Cornwall rug-hooking maven’s invention goes viral after 23 years

CORNWALL — Amy Oxford thought rug hooking was a dying art. She has been making punch-needle-style rugs since 1982, and teaching the craft almost as long. In the mid-’80s, there was only one shop in the country that specialized in punch-needle supplies. So she opened her own shop and mail-order business — from her Cornwall home — to meet her students’ needs.
In 1995 she invented the Oxford Punch Needle, an ergonomic rug-hooking tool. The same year she formed the Oxford Company, which now encompasses her needle business, a rug-hooking school and a hand-dyed wool business. Business moved along at a reasonable pace.
But recently, something big happened: Oxford and her needle started trending on Instagram.
Oxford says it’s easy to remember the day she went viral because it was the same day her granddaughter was born: June 16, 2017. She received an email from a woman named Arounna Khounnoraj, who owns a handmade home goods and clothing studio in Toronto called Bookhou.
Khounnoraj, a rug hooker herself, had been given an Oxford Punch Needle and instantly fell in love with it. She posted a video of herself using the needle on her Instagram account. The video drew such a huge, positive response that she reached out to Oxford to see if they could form a partnership.
“I didn’t even really know what that meant,” says Oxford, who admits she barely used Instagram before this.
The deal that Khounnoraj proposed was simple: Every time Khounnoraj posted something about the punch needle on social media, she would tag Oxford. In exchange, Oxford would give Khounnoraj a complete set of punch needles.
“There was so much excitement that day that I didn’t have a chance to think about it,” recalls Oxford. She said yes, of course. “That was on a Friday, and on Monday, when I came to work, my employee, Heidi, said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on but we have orders from all over the world.’”
Khounnoraj, Oxford quickly learned, has a huge online influence: More than 150,000 people follow her on Instagram. Instantly, all those people knew exactly where to get the punch needle that they’d seen in their feeds. The punch needles sold out overnight.
Oxford’s little business needed to expand — and quickly. Before Instagram, the Oxford Company was selling 2,000 punch needles a year. In not time it was selling about 1,000 a week. “Sales are up 644 percent,” says Oxford, with a little disbelieving laugh.
“It was so stressful in the beginning,” she says. “I called my daughter in tears, saying ‘What are we going to do?! We sold out!’” Her daughter talked her down, reminding her mom that this was a good problem to have.
Oxford had been assembling all the needles by hand, so she needed help immediately. She hired three new people to help make them and another employee to help the team get organized. “We knew there were a lot of things we didn’t even know we didn’t know,” she admits.
What makes the Oxford Punch Needle different from traditional punch needles? It’s the shape, she explains. While traditional needles are straight, like a pencil, the Oxford needle is curved in two places. This gives rug hookers something to push down on and pull up against, creating two distinct motions, instead of just one.
Oxford invented it to solve a problem. She was doing a lot of rug commissions at the time, often punching up to 10 hours a day. When she got carpal tunnel and tendonitis, she decided to create her own ergonomic needle.
THE CURVES OF the Oxford Punch Needle give rug hookers something to push down on and pull up against — a distinct advantage over traditional needles.
Independent photo/Megan James
Sales of that needle are still doing well, thanks in large part to Instagram. Search the hashtag #oxfordpunchneedle and you’ll find pictures and videos of thousands of rug-hooking projects in progress all over the world.
Oxford loves checking in with the hashtag to see what folks are making. But it took some time for her to get on board with what many of these younger rug hookers were doing with the traditional craft.
“At first it was kind of hard to watch,” recalls Oxford, who couldn’t help but notice when their stitches were too big, or they were punching backwards. “But after a while I was like, ‘Get over yourself! This is tremendous. They’re having fun, which is what it should be all about. It’s thrilling.”
They’re using bright colors and modern designs. “They’re inventing all these great techniques: adding fringe and using the back for the front,” Oxford enthuses. They’re making three-dimensional objects and toys and portraits and handbags. One person posted on Khounnoraj’s Instagram, “Arounna, you’ve made punch needle cool.”
“And that’s what it is,” Oxford says. “It took someone like her — she’s got 150,000 followers and she does beautiful work — and people saw it with whole new eyes.”
Click here to watch our video about Oxford’s rise to Instagram fame.

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