On March 6, 2010, Paula Laverty
gave a program at The Textile Museum, here in Washington, D.C. on “Silk Stocking Mats: Hooked Mats of the Grenfell Mission.”
Grenfell hooked rugs,
as many of you will know, were made in Newfoundland and Labrador in the early – mid 20th century, and are considered by hooked rug collectors to be extremely desirable, as in …bring your money… if you want one now.
Paula is the foremost authority on Grenfells,
having studied them assiduously for over 20 years. She has traveled to the areas where they were made, visited the sites (0ften depicted on the rugs themselves), and has talked to a great number of the women who “hooked” them. Paula has captured her research in a book with the same title as the one given above for her TM session.
Paula spoke fluently, without notes, to a series of projected images and I won’t attempt to replicate that.
Instead, in this virtual version, I will provide some glimpses of her talk that particularly struck me, as someone who knows just enough about Grenfells to be dangerous (mostly to myself), but who admires them more than a little (I don’t own one and likely couldn’t afford to do so).
Paula has read, and at least acquiesced to what follows, but she should be assigned no responsibility for it.
Grenfell, Paula said, was an English gentleman who, apparently inspired by D. L. Moody, an American evangelist, set out with his fresh medical degree to “do what Christ would” in needy areas of the world.
To this end, he initially served as a kind of roving sea doctor, sailing between ships in the North Atlantic, providing medical care and holding prayer meetings. Someone suggested to him that folks in Labrador badly needed medical assistance and he undertook to provide it. But, when he arrived, he saw that there was also deep and widespread need for ways of improving the general economic situation of the people in this beautiful, but also, raw, desolate place, and he took that on, too.
Grenfell, with the help of American occupational therapist, Jessie Luther, established what what became known as the Grenfell “Industrial,” an organization that either provided or utilized craft skills and local energies to produce a variety of craft products marketed in Canada, the U.S. and England. Grenfell hooked rugs became perhaps the most famous of these products and it the only one treated in Paula’s book and in this TM “rug morning” program.
Grenfell hired supervisors for this Industrial effort; mostly women, skilled in crafts or sometimes in the arts.
Jessie Luther, the first supervisor, attempted to start a weaving business.
This was difficult because houses were small and there was no room in them for looms. So looms (which had to be imported) were set up in work buildings to which weavers had to travel, difficult because of the distance, climate, and mode of travel – in winter by dog team and in the summer by small open boats. Sheep, a ready wool source, were impossible to keep because of the voracious appetites of the husky dogs, so wool, too, had to be imported.
Eventually, the weaving business was a success. (Although completely separate from the Industrial’s weaving business, Grenfell, himself, takes credit for the first wind-proof, water-proof cloth which was produced to his specifications in England and called “Grenfell cloth”. This before the “Gore-tex” era.)
There was, already, an established hooking tradition in the north, and lots of skilled “hookers” about. Women hooked mats from fabric scraps and worn out clothing using old burlap bags as a base. Local designs were called “scrap mats”. When they could afford the luxury, hookers also sent away for designs that came “stamped” onto a burlap (called “brin” locally).
But to the decision makers in the Grenfell Industrial these local mats and this local resource were not attractive (for one thing the locals used undisciplined designs and bright colors that the Grenfell supervisors found unattractive).
The hooked mats ultimately attracted “Industrial” attention (women sometimes offered them to Grenfell to pay for his medical services). When it did, the Industrial supervisors moved to make sure that the “hooking” was done in a way that met their own standards.
Hooking was easy in the home. The only equipment needed was a frame and the small hook
Note: Marla Mallett suggests that unlike tufting, which is done from the back and requires a frame, hooking is worked from the front and can be done without one. So, technically, hooking could be done in one’s lap, requiring even less space. Nevertheless, the descriptions of Grenfell hooking in Paula’s book seem invariably to refer to the use of a frame.
So a Grenfell hooking project was mounted, but not on an indigenous basis. The “Industrial” supervisors oversaw:
1) what the designs should be
2) what materials should be used
3) what colors should be employed (nicely coordinated pastels; bright colors were seen as garish)
5) what the quality of finished products should be
and by application of this latter standard,
6) which hookers would be given work in the form of materials “kits” and instructions.
All this is by way of saying that, although there was a strong, deep, ingrained, hooking tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador, outside influence came into play when it came to what “Grenfell” hooked mats were deemed saleable. Everything (although, crafts people everywhere are capable of modest rebellion) was dictated externally. However, the style of hooking, the tight, horizontal method, was the established hooking style and this was not dictated by the Mission workers.
Interestingly, one of the Industrial requirements for hookers was that you had to be 16 years old to “have your own card” (that is, be eligible for hooking assignments) may have worked, effectively, to reduce the temptation of families to indulge in child labor, something that would be real in a general environment of serious poverty (although it has been shown that hookers cannot accurately identify even their own work).
Dr. Grenfell approved of a hooked mat project within the “Industrial” as early as 1909, and in 1912 took control of it and put his wife in charge, resulting in the resignation three years later, of Jessie Luther whom he had hired as its supervisor and who had set in place many of the standards and practices that produced a high quality product.
Hookers hooked into every hole in the brin, maintaining an even texture of the loops on the surface, and keeping the mat being hooked “square” on the frame, while it was being worked, so that it wasn’t “squish” when taken off.
One of the unique features of Grenfell mats is that many are made silk stockings and other silk lingerie items.
The hooking was done on a kind of burlap (locally called “brin”). This material was donated/purchased.
The hooking materials given out in the early Grenfell materials packages were new cottons of various sorts. Some of the floral designs of the 1920s were hooked using cotton, wool, brin and silk. The move to silk and rayon as the predominant Grenfell hooking materials was made by M.A. Pressely-Smith in the later 1920s. Silk had been used in small amounts before, but now it became a clear emphasis in the requests Grenfell made for materials.
And as “literally tons” of old silk stockings (one year ten tons were donated to the effort from the US, Canada and Great Britain) flowed into the Grenfell hooking project, it became clear that “mats from silk stockings were the Industrial’s most important product. From this point onward they became the focus of the Industrial’s mat-making efforts.”
Early on, natural dyes were used to some extent, but most Grenfell materials were dyed with synthetic dyes.
In fact, dyes were one of the items requested as donations by the Industrial.
Hookers given work by the Industrial were provided with a package that included the brin backing, the already dyed hooking materials to be used, the design to be used and an indication of the colors to be employed in particular areas of the design.
Formats included seat covers, floor mats, picture mats, nursery mats, place mats, coasters, pot holders, purses and book covers. (In 2009, at a high end antique show here in DC, I saw two very large hooked rugs (both about 6′ X 9′) claimed to be Grenfells, and to my inexperienced eye they could well have been that.)
Jessie Luther fashioned the early Grenfell designs.
They tended to be local animals arranged as borders around an open field. Few, if any, of these early Grenfells survive.
Dr. Grenfell, himself, created some designs for the hooked mats. They were of people and animals and naturalistic scenes of Newfoundland and Labrador life. (His wife thought they were better than Jessie’s.)
Some of the subsequent Grefell Industrial supervisors were artists and they produced designs more driven by aesthetic objectives.
Here, for example, is a Grenfell from the 1930s, the design of which is based on a real plant, the “twinflower,” but which has been pressed toward abstraction.
My own favorite of these abstracted Grenfell mat designs is of codfish filets drying.
Here are some additional examples that suggest something of the range of images that were produced by Grenfell mat hookers.
Curvilinear designs that feature floral elements were made.
So were lattice designs that rug collectors will find familiar, but in this mat the flowers in the lattice compartments are flowers found locally in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Similarly, a design with birds facing a central tree-like ornament in fact has deep, classic roots in oriental rug and textile design.
Interestingly, Paula’s text describes this as likely a “local” mat. It has the letters “IGA” (for “International Grenfell Association) and may have been produced for a special occasion. A date of 1931 is hooked along its lower edge.
But it’s central “animal-tree” ornament has been widely used in places far from Labrador.
In his Turkoman Studies I (1980), Robert Pinner offers a historical analysis of the animal tree device. Here are just two of those he presents there.
The first of these, above is from a Greek Island embroidery dated to the 17th century.
A second example, below,
is from a Byzantine textile and is dated to the 11th-12th centuries.
So wherever this “local” obtained this design, it has very deep historical roots.
More modern-seeming designs also occurred, like the starfish and sea urchins rendered below
Paula said that, despite the “silk stocking” reference in her book title, this piece (which is her cover image) was hooked from brin.
And the Grenfell ladies had a design called “prayer rug.”
In Paula’s book, the person who brought this design into the Grenfell universe indicates that she found it in an old book of hooked rug designs and thinks that its source was “an old oriental rug.” In fact, this pattern copies the frontispiece of “Collecting Hooked Rugs” by Elizabeth Waugh and Edith Foley.
The native tribes in Labrador included the Nasaspi and the Montagnais. The description in Paula’s book indicates that the Grenfell hooked book cover below was based on a Nasaspi design.
One more. Paula showed one Grenfell design that made Wendel Swan and me sit up a little straighter.
In her book, Paula says that this “Leaping Stag” design is seen to be typical of the sorts of designs seen in “Baltimore album” type quilts.
Here is one such:
That may be, but what struck Wendel and me was how similar this design is to some Swedish textiles Wendel has been examining recently.
Here are two examples of the latter.
The two pieces above were woven in tapestry in southern Sweden, likely in the 18th century, and are finer than than the Grenfell hooked mat above, but the design similarities seem remarkable.
Asked what the total universe of Grenfell hooked mats might be, Paula said
that some years 3,000 were produced and, although the total is not known, it could be in the area of 20,000.
Paula is an appraiser of Grenfells and said that it is not easy always to tell whether a given piece is one. She said that some indicators include, the use of a variety of materials in the hooking, details in the drawing (these often get dropped out in copies), and the presence of abrash in the coloration (abrash effects were even lost in some later Grenfell production).
Grenfells were labeled for a large part of the time of their production and the labels vary.
Paula said, that, of course, the presence of a label is no assurance that a given piece is a real Grenfell, but that in her experience very few pieces that she feels were real were without a Grenfell label.
Grenfell hooked mats are still being made today. Paula said that about 100 are made each year and that you can buy them on-line, but that they are expensive.
Paula had brought several Grenfell pieces and we moved to them next.
The first was the mat below.
This is the same “starfish and sea urchin” design as the one used on the cover on Paula’s book, but is not the same mat. Its colors and materials are slightly different.
In her book image caption, Paula says that this design is most often seen in 16 inch diameter chair mat or 6 inch diameter table coaster. This design was “in production” by 1937. The in-the-room piece is a mat about 2′ x 3′.
Here is a closer look at a corner detail of this same piece.
Paula’s next piece was the one below.
This design is from a “People Working Series” in Paula’s book. It is one of six scenes. It is called “Mending the Nets” and the one in the book is 11.25 x 15.25 inches. The book examples are silk and rayon, dyed. The series was designed by Ned Hancock and in production by 1937.
Here is a closer corner of this second piece.
Paula’s third piece was the one below.
This design represents a particular view of St. Anthony, Newfoundland, the location for the base of operations for the Mission. A sailing dory is in the foreground, close to the pier in the harbor.
The book piece is in brin, silk and rayon, dyed and was in production by 1933. It is 9 inches x 8.5 inches.
Here is a closer detail.
Polar bears on ice were frequent subjects for Grenfell designs and Paula’s next piece was one of these. I think she said it’s silk.
Paula pointed to the abrash in this small piece. She said this is one feature that gets lost in later production.
A closer detail.
I think the yellow cast in the image above is largely picked up from the TM board color.
The next piece was very small.
This is a small etui (needle case) and is an example of the weaving done at the Industrial.
Paula’s sixth piece was this one.
The boat image is of a “coastal schooner.” The same boat profile is used in a piece in Paula’s book, with Harrington Harbor contextual details in its background. The caption in the book says this design was in production in the 1940s. This piece leaves a large border on the reverse for making this mat in to a chair seat cover.
Again a closer detail of this piece.
Notice the lack of abrash in the blue of the “sea.” This is because the mat is hooked using all cotton.
Paula’s seventh piece was the hooked bag below.
This bag appears in Paula’s book where the caption says that it is cotton and rayon, dyed, with a pattern silk lining. It adds that small pieces of waterproof “Grenfell cloth” cover the points where the ends of the handle are sewn to the bag.
This purse is 9 inches by 14 inches. The design is indicated as in production c. 1940.
Here is a closer detail.
Paula’s eighth brought-in piece was the small doll below.
Industrial workers crafted dolls in several sizes. This small doll wears an anorak of sealskin and trousers made from Grenfell cloth. The boots are skin. The label “Labrador” is stamped on the bottom of the right boot.
A ninth piece was another polar bear mat, this time the bear is fishing.
Another mat of this design appears in Paula’s book. It is described as of cotton, silk and rayon, dyed. This design was fashioned by Rudolph Freund, who created the only four signed Grenfell design drawings known. Freund’s drawing of this design is signed and dated November 3, 1936.
Here is a closer detail of this mat.
The tenth piece Paula had brought was another purse,
Knitting bags such as these were popular items. These were woven.
Here is a closer detail.
The next piece Paula had brought was a hooked Grenfell book cover.
This design, in very similar colors but with handles, is included in Paula’s book. The caption says that it is made of undyed brin . Brin was donated by a manufacturer and came in many colors and was used for items that were expected to get heavier wear. It was used in many mats intended as footstool covers.
These book covers were designed to attempt to broaden the Grenfell customer base.
Here is a detail of this piece showing one half of one side and a portion of the spine.
Notice how the sea color is enriched by the alternate use of blue and green.
Paula’s twelfth piece was an anorak,
made of Grenfell cloth and trimmed with fur and Grenfell embroidery.
The embroidery design is of the coastal schooner.
Embroidery as another strong area for the Industrial. Women embroidered table cloths, napkin sets, anoraks, needle cases, coin purses and many other items.
I had brought two pieces into the session for contrast with the Grenfells.
The first is a hooked rug fragment that I bought this past year and had mounted.
This piece demonstrated (we passed it around) how comparatively fine the silk stocking Grenfells are.
My second brought in piece was a miniature rug,
with an Art Deco design, (it’s about 8 x 11 inches) that I think is tufted rather than hooked.
Here is a closer look at a front detail.
And here is a look at the back of this same detail.
Notice that the “stitches” on the back are not in straight lines (Grenfells were mostly made working straight across a horizontal line of holes in the brin backing ). Here, the “stitches” jump around and don’t even cover all the back area (although the design seems well filled-in if you go back to the image above and look at the front detail).
Anyway, I think this miniature piece is tufted (made on a frame worked from the back) rather than hooked (made from the front with a frame being optional).
We passed this piece around, too.
There was one more piece that had been brought in in part because its owner wondered whether it might possibly be a Grenfell.
Here is a closer detail of it.
Paula examined it closely.
This mat seemed coarser than most Grenfells, but, although there are Grenfells with “rocking horse” designs, Paula said she does not know of one that portrays an actual horse.
She said she doubted that this piece was hooked at the Grenfell Industrial.
Paula answered questions,
and brought the session to the close.
I want to thank Paula for this excellent program, for permitting me to mount a virtual version of it, for use of her book and for working with me personally afterward as we constructed what you have just seen and read.
Thanks, too, to Wendel Swan, who took a useful set of notes for me.
I hope you have enjoyed this virtual version of what seems to me an exceptional “rug morning” program.
R. John Howe
Paula Laverty, Silk Stocking Mats: Hooked Mats of the Grenfell Mission, 2005. McGill-Queens University Press
Robert Pinner and Michael Franses (ed.), Turkoman Studies I: Aspects of the weaving and decorative arts of Central Asia, 1980.
Paula’s web site is: