#teacher | Making it in Vermont: A stranger’s Instagram post launches a Cornwall cottage industry

Amy Oxford
Amy Oxford holds one of the rug-hooking books — written and published by someone she doesn’t know — that feature the Oxford Punch Needle. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

CORNWALL – It was a Friday in 2017 when Amy Oxford, a fiber artist with deep roots in the craft world, heard from a Toronto Instagram star named Arounna Khounnoraj that she had just posted to her 200,000 followers a rug-hooking device Oxford had created several years before.

Oxford wrote back to thank Arounna, who goes by her first name, and didn’t give the matter much more thought.

“I didn’t even know what that meant,” she said. “I had an Instagram account that my daughter set up so I could see pictures of my grandchildren, but I never used it.”

By Monday, orders for Oxford’s tool, called the Oxford Punch Needle, started pouring in. And in the two years that followed, sales of the tool at her small company, based in a Cornwall farmhouse, soared from 2,000 a year to between 500 and 1,000 per week. 

Now the punch needle, an ergonomic version of a tool used since the 19th century to pull yarn through fabric, is the subject of dozens of books in several different languages. Oxford, who was already well established in the craft world as an artist and teacher, has embarked on a new career as the operator of a cottage industry with an international reach.

Oxford was a weaver and a student at Bennington College in the early 1980s when she discovered rug-hooking through the artists Cynthia and Preston McAdoo, who owned a business near the college.

“It was everything I loved about weaving — the fiber and the color and the texture — but you could make pictures,” she said. “I had always loved to draw.”

Oxford, who had been teaching weaving, went on to work for the couple, hooking rugs in her home. She later started a business, Red Clover Rugs, in Middlebury, where she made rugs on commission.

A dying art revived

Hooking rugs was “kind of a dying art at that point,” said Oxford. But while she loved the use of color and the meditative nature of the work, hooking rugs was hard on her wrists, and she developed tendonitis. That’s when she started thinking about designing a new version of the punch needle.

Amy Oxford
Amy Oxford purchased about 1,000 patterns from the former McAdoo Rugs, a Bennington company that at one point had 50 people hooking rugs at home. Oxford learned to hook rugs and to run her business with help from the family that started the company. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

VTDigger is underwritten by:

For years, Oxford told others how she would improve the shape of the tool if she could.

“I said I wished I could make my own — I’d like a bigger bump to push down on, and wood without plastic and without a seam,” she said. “I guess, being an optimist, I feel if you keep putting it out there, something will come of it.”

In 1995 one of her students, visiting from Oregon, had her husband, an inventor, help Oxford design the tool. Oxford had the handle manufactured in Maine; the metal hook was made in Oregon. For 11 years, Oxford and her husband glued the parts together at their kitchen table with a strong marine epoxy.

In the beginning, Oxford, who was teaching rug-hooking at the Fletcher Farm School for the Arts and Crafts in Ludlow, kept track of sales by hand in a ledger. The couple advertised the tool in a rug-hooking magazine, but most sales were through word of mouth.

“I knew all the punchers, and there was only one other punch needle, so it was pretty easy,” she said. “They were excited to have a better tool.”

Then Arounna’s Instagram video came out, and the orders started pouring in. The company sold out of punch needles overnight. The video got half a million views, and sales of the tool — which costs about $35 — increased 640%, hitting 1,000 a week.

People just went berserk over it,” said Oxford. “A whole new generation had never seen this. People were commenting in every language: Was ist das?”

Oxford called her daughter in tears. “I was completely freaked out,” she said. “My daughter said, ‘Mom, this is a good problem to have.’”

Oxford sent Arounna, a fiber artist, a set of eight punch needles, and a frame and yarn.

“She’s my hero,” she said.

A new chapter in a long career

With the traditional latch hook, a crochet hook with a wooden handle, the loops are pulled up on the right side of the rug. With the punch needle — invented in 1880 by a farm machine manufacturer in Toledo — the maker pushes, or punches, the wool through from the back of the rug.

“Hardly anyone knew the punch needle when I started; people said, ‘That’s not rug-hooking,’” Oxford said. “I made it my mission to give it the respectability that I thought it deserved.”

oxford punch needle
The Oxford Punch Needle. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Oxford was already a force in the craft world. She’s been on the faculty of the Fletcher Farm School since 1984 and is the former president of the Vermont Crafts Council. Her primary vocation was teaching in the U.S., Canada and England, and she had purchased her 1816 farmhouse in 2013 to use as a school. Students were coming from around the world to hook rugs with her.

“If you have anything to do with fiber, you know who she is,” said Yvonne Buus, who runs a rug-hooking design business in Nampa, Idaho and has written a punch needle book.

Now Oxford has her own punch needle teacher certification program, run from her Cornwall school, with a network of 115 instructors — one of them in Germany — who show others how to use the tool she created.

Oxford has published six books about rug-hooking and has a contract for a seventh from the publisher Schiffer. She also has a stack of rug-hooking books written by other people that feature her tool on every page.

“You can’t buy advertising like that,” she said.

Arounna, the craft influencer whose Instagram post catapulted Oxford to crafter fame, said she learned of the Oxford Punch Needle after a friend picked it up in a New York City store and gave it to her as a gift. While the tool itself isn’t new, its ergonomic nature is, said Arounna. And Oxford’s community-minded approach to craft and teaching has helped draw new users in, she said.

“She’s very interested in what other people are doing; she’s about building community and sharing her years of knowledge,” she said. The tool also appeals because it’s easy to use and hand-made, she added.

Buus said Oxford’s Instagram fame has drawn young people to her rug-hooking groups.

“I’m delighted to see that the youth are really taking a liking to this,” she said. “I mean, as far as I know, it’s always been something for us more mature ladies. I think it’s awesome.”

Sales of the punch needle have now leveled off between 1,500 and 3,000 a month, and these days Oxford focuses as much as she can on teaching. On a recent Thursday, eight students from around the country worked individually on their projects while Oxford moved from one to another, offering suggestions.

People send her photos of their hooks and their work from all over the world – particularly Turkey, which has a strong tradition of rug-making. The tool has been copied in South Korea, and she’s heard there’s a copy circulating in South America too.

yarn for sale at Oxford
Yarn for sale at Amy Oxford’s Cornwall business. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

“It’s extremely flattering,” Oxford said.

The whole operation still runs out of the home in Cornwall. A kitchen used for dying wool shares space with the room where all needles are shipped out.

After the 2017 Instagram post, Oxford and her husband went back to assembling the tools at the kitchen table, supplementing the small crew working at home. But now three home workers handle all the assembly, and the company has two part-time and two full-time staff.

Oxford said people have told her the meditative art of rug-hooking has changed their lives.

“Everyone punches together; it’s really social,” Oxford said. “One of the things I love about teaching is you can have people with completely different political views and everyone has the love of rug-hooking in common.”