There are certain categories of antiques whose creation stories carry as much resonance for us as the masterful products themselves. Grenfell mats, such as this hooked portrayal of a dog team carrying a sled and mushers, constitute one of those categories of antiques whose origins evoke a rich and compelling history.
In the late 1880’s, the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador were making a subsistence living in isolated fishing communities that were accessible only by boat. When Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived from England in 1892, he found persevering, skilled people who were in much need of medical, material and economic assistance.
Grenfell believed that rather than offering only charity to the residents of northern coastal communities, it was best to develop long-term, self-sustaining strategies to help them alleviate their poverty. This led to the establishment of a cottage crafts industry called “the Industrial” as an enterprise of the larger Grenfell Mission, whereby local women could produce goods for supplemental income, or often simply for trade to the Mission in exchange for clothing for their families. (For an excellent overview of Grenfell Mission history and its handicrafts movement, along with photos of stunning Grenfell hooked mats, see the 2005 book Silk Stocking Mats by Paula Laverty, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.)
The women of the region had a long-standing tradition of hooking floor mats during the winter months. An American occupational therapist named Jesse Luther whom Grenfell recruited to the Mission in 1906, recognized after a few years of focusing primarily on weaving and woodworking, that it made sense to build upon the women’s existing mat-hooking skills. Thus began decades of Grenfell hooked mat production that peaked in the 1920s-1930s, and declined after WWII.
Grenfell Industry staff and volunteers delivered hooking materials to women by boat and dogsled, and then collected the finished mats on return visits. The materials included burlap (locally called “brin”) for the backing (and sometimes for the hooking fabric), as well as dyed cotton, wool, rayon and most famously, used silk stockings donated by more affluent women in American, Canadian and British cities, for the hooking. The women also received sketches of the patterns to be hooked. Whereas their traditional patterns tended to be floral or geometric, part of the marketing genius of the Grenfell Mission’s employees, volunteers, and even the founder himself, was to create patterns that reflected the unique northern landscape and ways of life in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The dog team design was likely one of those originally sketched by Dr. Grenfell, based on his experience with using dogs and sleds as a means of winter transportation in the region. Grenfell must have had a special appreciation for dog teams, as in retirement he opened several mission and tea houses in Vermont and Connecticut which he named The Dog Team (the best known became The Dog Team Tavern restaurant in Middlebury, VT).