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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

By Paula Laverty
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 197 pages, $44.95
The folk art of Labrador


Hooked mats known as Grenfells can be found at antiques auctions and dealers today at prices ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands. A mat may depict geese in flight, a polar bear on an ice floe, a dog team pulling a sled, or fir trees and vernacular architecture in a stark Labrador landscape. Others are designs of local flora, even semi-abstracts of fauna. In Silk Stocking Mats, Paula Laverty, guest curator of three major museum shows on this craft, presents 80 Grenfell mats in a beautiful and comprehensive book, complete with vintage photos of the people and place.

The story behind the cottage industry native to Labrador and Newfoundland and the British medical missionary who gave it his name is not widely known. At his death in 1940, Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s legacy included hospitals, clinics and hospital ships in what had been a medical no man’s land when he arrived.

Fresh out of medical school in 1888, Dr. Grenfell first participated in the Royal National Mission to the Deep Sea Fishermen, a British medical-religious project. After three years, he turned to the medical needs of the poverty-stricken population in the coastal British colony, a place he described as having “utter lack of opportunity.” In 1906, he would create the Grenfell Industrial Department to market the hooked mats that local women had long made to occupy them during the darkest months of the year. Its joint purpose: to generate revenue for the Grenfell Mission and to provide income for the mat-hookers. All along these women labored by the light of kerosene lamps; Labrador was not fully electrified until 1972.

Additional artists designed the mats, as did Dr. Grenfell’s wife, even the doctor himself. The Industrial Department distributed a bundle of material -- the stenciled “brin” backing, hooking fabric in designated colors, and directions -- to each woman, whose product had to meet a high standard to merit the Grenfell label.

In a society that recycled everything, hookers had traditionally made their mats from whatever scraps were available. Eventually, the Grenfell Industrial Department deemed silk hose the best material. “When your silk stockings run, let them run to Labrador,” the doctor urged donors in Britain, Canada and the United States. That pitch in 1928-29 reaped a nine-ton response. (Mats required, on average, 60 pairs of hose.)

The Industrial Department progressed with classic institutional ups and downs. Everything from interpersonal relations inside the organization to the tastes of the tourist trade had its effect, not to mention burdensome customs duties, the Depression and the post-World War II conversion to nylon stockings.

A prime contribution to the book -- and to history -- comes from the interviews Ms. Laverty conducted in the 1990s with women who did the work long before. Over the decades the mat-hookers’ pay had increased from $3 to $5 per mat. Work on a “scattered” mat -- one requiring multiple changes of color in many parts of the piece, and more time spent on the job -- brought an extra 50 cents. One woman remembered her work on a large (53 x 39-inch) mat: “Took me two weeks to do a Mallard duck, got $10 for it. Hard work for nothin’, but oh, I liked doin’ it.”

Little round mats, 6 to 8 inches in diameter, were distributed to hookers as practice pieces and originally sold as trivets or potholders, priced at 25 cents. A recent price on eBay for one of these “midget mats” was $175.

By the time the former British colony joined Canada in 1949, hooking had gone out of fashion. Upwardly striving families steered their daughters away from “the work of poor people.” Today, a privately owned successor, Grenfell Handicrafts, markets handmade wool mats in the original patterns.

What was a secret inside the antiques trade not so long ago has more recently garnered a following. The craft of poor women of Labrador and Newfoundland has come to be valued for its quality, artistry, history and local color. Silk Stocking Mats is a real asset for expanding public knowledge of this largely hidden art.

Susanne Washburn is a freelance writer and former TIME senior reporter.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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