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Helen Martin King was one of Arkansas’s most unique artists, developing the almost-forgotten craft of rug hooking. She became a designer, teacher, and businesswoman, creating thousands of original designs, teaching classes, and creating cottage industries within the state.
Helen Martin was born at Powhatan (Lawrence County) on September 20, 1895, the only child of John William Martin, a prosperous landowner and lumberman, and Clara Isabelle Norment Martin.
Martin’s family moved to Batesville (Independence County) when she was a young child, and she acquired her elementary and high school education at the preparatory school of Arkansas College (now Lyon College). In 1913, at the age of eighteen, she married a local merchant, Fitzhugh Hail. Within a year of her marriage, both her husband and an expected child died.
Martin resumed her education, studying voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, interior decoration at the Ohio Mechanical Institute, and art at the Cincinnati Art Museum and at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans.
She married her second husband, Harry King, on December 31, 1916. King was a Methodist minister and later dean at Galloway College in Searcy (White County) and at Arkansas College in Batesville. The couple had two daughters.
While furnishing her Colonial-style home in Searcy, King began to study books, magazine articles, and museum brochures to learn all she could about hooking rugs. She accumulated scraps of woolen fabric, taught herself how to draw and paint her own designs onto burlap backing, and chose or designed her own tools. One of King’s rugs is in the collections of the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
King’s kitchen became a laboratory for mixing dyes to the exact shade she wanted. As she developed her techniques, friends and neighbors became interested. They acquired her patterns as fast as she could draw them onto the burlap. Eventually there were Helen King Rug Hooking clubs in places as diverse as Washington DC and Hoxie (Lawrence County). She began to teach classes at colleges, adult education programs, and neighborhood gatherings. Her daughters and some of her friends were employed to help with cutting materials and stencils and assembling the rug kits for sale. In 1948, she published a book, How to Hook Rugs. It contained drawings of some of her favorite original designs, as well as detailed instructions for hooking them.
She created over 1,000 original rug designs and served as a consultant with the Putnam Dye Company and the Dorr Mills of New England in order to acquire materials that met her exacting specifications. She created cottage industries in Batesville and Searcy, providing jobs in the cutting of stencils and in the printing and assembling of rug kits for sale throughout the United States. In 1940, an article about her appeared in Life, and she was featured in National Geographic magazine in 1946.
With the help of employees and friends, King continued to teach classes and sell her rug kits well into the 1980s. Some of her rugs are owned today by the First Presbyterian Church in Batesville, the Decorative Arts Museum in Little Rock, and the Powhatan Historic State Park.
Helen Martin King died on December 11, 1988, in Fayetteville (Washington County), where she had been residing at Butterfield Trail Village. She is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in Batesville.
For additional information: Culver, Willard R. “Arkansas Traveler of 1946.” National Geographic. September 1946, xi.
Difranza, Happy and Barbara Franco. “American Hooked Rugs.” The Magazine of Antiques. October 1990, 788–-797.
Helen Martin King Collection. Regional Studies Center. Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas.
Henslee, Lou. “You’re Hooked.” Holland’s: The Magazine of the South. June 1949, n.p.
“Old Art of Rug Hooking Revived by Party-loving Southern Women.” Life. January 29, 1940, 44–-45.
Nancy BrittonBatesville, Arkansas
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated 10/17/2009
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