The Story of the Hooked Rugs of Chéticamp and their artisans
Anselme Chiasson and Annie-Rose Deveau
The village of Chéticamp is located on the west coast of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Its population numbers 3,500 – all, with a few exceptions, Acadians. The place was visited by European, Basque and other fishermen long before Jacques Cartier discovered Canada. These fishermen used to dry their cod on the shore of La Pointe. However, there was no permanent settlement there before the end of the 18th century. It was also at La Pointe de l’Île (presqu’île) of Chéticamp that the merchant from Jersey Island, Charles Robin, set up his fishing post in 1767. This attracted permanent settlers.
In Chéticamp, as everywhere else no doubt, the cold floors especially in winter encouraged women to make rugs in order to protect their feet from the cold and be more comfortable. In response to an obvious need, the Acadian women had to have been making rugs as far back as the earliest days of Acadia and they must have brought with them from France the technique of rug making, even though the unfortunate events of our history have deprived us of the documents necessary to support this contention. The oldest kinds of rugs remembered to this day in Chéticamp are those made with défaisures, braided rugs, woven rugs, rosette rugs and rugs made out of breillons.
The use and origins of hooked rugs in Chéticamp
Before Chéticamp was blessed with electricity, which was supplied in 1937, the houses were heated with wood-burning stoves. In the winter the floors were always cold. This was especially noticeable when one moved only a short distance away from the stove. Wall-to-wall carpets sold in modern-day stores had not been heard of yet. However, in quite a few houses breillon or braided rugs covered a part of the floor in all the rooms. This was their practical use.
Some of these rosette or breillon rugs, and especially later hooked rugs, were very beautiful. Sometimes the most beautiful ones were set aside for special occasions. Consequently, some people only took out their most beautiful rugs for special holidays or when they received important visitors such as the parish priest during his yearly visit.
Breillon rugs were made as follows: used garments of fabrics other than wool were cut into long strips of about one half inch in width. These breillons, as they were called, were set by means of a hook into a canvas made from burlap bags. It is known that the designs of some of these breillon rugs featured sailboats, domestic animals, birds, trees, etc.
Unlike rugs made out of breillons and canvas, which were known at the beginning of Chéticamp’s history, rugs hooked with wool were introduced to the village at a later date. It appears that the first woolen rug was made known in Chéticamp by Marie (Forest) Fiset, wife of Dr. Napoléon Fiset. Woolen hooked rugs are made by the same procedure as breillon rugs, but they have a much more delicate and fine structure. These rugs are particularly well suited for the creation of different motifs expressed in many varied colours. The beauty of these rugs, besides the choice of design and the blend of colours, is the result of skilfully drawing the wool through the mesh in such a way that each stitch is equal in height so that the rug has a uniform and smooth surface without any rough patches.
No doubt, the women of Chéticamp made the rugs to express their artistic talents, but primarily they used them for domestic use. This was true of the various kinds of rugs made in this area.
Today, while some hooked rugs still have a practical use, due to the evolution in their workmanship and due to the demand for them on the North American market, Chéticamp rugs have become high quality, decorative and artistic works.
Several of these “artists in wool” have distinguished themselves either by the perfection of their work, by the originality of their designs, or by certain events which brought them into the spotlight.
Mrs. Annie (à Joseph à Jean) Chiasson (1902-1972)
Mrs. Annie (à Joseph à Jean) Chiasson made several large rugs for Miss Lillian Burke. She even had the honour of being asked to make the largest rug which was ever produced in Chéticamp. It is said that this rug was a replica of one the Louvre in Paris. Miss Burke spent three months stamping the design on the canvas. The rug used 200 pounds of wool which Mrs. Chiasson – starting with the primary colours red, yellow and blue – had to dye into 120 different colours as required by the design. Not having any running water in her home, Mrs. Chiasson transported the wool, the dye, the acid, the vats and a small wood burning stove to a brook near “la source Bouillante” and there, in the swamp, she dyed all the wool.
The rug measured 18 by 36 feet, that is 648 square feet in area. The frame needed to mount the canvas for a rug this size required much more space than was available in the homes. This frame was set up in the threshing area of a barn. Under the supervision of Mrs. Marie (à Willie) Aucoin, Miss Burke’s agent, nine people worked six months to produce the rug: Mrs. Annie Chiasson, Mrs. Emma Haché, Miss Élizabeth Haché, Mrs. Esther Boudreau, Mrs. Edna Boudreau, Miss Luce Yvonne Aucoin, Miss Philomène Bourgeois, Miss Luce Bourgeois, and Miss Marie Aucoin.
The ladies worked every day of the week from eight in the morning until noon and from one in the afternoon until five and finally from six to nine o’clock at night. They would take only a ten minute break in the morning and the afternoon to relax a bit and eat their own individual lunches of bread and butter. So many people working together all day long for months made for intense group interaction, which had its share of joking and teasing. The minute that the ladies started working on the rug in the morning, they would sing some chants associated with mass.
To produce such a large rug, the frame had to have five rollers to wind up the completed part as it was finished. The rollers became very big and consequently very heavy to turn. To produce such a rug was very tiring, but the people of Chéticamp were very proud of having produced such a masterly and magnificent rug. This rug is now somewhere in Virginia. In spite of extensive research, it was impossible to find the location and the owner of this rug.
Mrs. Catherine (à Jos à John) Poirier (1901-1994)
Mrs. Poirer – better known as Catherine à Mose, and daughter of John (à Joseph) Cormier, of the parish of Saint-Joseph-du-Moine – always hooked rugs, having started with breillon rugs at a very early age. Catherine Poirier is included amongst the notables of the rug making business especially because of the originality of the designs of her tapestries. Catherine created her own designs and expressed them in an unsophisticated style which gives her work much charm.
Blessed with imagination and talent, she quickly achieved recognition in this kind of handcrafts. As early as 1940, taking her inspiration from a postcard, she produced a twelve-square-foot rug. The motifs, much of which she expressed in her forthright style, featured roses and velvety spirals done in varied shades of green on a black background with a green border.
That year, the first busload of tourists came to Chéticamp after having announced their intended visit. The local ladies set up in the parish hall an exposition of rugs and tapestries for the benefit of these tourists and a prize was to be offered to the one who was judged as having the best work exhibited. The honour of selecting the winner was left to the tourists, and they chose Catherine’s rug as winner of the prize.
In the years that followed, Catherine reproduced her prize-winning rug many times. The price she obtained for it increased with the years. Since 1979, Catherine specialized in small tapestries with simple designs featuring either the local church, the monument in commemoration of the fourteen founders of the village, boats, fishermen, or barnyard birds.
At the age of 81, she travelled to Montréal to view an exhibition of her work at the McCord Museum. She was received like a queen. Radio and television people were present for the occasion. Catherine spoke candidly of her rugs and tapestries, told a story and sang songs.
Mrs. Élizabeth Lefort-Hansford (1914 – 2005)
Élizabeth LeFort learned how to make hooked rugs from her mother at a very young age. In 1940, one of her sisters asked her to make a tapestry which she would give to one of her friends. At that time, Élizabeth had not yet begun to create her own designs, but she favoured a particular Christmas card which she had received. Élizabeth reproduced this scene on a piece of canvas, twenty-five inches by thirty inches, and dyed the wool for making the rug into twenty-eight shades of brown. This tapestry was so successfully reproduced that it launched its author on a career which made her famous and internationally renowned.
Naturally, Élizabeth dyed the wool in the shades necessary for her tapestries. She had the great ability of being able to obtain exactly the shade of colour she required. She also stamped her own canvases, a procedure which required enlarging according to scale and precise measurement. When the designs, which always required much study beforehand, were drawn on canvas, and when the wool had been dyed in the hundreds of shades of colour required, Élizabeth considered her tapestry practically completed. Hooking the rug, to her, seemed the easiest part to accomplish.
Because of her talent and training, Élizabeth could hook 55 loops in a minute, 3,300 in an hour, 26,400 in an 8-hour day and 158,400 in six days. When she presented her portrait to Her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth) in 1959, Élizabeth told her that the portrait represented eleven days of work, to which the queen answered to the point: “Eleven days of work, but no doubt a lifetime of experience.”
Élizabeth LeFort was presented with the Order of Canada on April 29, 1987, in recognition of her ambassadorial work in the promotion of our Acadian culture, as well as her success in turning the local rughooking industry into an art. Her contribution to the preservation of our Acadian culture and heritage through the creation of original and magnificent tapestries has been tremendous.
These excerpts originally appeared in The Story of the Hooked Rugs of Chéticamp and their artisans, a project of La Société Saint-Pierre. It was first published in 1988 by Lescarbot Publications and again in 2006 by Breton Books. Edited by Father Anselme Chiasson, researched by Annie-Rose Deveau, and translated by Marcel LeBlanc.© 1988, 2006 La Société Saint-Pierre
© C@P Society of Cape Breton County, 2009