How the Oxford Punch Needle Came About
By Amy Oxford
I’ve been making hooked rugs with punch needles since 1982. As a professional hooked rug maker, I would regularly hook for 8 hours or more each day. So… it was important to me to have a tool that could keep up with my enthusiasm and allow me to complete my custom rug orders without wearing out my hands, wrists and elbows. I invented the Oxford Punch Needle in 1995 because I wanted a punch needle that was comfortable in my hand, and easy to use.
After 13 years of making hooked rugs, I knew exactly what I wanted in a punch needle. The main ingredient had to be a comfortable handle, along with the best possible quality metal needle. I wanted a needle that would zip through the backing smoothly, with as little effort as possible.
I worked with engineer Greg Fremstad to create my dream tool. Unlike other punch needles, which were shaped more like pencils and required a white knuckle grip while punching, I wanted a big shapely handle that allowed me to keep my hand more relaxed. Making punch needle rugs requires repetitive motion, and lots of it! Pencil shaped handles use the same set of hand muscles to punch the needle down and to pull it up again. We designed a tool that has a large “shelf” to rest your hand on while pushing down. It also has a “bump” in the middle of the handle so that when you pull the needle up, you have something to pull up against. This “shelf” and “bump” allow you to use two different sets of hand motions, one to push down, and another to pull up, reducing the strain to hands and wrists.
We started with several different shaped handle prototypes, and asked dozens of experienced rug punchers to test-drive them and to vote for their favorite one. Quite accidentally, several of our handle options resembled chess pieces. The winning handle that we use today was the one that someone dubbed “The Queen.”
Next we added an electropolished stainless steel needle, shaped to glide through the rug backing with ease. No more wrenching or twisting to force the needle through – just a smooth easy motion. What a relief to this rug maker’s tired hands!
The metal needles are made for us in Oregon and the maple handles are hand turned on a lathe for us by a company in Maine. After assembling all of the tools on the kitchen table for eleven years, we are now very pleased to have hired our neighbor, Heidi Whipple, to put them together for us. We especially like her because she is just as fussy about them as we are! She even threads every punch needle to make sure it works properly.
When we first came out with the Oxford Punch Needle in 1995 we only sold two sizes: #8s and #9’s with regular points. I made all of my own rugs with a #9 (3/8” loops) using bulky weight rug yarns - thus the size #9. McAdoo Rugs of North Bennington, Vermont was our best customer and they only used #8’s (1/2” loops) because they liked their rugs to be a little bit thicker than mine – thus the size #8.
I had always admired the look of traditional hooked rugs made with strips of wool fabric. (In the rug world, the word “traditional” is used to describe rugs made with a rug hook, which is a crochet-like hook in a wooden handle.) But, when I tried to get the same look by using strips in the punch needle, the results were terrible! The loops were too tall and sloppy but I didn’t know what to do about it! Then I went on a rug hooking retreat in Maine with seven friends who all made traditionally hooked rugs. “The secret is,” they told me, “The width of your strip has to equal the height of your loop.” I should have known there was a secret! I was thrilled with the simplicity of this new knowledge. My solution was so easy! My friends used ¼” wide strips so their loops needed to be ¼” tall. Eureka! All I needed was a punch needle that made ¼” loops – thus the size #10 was born. Sitting by the ocean in Maine I punched my first strips with my #10. I made a small star mat and my friends were as excited as I was! “Oh my gosh, it looks exactly like ours, we can’t even tell the difference!” I was over the moon and they were excited too.
This piece was made using ¼” strips in the #10 regular Oxford Punch Needle
For the last twenty years, I’ve been making punched rugs, coasters, ornaments and other accessories using a “sawed off” Craftsman’s Punch Needle. This is another rug tool that I mutilated with a hacksaw to create a very short 1/8” pile. (My apologies to the manufacturers…) I loved the look I got with my improvised tool! It was short and tidy and looked a little bit like needlepoint. I could punch in straight rows and get an effect similar to tapestry weaving. I kept trying to tell everyone how pretty I thought this delicate work was. I offered classes in the technique but no one came. “The loops are so small,” they said in disdain and disbelief! In the late 1990s, Russian miniature punch needle embroidery came into vogue. Called Igolochkoy, this technique uses a tiny punch needle and one or two strands of embroidery floss. Igolochkoy (often called “miniature rug hooking”) helped to make “punch needle” more of a household word with crafters. Suddenly, my lowly “hacked off” punch needle made sense to people and my 1/8” loops, which once looked miniscule, were now gigantic compared to Igolochkoy. Everyone wanted me to saw off their Craftsman’s Punch Needles! After I had once begged them to come to my class, they started begging me to make a smaller punch. After the 50th person asked, I went into production in 2006. The tool uses the same comfortable handle as our regular punch needle, but the metal needle is much skinnier and shorter.
The new tool needed a name. In my house we called it “The Mini,” but thought it should be called something a little bit more dignified. My mother, who I always turn to for advice, didn’t like this nickname because she thought it sounded too much like a certain famous mouse. She’s right of course but “The Mini” stuck and we never came up with a better name.
I often felt frustrated with the lack of fine detail I could achieve with bulky weight yarn in my regular punch needles. I wanted to be able to use skinnier yarns! I also wanted to be able to use thick yarns and thin yarns in the same rug. Thick yarns are great for backgrounds, but I also wanted to be able to use finer yarns to punch delicate features like eyelashes and the outlines of hands. My current hands looked like everyone was wearing gloves that were three sizes too big… even worse, their eyelashes looked like their wand had taken a quadruple dip into the mascara! Now that I had 1000 skinny needles on hand for making “The Mini,” I decided to also make three sizes of fine point punch needles as well. I made them in the same sizes as our regular point punch needles (#8, #9, and #10). Now I have the luxury of combining thick and thin yarns in the same rug - using my regular needles for fat yarns, and my fine needles for thinner yarns.
This year, by popular demand, I’ve added a new needle to the family. One of my friends, Louise Kulp, who is an ace rug puncher and Oxford Certified Instructor, was making a punched sign using ‘The Mini.” She wanted something that would make her letters just a little bit taller so they would stand out clearly and be easier to read. So, I created the #13 for her. Because this new tool is just a bit taller than “The Mini,” I call it “The Mini with heels!” The slightly higher loop looks really pretty with “The Mini” and is a nice addition not only for lettering, but for outlines and borders as well. This new size has turned out to be a big hit.
My greatest reward for designing my tools has been the unexpected letters of thanks that I receive from customers. Many arthritis sufferers have written to say that they thought they would never be able to rug hook again, but that our punch has allowed them to continue with the craft they love! We have also heard from patients recovering from strokes and other ailments who are especially pleased with the Oxford Punch Needle because unlike other punches, it can be threaded with one hand.
I hoped that people would love the new punch, but never expected that my small company would grow in such a big way. Who knew? As my mother said several years ago, “Doesn’t everyone who wants an Oxford Punch Needle already have one by now?” My punch needles lead much more exciting lives than I do. I wish I could travel to all the places they’ve been and see all the beautiful rugs that they’ve made. If only they could send me postcards… In addition to getting to punch in exotic places all over the world, our tools are used by professional rug makers, schools of all kinds, in classes on deluxe cruise ships, in hospitals, and even in prisons (but that’s a whole ’nother story…)
So… that’s as far as I’ve gotten with punch needles to date. A man in one of my classes wanted me to weld three punch needles together so he could punch three rows at a time. Like a panpipe for punching! I still haven’t figured that one out yet… This is probably much more than you ever wanted to know about my punch needles, but if you have suffered through thus far, you will be one of the few who knows that “The Mini” is really “The Mouse,” and that the hacksaw is the mother of invention.