At the annual Sussex Flea Market in Princess Louise Park you can find almost anything. But a Grenfell hooked mat was probably the last thing I expected to find.
It hung on a canvas wall, shining among the antiques and bric-a-brac around it. Fortunately the seller knew what it was, a unique piece of early 20th century Newfoundland art and a beautiful example of a particular type of craft production.
Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, later Sir, was an English physician who established nursing stations and cottage hospitals in coastal Labrador and northern Newfoundland. In order to raise funds for the Grenfell Mission and to provide a source of cash income for local women, he started a handicraft production industry.
One of the main items produced by what was known as “The Industrial” were hooked mats. At first they were the geometric and floral design rag mats the women already made for use in their own homes. Then they began making “picture mats” of silk, like the one in Sussex.
Mats made of stockings
“When your stockings run, let them run to Labrador!” the Mission’s newsletter asked of its readers. So donations of “silk stockings and underwear in unlimited quantities” were sent to the Grenfell Mission. There they were cut in strips and dyed. Grenfell, his wife and some of the mat-makers themselves drew designs for the mats. Then using the sketch as a guide, the artisans hooked the scene into burlap with the silk strips.
The lightness of the silk and fineness of the hooking makes the mat almost like a tapestry. The surface sheen is visible these 80 or 90 years after this mat was made.
The height of the Grenfell mat-making industry was in the 1920s and 1930s. Mats were sold throughout the world, marketed through the Mission newsletter and Grenfell’s own contacts. They are still collected as the pieces of art they are. If I’d had the money, the one at the Sussex flea market would have found a home with me.
For detailed photographs and discussion of mats and other Grenfell craftwork, from a 2010 talk given by Silk Stocking Mats author Paula Laverty, see this blog.