STORY & PHOTOS By GAYLE WILSON
With an extensive career in the fashion industry in the U.K. that had her involved with merchandising textiles internationally, it seems logical that Jane Steele would weave a business out of rug hooking when she and her family settled in Nova Scotia seven years ago.
But the success of her River House Rug Hooking shop in Petite Rivière seems driven as much by Steele's artistic passion and craftsmanship as anything else.
"I don't sleep at night because my brain doesn't stop. [Rug hooking designs] are just whizzing around in my head all the time," Steele told LighthouseNOW in an interview.
"I think it's because I spent the whole of my career working in fashion, working in London, being exposed to all the art galleries and everything that was going on there."
Not that the spry and effervescent Steele has any regrets about the decision that led her, her partner, and her two children to move to rural Nova Scotia in February, 2010.
And she has no regrets setting up River House Rug Hooking on the banks of Petite Rivière, which retails supplies for the craft, as well as provides commission design and rug hooking.
Despite initial challenges in establishing a new business in a new country, she says, "It all worked out and it's been brilliant."
After studying textiles, business and French, Steele landed her first job working for a big textile company in France that employed 25,000 people.
But the warning signs for the industry were already there.
"They made 14,000 redundant. So the textile industry wasn't in a good shape."
Nonetheless, she went on to work at the London offices of a number of other companies, including a Portuguese firm for about 20 years.
"I was working with designers, technologists, merchandisers. I was selling to all the U.K. major brands, including Marks and Spencer."
Once based in England and Scotland, the garment manufacturing industry started moving oversees, and stores began selling more and more what Steele calls "throw-away clothing.
"It's very, very cheap and you wear it a few times and you chuck it. It's terrible."
Increasingly disillusioned, she and her partner were inspired to visit this province after reading an article about Lunenburg they spotted in a British newspaper in 2008.
"No one we knew had been to Nova Scotia, and we just wanted to do something different," she recalled to LighthouseNOW.
While she enjoyed working in the fashion industry, she recognized it was changing and time was ticking on.
"So when we came here on holiday, I thought I've got to change my life."
Travelling throughout the South Shore, "it just felt like home," says Steele. "We just thought it was absolutely wonderful."
She admits she never really knew about rug hooking until she came to Canada on holiday and was introduced to the craft by Marie Elwood, chief curator of the Nova Scotia Museum's history division.
"It's just bizarre, because I did my textile degree in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, which is the centre of the wool industry. And everybody knows about Victorian rag rugs and all that stuff. I had never heard of rug hooking in England."
But Steele says she soon was "hooked" on the craft, and she had no doubt she could excel at it.
"I thought, having worked all my life in textiles, I should be able to do this.
"I have an understanding of textiles, textiles' properties. I know how they behave so I know what I can do. and what I can't do," she says. "I know just by looking at [textiles] and feeling them how they're going to behave and if they're going to be suitable for hooking or not."
It would take the family nearly two years to clear immigration hurdles and for Steele to establish the rug hooking business in the former Guy Frenchy's store.
Start-up was a challenge, she admits. "It's not the same as starting a business in England. Everything is slightly different."
Part of the problem was determining the rules, and receiving conflicting explanations from accountants and the Canadian Revenue Authority.
After undertaking renovations to the property and arranging a stream of suppliers, River House Rug Hooking opened for business in 2012.
Crafters can find woven wool, yarns, silks and linen, as well as patterns and hardware. There are hooked rugs, cushions and other artwork. Steele will also provide pattern designs and rug hooking service on commission.
As well, she offers lessons and the shop regularly hosts exhibitions.
Aware that there are two rug hooking stores in Mahone Bay, Steele says she's careful not to "tread on anyone's toes."
Depending on what customers may be looking for in a pattern design, for example, she may refer them to the other venues.
"We all have our strong points," she notes.
As for her own shop,"I make a conscious effort to be different anyway," says Steele. "I don't look at anybody else's work. I don't want to be influenced by anybody else. I just want to do my own thing."
She reports customers say her designs are particularly unique.
"And you would expect that because my background is totally different."
Having honed her craft, "I push boundaries all the time."
As well as the textile industry connection, she says her mother was an artist and she herself has been drawing and sewing since the age of six.
"I've got a very creative imagination," says Steele, who draws her rug hooking patterns directly onto the linen.
Working on her designs is a big motivator for her in the business, says Steele.
"That's what I love the most."