Hooked on hooking mats

Reprinted from The Packet, July 16, 2007
by Joan Over

Local group enjoys and promotes an almost – vanished craft

“We’re trying to promote rug hooking because we want to bring back the tradition,” says Christine Smith.

Smith is the eastern region’s representative for the Rug Hooking Guild of Newfoundland and Labrador (RHGNL), formed in 1995. The association now boasts more than 200 members.

Over the past year, Smith and a number of local women have been meeting on Thursday evenings at the Clarenville Public Library to practise and promote the almost lost art of hooking rugs (or mats as they are often called).

Smith stresses that she’s not teaching the craft, but only passing on some of what she’s learned over the past few years. Other members also share their skills.

Most of the women are self-taught, but a few of them, including Smith and her sister Ida King, have attended workshops presented by RHGNL in Clarenville.

Mat hooking is believed to be one of the few crafts indigenous to Newfoundland and Labrador. No doubt its roots lie in places our first settlers came from but unique practice of tearing worn-out clothing or other materials into strips and hooking the strips loop by loop onto a large piece of brin (burlap) seems to have originated in this part of the world.

It’s almost certain that the origin of the craft grew out of necessity. Early settlers to these shores had to contend with the cold North Atlantic winds that blew around their doors and windows. Since there was very little to spare in the subsistence of a fishing family to buy floor coverings, the drafty floors were covered with mats made of whatever cast-off materials happened to be on hand.

As practical as the craft was. However, it became a means of self-expression for many women and a pastime to look forward to after the daily chores were done.

Geraldine Critch who has been hooking mats for several years and is a member of the group that meets at the library, explains that the best mats were kept for company or used in areas with less traffic. The least attractive were put to everyday use.

“The light-coloured mats were used in the bedrooms,” she says. “The dark-coloured mats were used in the porch so people could wipe their feet on them.”

When they needed cleaning, the mats were shaken out or beaten . If they were particularly dirty, they were taken down to the wharf to be rinsed in the salt water, wrung out and left on the fish flakes or a fence to dry.

Mat hooking seems to have lots its appeal shortly after World War ll. Perhaps it was because purchased floor coverings were more available or because the hand-mad mats were a reminder of hardships of the past. In any case, it wasn’t until recently that this age-old craft began to make a comeback.

To those of us who recall our mothers or grandmothers hooking mats, memories include a four-sided, hand-made wooden frame set up on kitchen chairs. A piece of a brin potato or oat bag was stretched over the top, usually after a design had been hand-drawn onto it. Then a nail bent to make a hook and inserted in a hand-made wooden handle was used to hook the strips of material through the holes in the coarse burlap.

According to Smith, rug hookers today use much the same methods and materials, although much smaller and lighter-weight commercially made frames are available as are ready-made rug hooks. Also available are manufactured patterns already printed on burlap.

But Smith says most of the women in the library group stick to the traditional methods of rug hooking.

“Most of them draw their own designs,” she says. “And many of them use old material such as woollen suits or T-shirts cut into strips.”

In fact, according to Smith, almost any material can be used, so long as it’s cut into thin enough strips. She says many people use sheep’s wool yarn.

“I use mostly pantyhose, cut into strips and dyed. That’s more the Labrador style,” she explains.

Some of Smith’s accomplished rug designs are of outdoor scenes drawn from photographs.

“At times I’ve even used Kool-Aid to get just the right colour of dye for a certain part of the picture,” she laughs.

Motifs for the mats may be simple or complex, ranging from basket-weave patterns to scenes of boats and lighthouses to animals. Last year, RHGNL published a beautiful full-colour picture book of old mats entitled Hooked Mats of Newfoundland and Labrador: Beauty Born of Necessity. The book is for sale at retail outlets around the province and a copy is available from the Clarenville Library.

The mat-hooking evenings at the library have been suspended for the summer, but will resume again in the fall. Anyone interested in learning the craft or sharing techniques already learned is welcome to attend. There is no fee. For further information, call Christen Smith at 548-2842 or Yvonne Godfrey at 466-1838.

The art of rug hooking is alive and well thanks to the creativity of several women in the area. The group gets together one day a week during the winter months at the Clarenville Public Library to share ideas and perfect their craft. Left to right are Geraldine Cirtch, Christine Smith, Ida King, Yvonne Godfrey, Charlene Butt and Betty Feltham. Kathy Goose photo.



Transcribed by Lisa Garrett, November 2022

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.