Ritchie by Lesley Mary Close is available on Amazon