Sally Charnley has seen many businesses come and go, and business owners along with them, in her 35 years working in downtown Rockford. She never intended to start a store of her own back then and, ironically, having two was part of her key to success.
Charnley has given up The Candle Shop and Burlap-N-Rags to her daughter and her husband, Meg and Charlie Frantz, but she still keeps a hand in her craft, holding a monthly rug-hooking hook-in. Divas-by-the-Dam meets the third Monday of the month in the upstairs room at Arnie’s, and a good dozen people talk about technique and style as they work at projects with rich roots in American history. Rug hooking is a craft at which Charnley is gifted, and she certainly can claim a wealth of experience.
This May, Charnley celebrated her 35th year as a Rockford professional, a feat few can claim.
“I had no intention of starting a business,” Charnley said.
She came to town to get a piece of red glass from Gayle’s Stained Glass, back in the day when Rockford was a “mecca for arts and crafts.” She found a small shop for rent in The Grainery building, now long gone, but would not have had the courage to open a store alone. She decided to give it a go because Betty Szyszko, who worked with Charnley for the Grand Rapids Recreation Dept., and her husband, Gerry, a teacher, potter and macrame artist, agreed to share the tiny store. That gave her encouragement.
Surrounded by other artists—those working in glass, pottery, weaving, leather, quilting and watercolors—Charnley grew her rug-hooking business. In 1980 she bought a building that had been The Village Munchies, an ice cream shop, and moved in at 52 Courtland Street. Soon after, The Candle Shop, started by Dorothy Anglin in 1973, moved in to share the building. Dorothy made candles, taught candlemaking, and stayed with the Charnleys until 1985, when she retired and sold her business to Sally and Pete.
Charnley remembers the day a woman popped her head in the door and asked, “Don’t you have a basket shop in town?” It was Paula (then Mikulak) who opened Baskets in the Belfry, literally in a belfry. She took up most of the top level of the Barn Mall, which used to be located where the Welcome Center is now, in front of Great Northern Trading Company. The space had already been renovated for another tenant who backed out at the last minute.
Charnley chose her business name for the rich history behind American rug hooking. It was a craft started in New England and the maritime provinces of Canada, and began from necessity. Woman used bits and pieces of material, old clothes (rags!) and hooked them through the burlap bags from livestock feed and coffee, which first came into our country around 1850. It became a cottage industry, and still is today in Nova Scotia. By the 1940s it was a well-established popular hobby.
Charnley is nostalgic about the old days when busloads of visitors came to Rockford to visit the Wolverine Mall and watch the artisans at work. Her kits were popular then as they are now, and with a quick “How to Hook” lesson, the visitors often took one home. Today she really is a full-time volunteer and joked, “Old hookers never die. They just keep on dying and dying,” (wool, of course).
One reason Rockford artisans became a disappearing breed, Charnley thinks, is because trade and church shows made paying rent on a shop uneconomical. She said a friend,who was a potter, said he could sell a year’s worth of work at three big summer art shows, and he enjoyed going to them.
Over the years, Charnley has honed her skill and become a leader in her field, recruited to teach school children as well as the admired adviser at the Divas-by-the-Dam group. She teaches her students not only the skills for different effects, but also the economy of using recycled wool, which they find at Salvation Army, Goodwill, and church sales (last day, a bag for $1!). Wool pants, skirts or other items are torn apart, washed, maybe dyed, cut into strips, and ready to serve a new purpose as art.
The craft is very learnable, as attested by her son-in-law, Charlie Frantz, who now manages the two stores. “It’s so easy, even I can do it,” he laughed. “Mom has taught so many people to be hookers we call her the madam of Rockford.”
The people who cut up the cloth strips are called strippers, and those who participate in a related craft, punch needle embroidery, are called pushers, Frantz noted with humor.
These days Charnley and her husband are retired from the fun and worry of running the businesses, but she still enjoys her time working with the Divas and welcomes anyone to stop in and see what rug hooking is like in action.
There are plenty of examples of different styles of hooked items at Burlap-N-Rags, as well as all the supplies one needs to get started. To see a group of hookers in action or sit in for a session of creating lasting art yourself, visit Arnie’s the third Monday of the month, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. You will be welcome and probably impressed with what a bit of burlap and some recycled wool can become.