Grenfell Dog Team Hooked Mat
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).
This detail from the mat shows the driver and passenger sitting on a wooden box such as would have been used to carry supplies to the outposts, including bundles of hooking materials for the women who lived in those coastal communities. Each of the five traces comes from a dog that is harnessed individually to the sled (known as a komatick) for travel over snow-covered barrens.
The primary hooking material is gorgeously dyed silk, but the dogs are hooked in dyed brin (unraveled burlap) to provide a textural contrast highlighting their fur.
The Grenfell craftswomen’s skills as hookers are unparalleled. Their work was nearly as fine as needlepoint, with a loop hooked through each opening in the burlap backing.
This dog team mat dates from the 1930s, and it retains the Grenfell Labrador Industries label used during that era.
Grenfell mat making has roots in the Arts & Crafts era philosophies and practices that compelled the women who guided the early direction of Grenfell Labrador Industries. Rustic furniture and décor also stems from a similar movement, and in fact Grenfell mats were often sold at rustic resorts to the affluent rusticators who vacationed there. So in addition to being beautiful examples of folk art in their own right, Grenfell hooked mats also have connections to our specialty in rustic antiques. But they also stand thoroughly on their own as aesthetically pleasing evocations of northern coastal landscapes, flora, fauna and ways of life, and as symbols of the pride and tenacity of people who lived with determination off the sea, the land, their wits and their talents.
Enjoy the following sampling of some other Grenfell mats that we have owned over the years.