I would like to thank all of my family members who participated in helping me put this together, particularly my sister Debbie, my great-aunts Cecile, Stella, and Sophie, and my cousins Yvonne, Lisa, and Laura, who helped immensely with photos, by sharing memories, and spending hours chatting with me about what were sometimes difficult topics. Thank you.
I need to start this with a disclaimer: this was a difficult, emotional post for me to write. I had to get up, walk away, and feel many feelings before I could get back to writing. When I proposed this, all I could think about was the excitement of discussing the beautiful textile work done by the women in my family, especially my grandmother. I really should have foreseen the emotional impact of discussing my grandmother’s death. The emotional impact of my grandmother’s hook rugs on me might be one of the best testimonies of the significance of material culture on memory.
When my sister and I imagined ourselves getting married as kids, we imagined our Mémére being there, just as she had been for all our moments, big and small. Mémére was everything for us. Mother, protector, teacher, and provider. My memories of her as a child are wild and varied, and would likely not align with most people’s archetypal French-Canadian “grandmother” figure. I remember her chopping wood in the backyard. I remember her teaching me how to cook an egg and crêpes. I remember the enormous meals she would prepare for company, and the time that I got stung by a wasp and she grabbed the wasp’s nest with her bare hands and threw it into a fire out of pure spite. But most of all, I remember watching her hook rugs in the evenings, after the day’s work was done.
Cheticamp hook rugs are somewhat famous, and not just in Nova Scotia. Queen Elizabeth II had her portrait done by a Cheticamp hook rug artist, Elizabeth Lefort. There is a Cheticamp hook rug hanging in the Pauline Vanier room of Rideau Hall. The Vatican even has a hook rug, because of course the extremely catholic women of Cheticamp would send a hook rug to the Vatican. My own grandmother made a rug for the sacristy of the church in Cheticamp, a donation of not only materials but hard work and hours of labour.
Tourists from all over the world who visit the Cabot Trail world buy theses rugs. As a kid, I had no real concept of the global scale of the hook rug economy. It was just what my grandmother did while she watched television in the evening. She would sit at the frame built for her by my grandfather, balls of coloured wool surrounding her, and mutter, “just one more square” – referring to the method she used to organize her canvas, little squares of wool she would gradually fill in. I can recognize a rug she’s made by looking at the back and seeing the pattern of squares.
The rugs my grandmother made were almost all for sale. She sold them at the gift shop across the street from us, Flora’s Gift Shop. The money she would make from selling them would pay for our family “extras” – Christmas gifts, school clothes, house repairs, that sort of thing.
Our grandmother was far from the only person to participate in this local craft economy. She wasn’t even the only woman in our family. Her sister, my great-aunt Sophie, also made hook rugs. The property I grew up on was my great-grandparent’s property, which they handed down to their children. Three of their children resided on this property – my grandfather, my great uncle, and my great aunt, along with their families. So, essentially, I grew up with my grandparents, my great aunts and uncles, and my cousins as neighbours. I would call it a block, except we were in the middle of the country just off the Cabot Trail, and to compare such a structure to a city block is laughable. All this to say, that my other great aunt Antoinette also participated in the hook rug economy, and although I didn’t realize it until I was an adult, Matante Antoinette was an artist.
My aunt Antoinette and my grandmother had a lot in common. Related by marriage rather than blood, they both found themselves the primary caregivers of their husbands, who were in poor health. As the older girls of large families with lots of younger siblings, they had both been forced to drop out of school at a young age. They both used hook rugs as a way to supplement their income, and they were both the primary earners for their families.
But, and I hope my grandmother doesn’t mind me saying this, Antoinette far outshone Mémére in terms of artistic talent. Antoinette dyed her own wool and stamped her own patterns on the burlap used to make the rugs, and I remember sitting in my great-aunt’s living room while she and my grandmother sat and talked about patterns and wool colours to use for that season. They fed me cookies and tea in fancy teacups during these tête-à-têtes and I always felt like such an adult, then they would let me help wind the freshly-washed wool and my hands would feel all soft from the lanolin.
That’s what I remember from my childhood. Conversations with Antoinette’s daughter, my cousin Yvonne, have helped shape my understanding of this work. Although I remember seeing my aunt’s work, I regretfully admit that I completely took it for granted. She made her own stencils and patterns from drawings that she did herself, and created unbelievably realistic images with wool and burlap.
Yet she had to focus on what she could easily sell to tourists in the gift shop – the flowery scrolls, the lighthouses and lobsters. The only time that she could really afford to express herself was when rich tourists came through looking for something special, and the owners of the gift shop directed the tourists to her house. They would walk across the street, knock on her door, and talk about a design, a particular rug that they wanted, and she would make it for them. As Yvonne so eloquently put it, “She didn’t have the luxury to make the things she wanted to make, or amass a private collection. She had to make money.” Ever since having that conversation, it has made me rethink my grandmother’s work on hook rugs: how did she learn this skill? Would she have done things differently if she wasn’t so focused on making sure she earned enough money to take care of us?
After Mémére died in 2007, I started asking her sisters a lot of questions that I had never asked her. Despite the impact and constant presence of the rugs she was making, I never thought to ask how she had learned to make them. The rugs were just so ubiquitous that I never really thought about it. The funny thing is, once I started asking about it, nobody was really able to give me a straight answer. My sister and I had a sort of vague idea that she had learned from her mother.
Yvonne thought they had learned from Mary Black, a provincial representative who is the focus of an entire chapter of Ian McKay’s Quest for the Folk. McKay calls Cheticamp hook rugs an “invented handicraft,” dating the crafting of hook rugs to the 1920s, and refined by Black in the 1940s. This more or less fits with the pieces of my own family’s cultural memory, which I was eventually able to piece together with the help of my grandmother’s sisters, my aunts Cecile and Sophie. During the depression, they had learned the basic techniques of turning burlap and rags into rugs from their mother. They would then trade these for basic goods, as income from their father’s fishing dwindled. As new techniques were taught to the women of the community, they were spread from woman to woman. My grandmother and her sister had learned from a friend, and Yvonne thinks that her mother learned directly from Mary Burke.
There are a lot of criticisms that can be leveled at hook rugs as a cultural form of expression – their “invention” as part of the tourism industry in the 1940s, the exploitation of economically precarious women to sell souvenirs at a profit to rich tourists, and more. However, I have found very little that talks about the impact these cultural objects have had on my generation of Acadians. We all talk about how proud we are of our mothers and grandmothers, but what we don’t talk about is how much it hurt when we don’t receive a rug lovingly made by our grandmother on our wedding day.
More than just a means of supplementing our family income, our grandmother’s rugs punctuated the major moments in our lives. She made me one to match my décor when I got my first “adult” apartment. I still have that rug, hanging in my current apartment. It’s one of the first things you see when you walk through the door. My sister got a huge one when she moved into her house with her now-husband and kids. When my sister got married, I was not only sad that Mémére wouldn’t be there, I was sad that she wouldn’t be getting the traditional wedding gift of a hook rug from our grandmother. So her fiancé-now-husband and I contacted the gift shop next to our grandparent’s property, where she had sold her rugs, and asked if they still had one of her rugs around – even though it had been years since she had died. They did! It was our joint wedding gift to Debbie, just so we could have a bit of our grandmother there.
As far as I know, Yvonne is the only one of my cousins who has carried on this tradition of making. I could be wrong about this – I have literally hundreds of cousins, and even with social media technology like Facebook, I have no way of keeping up with all of them. I’m not even able to keep up with who is my cousin and who isn’t, thanks to the twisted family trees produced by these large Acadian Catholic families. Yvonne has carried on her mother’s tradition of beautiful artistic work, with rugs that look more like oil paintings than wool on burlap.
The “invented” tradition which Cheticamp became well known for is quickly dying out. According to recent interviews with gift shop owners conducted by the Chronicle Herald, almost all of the hook rug makers of Cheticamp are over the age of 70, and there are less than 100 of them. With that in mind, I have been inspired to treasure not only the objects left to me by my grandmother, but the memories they invoke. I encourage other Acadian women of my generation to do the same, before our hook rug heritage disappears forever.
Stephanie Pettigrew is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of New Brunswick. Her research focuses on New France and Acadie, particularly the history of witchcraft and blasphemy trials. Most recently, she completed work as the Research Director of the Pointe Sainte-Anne exhibit at the Fredericton Region Museum.