Rug Hooking in Newfoundland

Two things you must know about me:

  • I was born in Newfoundland
  • I love to hook rugs

Now in general, I find that most Americans are not familiar with Newfoundland or hooked rugs, so when people learn these facts about me, they often look like, “I have no idea what this person is talking about.” So you can imagine my DELIGHT when I went to my rug hooking guild meeting this Sunday and the guest speaker was talking about rug hooking in Newfoundland.

The speaker, Betty Hill, is American. She and her daughter Sara have been to a lot more places in Newfoundland than I will probably ever see. They first went to Nova Scotia, which all rug hooking enthusiasts know is Mecca for our craft. But amazingly, they continued their journey on to Newfoundland, which is a big trip. It is such a big trip that I have yet to bring my husband or children there, and I have been with him since 1990.

Check out the rug at the top of this blog. It is a puffin and says “Trinity.” Trinity Bay is where my grandmother grew up, in a town called Dildo (yes it exists). When I saw this rug on Betty’s table, I knew her presentation was going to be magical. The puffin is the provincial bird of Newfoundland.

Betty and Sara did such a lovely job explaining Newfoundland or Newfie culture to the ladies in my guild. They are clearly in love with my province. However, I must tell you that it felt completely weird to have someone talk about my family’s culture like it was an eccentric tribe on a far away island. She described mummering (like Halloween on New Year’s Eve), ugli sticks (a musical instrument made from a broom, a boot and beer caps) and tried to describe a typical Newfie sense of humor.

Is it my personality, or something I was taught?

She described how Newfies approach rug hooking. She noted that Newfies do not like to follow patterns – they like to draw up their own rugs. I find many women in my guild prefer to buy patterns. I must admit, I have been quite snobbish about this. I always draw my patterns but I thought it was my own stubborn nature, not because I was a Newfie!

She noted that Newfies “will hook with anything” including t-shirts, silk stockings and – gasp – burlap. The people in my guild think burlap is a very low-grade thing to hook with. Honestly, I didn’t realize you could hook on something else until I started reading books about hooking and meeting other rug hooking folks.

When she said all this, I started to realize that things I thought were “Carla Brown personality” might actually be cultural, even though I didn’t grow up in Newfoundland. I only lived there until I was a toddler then moved to various provinces across Canada. And while my great-grandmother hooked rugs, I only visited her infrequently as a child, and she never showed me anything about hooking. My mother, sister and I hooked one rug when I was a kid, on a whim, but we actually had no idea what we were doing.

So how did these distinctive Newfie hooking traits come to me? It’s an interesting thing for me to ponder further.

Grenfell Rugs

Another part of the presentation that I loved was about the Grenfell rugs.

From 1892-1940, a Dr. Grenfell traveled providing medical attention to folks in remote villages (called outports). He came up with the idea of bringing in donated silk stockings to Newfoundland women so they could hook rugs and supplement their income, which was basically poverty. Women from across North America and Europe mailed silk stockings to the cause. The slogan was, “When your silk stockings run, let them run to Newfoundland.” They devised kits and standards, including a distinctive 100% horizontal hooking style. There is actually a stained glass window at the National Cathedral in Washington DC with a portrait of Dr. Grenfell because his mission was so well known. I must go see it!

Our Newfoundland Rug

Anyhow, I started wondering if the rug that my mother-in-law Marilyn gave us was a Grenfell, because it does have horizontal hooking. She gave us a letter from the rug hooking artist as well. The rug is 70 x 50 cm.


Newfoundland Hooked Rug

Our Newfoundland Hooked Rug – the letter has a woman’s name – Loretta Smith, but I’m not sure if she made it

I have loved this rug since the day I saw it. I was a teenager. Bob and I were just friends. I went to visit his house. When I walked into his kitchen, it was the first thing I saw. I immediately freaked out because it was a hooked rug and it reminded me of my great-grandmother’s kitchen. At least that’s how I remembered it, but I have since looked at photos, and in fact everything in her kitchen was white. It was the dining room and other rooms that had lovely colors like the ones in this rug. Bob’s mother obviously remembered my reaction because a few years ago, she gave it to us and now it hangs in our kitchen.

Here is the letter that she gave me only recently, from the Placentia West Development Association:


Placentia West Development Association - letter from rug hooking group

Placentia West Development Association letter from rug hooking group – I wish it had a date on it!!


Rug Hooking Guild of Newfoundland and Labrador

Betty was selling a book made by the rug hooking guild in Newfoundland. It has photographs of historical rugs and of course I bought it. The funds will go back to the guild. It’s called Hooked Mats of Newfoundland and Labrador: Beauty Born of Necessity.

If anyone is wondering what to buy me in future, there is another book about the history of Newfoundland rug hooking called Silk Stocking Mats: Hooked Mats of the Grenfell Mission, available for $40 Canadian or $50 American – the first book I ever saw that cost less in Canada!

Thank you Betty and Sara Hill!

I loved their presentation so much, and it gave me a whole bunch of ideas for rugs I want to make. Plus it made me think about how much of Trashmagination is because I am a Newfie, at least in my genes, if not in my daily life.

Update – February 17, 2013

Also – check out my new blog about my family’s comic book, with a page dedicated to the care of hooked mats (hooked rugs).

9 thoughts on “Rug Hooking in Newfoundland

  1. Gloria Brown on

    Carla, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog! I am still smiling… This is an exerpt from my Andrew and Violet book, the section about your great grandmother’s making mats. :o)

    Violet also hooked rugs. In Newfoundland, it was called making mats and it was winter work. Grandson, Claude, says she often came for Sunday supper after Andrew died and Nan and his mother, Emily, chose this time to hook, working on the same mat. They sat across from each other, working on a frame made by Andrew which was balanced on the backs of chairs. It was four feet wide with evenly spaced drilled holes along the opposite ends. Andrew made their hooks from scissors. Mats were hooked into brin, burlap from vegetable and feed bags. The design was drawn with charcoal. The most common was a series of squares or diamonds, filled in with rows of many colors, dominated by shades of green and red. These striped blocks were called Hit and Miss, squares with horizontal lines alternated with squares with vertical lines, like the Rail Fence quilt pattern. Occasionally, they did a floral pattern. Nan used long cotton beige stockings for the framing. When the heels and toes wore out, they were stripped for hooking.
    Every spring or early summer the mats were washed. Alma was usually given this difficult job and she re-lives the cleaning process. Andrew’s store had several steps to its door. The rugs were laid on the upper steps so she could kneel on the lower step and scrub them with a brush and soapy water. They were loaded in the wheelbarrow and pushed down to the ocean, the heavy load often resulting in tipping. Alma stood on them in the water or secured them with heavy beach rocks and swept with a broom to remove the soap. The salt water cleaned but it also shortened the life of the mats. They were put on the beach rock to drain about 30 minutes because they were so heavy. Sometimes, Gerald helped Alma lift them onto the fishing flakes for further draining. They were then wheel barrowed back up the lane to Violet who hung them on the fence. They took days to dry.

    • Carla Brown on

      Thanks Mom for pasting in the excerpt from your book about the rugs. I was going to do a separate blog about that, but this works too! I will still do that blog soon, with a scan of your cartoon about the rugs – :).

    • Carla Brown on

      Hey Mom – now I know how you feel. I asked Nora to read this blog, and she proceeded to read like 2-3 paragraphs and then skimmed the rest. And when I asked her did she read it all? She said “Yes except the boring parts.” So just for the record, I want you to know that I appreciate all the work you did making the Andrew and Violet book! At the presentation, the Hills said Newfies rarely cleaned their mats and just tossed them when they wore out – which is probably true to a certain extent, but I wanted to tell the Alma story. However, it was a long presentation so we ran out of time.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog about the Hill’s presentation and I thank Betty for sending me the link. I would like to correct a couple of things which you mention – Sir Wilfred Grenfell was actually British, his wife was an American. Also, Grenfell mats were hooked in many different sizes. Grenfell Handicrafts ( of St. Anthony still have local producers hooking mats which are available through their website for sale. The mat which you show is definitely a Placentia Bay West mat and would have been made in Placentia Bay which is on the south coast of the island (rather than the Northern Peninsula/Labrador where most of the Grenfell mats were made). That group are still producing pieces to sell although I believe the number of producers which they have has declined in recent years. I would highly recommend Paula Laverty’s book about the Grenfell mats – it is excellent! Happy hooking, Joan Foster

    • Carla Brown on

      Dear Joan – It is an honor to have your comment on this blog and thank you for the fixes – I will make the corrections about Dr. Grenfell’s nationality and that the rugs were in many sizes. I appreciate your time and wish you the best with all your amazing efforts to document and rejuvenate hooking culture in Newfoundland. All the best – Carla

  3. Dorothy Lockard on

    Just happened onto this blog and string of comments. Wow, what a lovely discussion. I want to share it with my dear rug hooking friend, Jan, and her fellow hookers here in St. Louis, MO. The reason I was searching the web was I was looking for the name of the lady rug hooker, who is the head of the St. Anthony, NL group. I bought her piece at the Grenfell Suites gift shop and was given a slip of paper with her name, which I can not find now. The piece, a dog sled at night with the Northern lights in the background, was done in the traditional straight across hooking, and is now a treasured pillow, a memento of our trip last year at this time (Aug 29-Sep 4, 2012). Jan and her husband Paul, my husband and I had a wonderful time in Newfoundland and the other provinces we visited, loved the people, the hospitality and warmth. We went on to visit NS and Cape Breton Island, NB, PEI, Campobello, Alma and Quebec City, QC, leaving for home Sep 27. (BTW my husband’s great-grandfather was one of the Birmingham England boys shipped to Canada, he and his brother were adopted by a kind hearted farmer, and we carry that last name now, Lockard).

    • Carla Brown on

      Dear Dorothy – Thank you for your comment! I’m so glad you had a great visit to Canada. I hear that from so many folks and it makes me proud to say I am from there. I do not have contacts with rug hookers in Newfoundland, but I can forward your note to a woman in my guild who does. I wonder if contacting the person at this website might help – Good luck! And thanks for sharing your story about your great-grandfather too. I’m relieved he was adopted by a kind-hearted farmer as there are many sad stories about that time, and that is great he could stay with his brother. All the best to you! Carla

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