Collecting Articles and Features

The Artistic and Cultural Tapestry of Grenfell Hooked Mats

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The Grenfell hooked mats or rugs, hailing from the rugged shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, stand as a vibrant testament to the resilience and creativity of their makers. These artifacts, born from necessity and nurtured by the vision of Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, transcend their humble origins to embody a rich tapestry of cultural heritage and artistic ingenuity. In this feature we look at the history of the Grenfell Hooked Mats and Rugs, their cultural legacy and include a price guide on several examples.

Grenfell Pictorial Hooked Rug with Dog Sled Scene
Grenfell Pictorial Hooked Rug with Dog Sled Scene. Sold for $2,607 at Skinner Inc, August 2012.

At the turn of the 20th century, households across Newfoundland and Labrador engaged in the making of hooked rugs as a practical response to the harsh climate and economic hardship. These handcrafted pieces, created from leftover materials, were not only functional items designed to provide warmth but also expressive works of art that captured the essence of daily life and the natural beauty of the region. Among these, the Grenfell hooked mats emerged as a distinctive genre, blending traditional craft with innovative design to forge a unique artistic identity.

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, an English medical missionary inspired by the Christian evangelical movement, arrived in Newfoundland in 1892. Beyond his medical contributions, Grenfell’s lasting impact came from his efforts to bolster the local economy through the promotion of handicrafts. During the idle winter months, he encouraged women to craft hooked mats and blankets, transforming a seasonal pastime into a viable cottage industry. This initiative not only provided financial independence to many women but also fostered a sense of community and artistic pride.

1930s Grenfell Mat Rug featuring rabbits
1930s Grenfell Mat Rug featuring rabbits. Sold for $1,200 at Jasper 52, February 2020.

The materials and designs of the Grenfell mats were a testament to both innovation and tradition. Utilizing burlap as a base, women crafted mats from cotton and silk, repurposing used silk stockings—a clever recycling of resources that Grenfell promoted with the catchy mantra, “When your stockings run, let them run to Labrador!” This choice of materials lent the mats a distinctive texture and sheen, making them highly desirable.

Grenfell’s influence extended to the artistic direction of the mats. He steered the traditional craft towards the production of pictorial designs, capturing quintessentially Canadian scenes—dog sled teams, wildlife, hunting and fishing scenes—that resonated with buyers in urban centers across the United States. By 1916, this enterprise had flourished, with more than a dozen styles in production, each bearing the labels of Grenfell Labrador Industries or Grenfell Handicrafts, and contributing to the financial empowerment of the women who made them.

A Grenfell hooked mat Newfoundland and Labrador circa 1920s
A Grenfell hooked mat Newfoundland and Labrador circa 1920s. Dogs and Sledge scene. Sold for £320 at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood, April 2023.

The market for Grenfell mats has remained robust, with pieces from the 1920s and 1930s being particularly coveted. Scenes of Canadian life, depicted in muted, nature-inspired colors and standardized designs, continue to capture the imaginations of collectors and enthusiasts alike. The mats’ high level of craftsmanship and evocative designs have ensured their status not just as decorative items but as valuable pieces of cultural heritage.

Notably, Grenfell mats achieved more than economic success; they provided a pathway for women to gain financial independence, thereby challenging societal norms and opening new avenues for personal and community development. According to Paula Laverty, an expert on Grenfell mats, this venture enabled women to delay marriage and invest in their own and their families’ futures, a significant shift in a time and place where options were limited.

Today, Grenfell mats are celebrated not only for their beauty and craftsmanship but also for their role in preserving the cultural narratives of Newfoundland and Labrador. They serve as a reminder of the power of community, creativity, and resilience, embodying the spirit of a people who, faced with adversity, wove their stories into the very fabric of their art. As symbols of Canadian identity and testimony to life in the North, Grenfell hooked mats continue to enchant, teach, and inspire.

Blue Mountain Pottery

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