Amy Oxford threads all her punches before sending them out to be sure there are no snags or imperfections in the needles.

All photos courtesy of Amy Oxford

Amy Oxford has been a professional rug maker for more than three decades, selling her rugs by commission and in galleries, operating a mail order business for rug making supplies, creating kits and patterns, and teaching. Needless to say, she has used a lot of rug punches.

She always dreamed of a better tool, one that was sleek and beautiful, strong enough for continuous punching through rug backing, and easy on her hands. In 1995 her dream came true. She created her own tool, the Oxford Punch Needle, and happy hookers are thanking her.

“When you make rugs using a punch every day for eight or more hours a day you have a lot of time to daydream,” Oxford says. “Though I liked the punch I was using, I couldn’t help scheming about how to make one that was more comfortable and easier to use. After years of making rugs professionally, I knew what I wanted in a tool.”

She was confident that if she liked the tool, and other professionals liked it, “it would do well. It was a leap of faith based on knowing my market and seeing a need.” But she had no idea how to produce such a punch.

Enter a fellow rug maker whose engineer husband likes to help fledgling entrepreneurs create products. Within a week after chatting, the man (whom she prefers not to name), created three prototype handles. Oxford made some suggestions, he came up with two more prototypes, and she and some fellow rug makers put them to the test.

This stair runner, commissioned by a New York family, is 24 feet long, covers 16 steps, and is made of wool rug yarn on cotton monk’s cloth.  Created by Amy Oxford in 1995, the history of the family is told in each tread.

“Holding the prototype in my hand was a dream come true,” Oxford recalls. “I was giddy with excitement. I knew what I wanted and the engineer completely understood. He also had a lot of experience and knew how to get things done.”

It took about five months to go from prototype to manufacturing. Oxford financed her business by using 18-month zero percent interest credit cards. “At 17.5 months I’d roll them over into a new 18-month card. By scrimping, I was able to pay them all off.”

The Oxford Punch Needle is designed to be comfortable and sleek.

There were, of course, bumps along the way. The initial order of 2,000 handles was made to the wrong specifications and had to be returned. It took several months to get a new batch and Oxford, who lives and works in Vermont, sought a new supplier.

The tools are made in two parts – the wooden handles are now hand tooled in Maine, the metal needles are made in Oregon, and are hand assembled, sometimes on Oxford’s kitchen table. The punches, she notes, look simple, but “there’s more to making them than meets the eye,” she says. “We take pride in our tools. The handles have to be turned just right, then we sand them, glue the handle and needle together, and do several other secret things to make them work like magic. Finally, we thread each one to make sure the yarn flows smoothly and if it doesn’t, then more sanding. Each one is made by hand with care.” And they come with a lifetime guarantee. “We return everything, no questions asked.”

Her business chugged along quite nicely, growing slowly and steadily. Then textile artist Arounna Khounnoraj, co-founder of Bookhou studio in Toronto, became a fan. “I like that her tool is ergonomic and that it’s quick and easy to thread,” says Khounnoraj. “Also, you can use both yarn and cut wool strips in the needles.”

When Khounnoraj posted an Instagram video demonstrating a project using an Oxford Punch Needle, things exploded. The video went viral and Oxford began getting orders from all over the world.

“Sales were up 644%. This was thrilling and incredibly exciting. We sold out instantly. We made thousands more and sold out in 48 hours. Did the same and sold out a third time in 24 hours. I was in shock. I knew I was supposed to be happy but honestly, it was terrifying. Overwhelming is an understatement… We didn’t see this coming. When our punch went viral I promised myself that no matter how many orders we got, I wouldn’t skimp on quality to create more quantity.”

Oxford, her husband, and her company manager, Heidi Whipple, worked overtime to get the punches put together. “Still, we couldn’t keep up.” She hired three assemblers and realized she needed someone with production experience to help manage the influx of orders. (She figures she has sold more than 39,000 punch needles since she started.) “I wanted someone who knew things I didn’t know. I’m a rug maker and teacher, not a manufacturer. I definitely felt out of my league.

“Now we have inventory on Excel spread sheets, and flow charts predicting when to order (parts). We’ve been working closely with our suppliers, who have been tremendous. When my handle maker said, ‘We’re going to make sure you never run out again,’ I practically started crying.” With that worry alleviated, Oxford concentrated on another dream: a rug making school.

Amy Oxford holds bags of her Oxford Punch Needles.
At right: One of Amy Oxford’s instructional punch needle books.
Amy Oxford’s Tree of Life rug was commissioned by a Vermont family. Made of wool rug yarn on monk cloth backing, it measures 8.5 x 11 feet and was made in 1994.

“I travelled to teach for 27 years and swore that when I got older I’d start my own rug school. Six years ago I started feeling older. The Oxford Rug Hooking School is (another) dream come true.” She took out a mortgage and a small business loan and bought an 1816 Colonial farmhouse in Vermont’s bucolic Champlain Valley, where she offers classes, retreats, and a teacher certification program. “It’s an oasis of fiber, color, and creativity. My friends were talking about retirement but I was starting a whole new chapter in my 50s.”

The school also houses her collection of 2,000 rug patterns from the now defunct McAdoo Rugs, where Oxford first learned rug making. “Their rugs were works of art, made to last for generations. These are historic patterns.”

She also bought the Violet Jane Yarn Company when owner Sara Burghoff retired, and now uses Burghoff’s formulas to die her own yarn. “Her colors are fantastic,” Oxford explains. “I’m thrilled to offer this yarn to my students and customers. We dye it right at the school and teach students how to dye using her methods.”

Oxford says she never had a master business plan, but merely “saw cool opportunities and made mini-plans as I’ve gone along. The plan keeps evolving.” The initial plan was to start Red Clover Rugs (her original business), teach, sell rugs, kits, yarn, patterns, and supplies. But opportunities kept coming. “Because no-one knew how to punch, I had to teach. There was no how-to book so I wrote one. No one was teaching teachers so I started a certification program. There was no school dedicated solely to the art so why not start one? Incredible McAdoo patterns became available (at an auction) so I bid on them. The videos on YouTube were scarce and full of misinformation so I made some.”

A rug for Chiara Rose, created in 2010 by Amy Oxford, measures 24 x 36 inches and is made of worsted weight wool knitting yarn.

The reward, she says, “is knowing my craft is thriving and is being loved by a new wave of makers. When you create, the worries of the world can fall away.”

Learn more about Oxford and her work at www.amyoxford.com.

Building a Business, One Rug Loop at a Time: Profile of Amy Oxford
Roberta G. Wax

Roberta G. Wax

contributor

Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader.   www.creativeunblock.com

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