NEW YORK — Evocative of an age when handmade items were created by many households, hooked rugs allowed the frugal to avoid wasting leftover materials and the diligent to avoid wasting time in less purposeful pursuits. Made by hand, they were highly personal and perfectly suitable gifts for a new bride or for family members. Among all hooked rugs, one niche genre remains especially desirable and gave rise to a cottage industry in rural Canada: Grenfell mats.
Described as either hooked rugs or hooked mats, Grenfell mats were the brainchild of Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who arrived on the Newfoundland coast from England in 1892 and set up the Grenfell Mission in Newfoundland and Labrador to treat patients. Inspired by the Christian evangelical movement, he sought not only to address the community’s medical needs but to help its economy. During the winter months of February and March, when fishing was not actively pursued by the residents, women hooked blankets and mats.
Life was hard in the unforgiving climate, and Grenfell became convinced that the best way to help the local people overcome hunger and poverty was to help them create a side business in handicrafts. He organized the women’s efforts to create hooked mats for sale. They hooked mats on a burlap base, working them in cotton or silk (the latter coming in the form of used silk stockings). The women already knew how to hook basic designs, but Grenfell turned their crafting into a profitable venture by suggesting pictorial designs he knew would sell well. By 1916, there were more than a dozen hooked pictorial mat styles in production, most featuring quintessential Canadian images such as dog sled teams, fishing and hunting scenes and local wildlife. They were sold through shops in cities in the United States, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and even Chicago. Many of these items, along with other handicrafts that included dolls and knitted bags, featured labels for Grenfell Labrador Industries or Grenfell Handicrafts.
According to A Bird in Hand Antiques’ website, what made these hooked mats unique was that much of the raw material came from used silk stockings. When fundraising, Grenfell is said to have repeated the mantra, “When your stockings run, let them run to Labrador!” Donations of stockings poured in to the region.
Better still, Grenfell achieved his aims. Many of the women who hooked these mats became financially independent through their work. They were able to buy clothing and medicine with the funds they dubbed “mat money” and, more importantly, they were able to avoid marrying young, according to Paula Laverty, who extensively studied Grenfell mats, writing a book on the subject and curating several relevant exhibitions. Based in Maine, she shares her research on Grenfell mats at her website.
Grenfell mats remain coveted, with those dating to the 1920s and 1930s being the most sought-after. Examples that capture scenes from Canadian life are beloved even if they lack a date, as with a pictorial hooked mat that took $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at William Smith Auctions. The rug is in a desirable large size, measuring 34 by 46in, and features a dogsled team. It boasts the tight weave Grenfell mats are celebrated for, and it is fitted with brass rings so it can be hung on a wall.
Wildlife and native birds, from mallard ducks to geese, are also prevalent motifs on Grenfell mats. A circa-1930s Grenfell mat in cotton and silk earned $1,850 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Jasper52. Measuring 39½ by 26 ½in, the mat depicts a trio of geese flying over a treeline against a green background. Another charming design is a small mat, 16 by 13in, featuring a deer nibbling foliage. It realized $1,700 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Jasper52.
Reportedly, the traditional hooked mats that predate Grenfell’s arrival in Canada feature bright colors and designs of the woman weaver’s own invention, but after he set up the enterprise, hooked mats became more standardized. The subject matter narrowed to about 20 stock designs, and their palettes reflected muted, nature-inspired colors. A good example is an early 20th-century hooked rug showing a hunter and his dog returning home at day’s end, measuring 26½ by 40in, which realized $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2017 at Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers.
One of the most cherished genres of Grenfell rugs are nursery rugs, reportedly made to teach children about life in rural Canada. Versions fashioned in cotton or silk that brought only a few dollars in the 1930s can command several hundred dollars today. Though there are some minor variations — sometimes the woman shown has a flared skirt — a circa 1920s-30s example, measuring 20 by 26in, featured the common decorative elements of a compass, a man and a woman, fishing nets, a boat, birds, snowshoes and a dog sled team. It realized $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Jasper52.
As an art form, Grenfell hooked mats exemplify the best of folk art. Their ingenuity and high level of craftsmanship forged a lasting legacy both as a symbol of Canada and of life up North.