Diamonds in the Rough
Knitting in rural Newfoundland was practical, artistic and a reflection of each local community. Christine LeGrow is keeping the tradition alive.
Written for SOAR St. John's (defunct)
Clickity-clack, clickity-clack. The rhythmic ticking of knitting needles mingles out of time with the hearth fire’s crackling. Outside, wind howls outside across craggy rocks on the eastern shore of Newfoundland.
Clickity-clack, clickity-clack. By lamplight or daylight people from Twillingate to St. John’s and on around the Avalon Peninsula have been working pairs of trigger mitts and socks for more than a hundred years.
Christine LeGrow is keeping this memory alive with her business, Spindrift Handknits in Outer Cove, Newfoundland. This knittress has been working her needles for 66 years. She’ll tell you that the best-known Newfoundland knitwear is probably the trigger mitt—recognizable by its telltale three-fingered shape. The extra finger allows jigging for fish in the cold without having to take off the mittens.
What began as simply alternating stitches of light and dark yarn blossomed into various localized geometric patterns—the most popular was the diamond. About 100 years ago, if a boat sank and washed ashore, you could tell where it came from if you found a mitten.
“Each town had a flavour to the pattern in the mitt,” LeGrow explains. For example, a St. Mary’s Bay mitt “had a diamond that was a little bit plumper.”
Post rail and road, regional patterns started blending together as knitters borrowed ideas from each other. However, Newfoundland patterns are still generally made up of two colours and carry the yarn along behind the stitches, making the mitt doubly thick and warm without the stiffness that knitting two strands together produces.
Newfoundland comes by simplicity in its patterns honestly. About 150 years ago, most people on the island couldn’t read or write, so patterns were passed down from mothers and grandmothers.
“They didn’t know how to read the word ‘knit’ and they didn’t know what the word ‘purl’ looked like,” LeGrow explains. The patterns had to be straightforward, “something easy you could watch your grandmother do, or your mother do, and then you would learn to knit by imitating the actions of their hands.”
During the world wars, almost every woman in Newfoundland could be found knitting soldier socks—long socks of pure wool with a double-knit heel, worn by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Patterns had to be distributed to someone in town who could both read and knit.
“They would gather the ladies together in what we would call a knitting bee, and they’d serve them a cup of tea, and they’d sit in a circle, and they’d knit the socks from a pattern,” LeGrow explains. The leader would read out the pattern and show the ladies how to knit it. Eventually, it was committed to memory.
According to legend, “Newfoundland soldiers’ feet did not get chafed when they were marching and sitting in the wet trenches,” she says. “And they didn’t get gangrene in their feet. So other soldiers used to trade cigarettes and things for the Newfoundland socks,” says LeGrow.
If you think that’s a romantic notion, young women used to hide notes in the toes of socks for a soldier to find, hoping he would contact her and they would fall in love. Mothers did the same, but with a mother’s love, hoping the notes would find someone’s son.
Knitting continues to evolve in Newfoundland. LeGrow’s daughter, Laurie, has designed a line of hats featuring Newfoundland sayings like “Takes all kinds” and “Fill yer boots” spelled out in the runic alphabet, a nod to the island’s Viking history.
What’s certain is that knitting isn’t dying out. In fact, it’s more popular than ever. LeGrow and her collaborator Shirley Scott are making sure younger knitters have access to the past. LeGrow and Scott have put patterns to paper, making this tradition available beyond what a grandmother can teach.
See more twists on the traditional at: www.spindrifthandknits.com
Halifax-based and Newfoundland-bred fibre artist Jessica Melindy’s work is rooted in her home and history.
“Above all, the traditional items that I make are incredibly satisfying because they serve their purpose so well,” she says. “I also really love that I can make a replica of the same fisherman’s sweater my great-grandfather wore. It feels so neat. It’s like where tradition meets time travel.”
Check out more of her work at: whatidonewas.tumblr.com