Saving McAdoo Rugs -June 2009
Revitalizing a classic American cottage industry
by: Terry Pommett
In an economy beset with business failures and rising unemployment, Nantucketers Jeff and Cary Turner are decidedly contrarian. On the eve of the country’s slide into recession, they took a bold stab at revitalizing a classic American cottage industry while helping to preserve the livelihoods of more than 30 craftspeople.
McAdoo Rugs of North Bennington, Vermont has been producing heirloom-quality hooked rugs since 1972. It has prospered through word of mouth, rug shows in private homes and a limited number of retail outlets, mainly in the Northeast. Although the business was financially solvent, owners Preston and Cynthia McAdoo desired to move in a new direction with their lives. After a number of years of unsuccessful attempts to sell the company, they decided to dispose of the real estate, an old mill on the banks of Paran Creek, and liquidate the company.
As serendipity would have it, the Turners received a phone call from Liz Williams, Jeff’s aunt, late in the summer of 2006. She had been a master dyer at McAdoo for over 10 years and was on a vacation through the Cape and islands. Stopping on Nantucket to visit her nephew, talk found its way to the state of McAdoo and the revelation that it was on the chopping block.
Jeff says that it must have been a moment with God that suddenly grabbed hold of him. After all, he and Cary had two young children, Alden and Jackson, and were working full- time managing their island caretaking business At Ease. To take on another venture in Vermont might be too much to handle.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t let a viable business go under and watch all those people lose their jobs. Cary sensed my turmoil and told me point-blank, ‘Let’s go to Vermont, there’s no harm in looking’.”
Once on site, discussions with Preston moved smoothly and the Turners became comfortable with the logistics of continuing the McAdoo tradition. A month later they took over the operation. “We felt that there was enough room to grow the company in ways that the McAdoos had not explored sufficiently. The enterprise was in place and functioning, it just had to be tweaked,” Jeff says.
One area of concern for the Turners was the possibility of a sluggish start to their ownership. Prior to the sale of the mill, Preston had sent out a letter to his clients, notifying them of the denouement of McAdoo Rugs. This generated an onslaught of final orders, over $800,000 in 30 days. “We thought that would hamper future sales for a while, but that has not been the case. We received continued requests for rugs and pledges of support,” Jeff says.
To appreciate the dedication people have for McAdoo rugs, one needs to understand the history and quality of the product. The hooked rug is a traditional North American “craft of poverty” that developed along the New England seaboard and the Canadian Maritimes in the mid-19th century. In some aspects, McAdoo is patterned after the Grenfell mission to Labrador in the late 19th century. At the time, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell delivered medical and spiritual assistance to the destitute fishing villages of the Canadian province. He also determined that the primary craft of the people, hooking colorful mats and rugs with burlap sacks and discarded textiles, could provide a much-needed source of income, if standardized and made available to the commercial public.
The experiment was widely successful with rugs being sold in Europe, Canada and the United States. Although the industry, known as “The Industrial,” eventually died out with the advent of machine-made rugs and decreased interest in the craft, the surviving rugs with their colorful motifs of polar bears, fish and dogsled teams are still highly sought after.
McAdoo Rugs began its journey in 1972. “My parents used to sail the coast of Maine every summer,” says Preston. “My mother Cynthia wanted to start a rug business since she noticed that all the 100-year-old rugs she and her friends owned were falling apart and there were no replacements. She thought it would be a good retirement project for my father.”
Wanting to help bring employment to the rural areas of coastal Maine, the McAdoos set about reviving a cottage industry. They’d dye the wool in their basement in New Jersey and haul it up to Maine where they gave rug-hooking lessons and training in dying techniques. Eventually they had six accomplished hookers and the dyer working out of one location. Each year they would sell their Maine Cottage Rugs at a show in New Jersey or Connecticut.
In 1980, the business was dissolved and restarted under Preston’s guidance in North Bennington, Vermont. “I was an art major in college and painted abstracts. I was looking for a project.
My mother was a designer and I was a designer so the style continued with my understanding of decorative art. She also taught me that even people with good taste are not always visually educated and they need to be steered in the right direction when working with rugs.”
Moving to Vermont did not change the company philosophy of first providing a good working environment and secondly, understanding what customer service is all about. Having a generous return policy and on-site as well as factory repair services is not enough. A live, human voice answering the phone is just as important in keeping customers happy.
Eventually, McAdoo grew to about eight full-time employees and 25 part-time rug-hookers. Several of the full-timers, including Turner’s aunt, Williams, are Bennington College graduates.
McAdoo uses Ciba-Geigy colorfast dyes and a special blend of 80 percent New Zealand and 20 percent English wools, which result in a durable and soft rug that is non-allergenic, chemical free and colorfast. It can also be washed at home in hot water and detergent without fear of bleeding or fading. Sizes range from two-by-three-foot area drops, to staircase and hallway runners and large 15-foot or greater room coverings, all with a luscious half-inch pile.
Over the years, McAdoo has built up a stock library of over 600 designs. Motifs range from American folk art, antiques and florals to birds, animals, nautical and country scenes, homes and farms. But new designs have recently flourished.
“Our designers were put on hold during the period the business was for sale. They had a lot of pent-up creativity ready to explode, once we decided to move forward,” Jeff says.
Aside from its catalogue of existing designs, McAdoo has a unique capability to work with a customer on custom designs. Color, composition and size can all be determined through a collaborative endeavor. Of the 19,000-plus rugs McAdoo has sold, many have gone to a who’s who of world leaders, prominent families and celebrities, among them three American presidents, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Kennedys, Fords and DuPonts. Hands-on clients have included Candice Bergen, Meryl Streep, Norman Lear and the late Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who requested a scene from the Garden of Eden.
Working from a palette of 291 colors, every step in the creation of a McAdoo rug is hand-done. From dying the wool, drawing the stencil, imprinting the design on the cotton canvas or “monk’s cloth” to the actual hooking itself, the process is labor-intensive and precise. All rugs are hooked with the initials of the designer, and the individual craftsperson has their name labeled on the reverse side. Materials for the construction are simple: a wooden frame lined with carpet tacks, a craftsman needle and a pair of scissors. The rest is experience, technique and speed. While for most hookers the financial compensation is a necessary supplement to their overall income, for others it is a full-time occupation.
The Turners have drawn on their Nantucket business expertise and applied the lessons learned to McAdoo. Cary’s years of owning and managing the former Westender restaurant in Madaket have honed her talent for marketing and website management, while Jeff is the eternal bean-counter and numbers cruncher. Together they hope to expand the retail possibilities of their line with the opening of a store downtown this summer. Ninety-five percent of their sales are from rugs, a third of which are custom designs. Five percent of their income comes from consumer kits and supplies as well as pillows and chair pads. But the Turners see a great potential in applying their library of designs to other types of home accessories, such as linens, wallpaper and window treatments.
Ten years ago, Jeff first appreciated a McAdoo rug lying in Cary’s home, when they had just started dating. Little did he know the significance that design would come to have in their lives.
To see the entire McAdoo line, visit their website at www.mcadoorugs.com.
Terry Pommett is a freelance photojournalist and frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.