Canadian Fashion Connection – NONIA

(Originally blogged January 22, 2010)

Grenfell mission hooked mat made from silk stockings, c. 1930

One of the goals of the Fashion History Museum is to create a Canadian fashion databank that will keep information and images on all Canadian designers, manufacturers and retailers, past and present. In all my years of collecting I have had only a few items go through my hands with Newfoundland labels, but I recently had a hand knit sweater cross my path. The label ‘NONIA – Newfoundland’ meant nothing to me but a quick online search turned up a history of the NONIA label.

Sweater by NONIA, c. late 1950s – 1960s

Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing industry was based in small isolated coastal communities accessible only by boat. In 1892 a Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived in Newfoundland and began to work on improving medical services for the inhabitants of these villages. He set up the Grenfell mission in 1900 and in 1908 began to raise money for the mission by organising the production and sale of hooked mats, a popular local craft tradition. Between 1918 and 1931, Grenfell mats were popular folk products, traded and sold for the benefit of the Grenfell medical mission. The Depression of the 1930s decreased sales and Grenfell mats had ceased being made commercially by the time Dr. Grenfell died in 1940. The mats were made from silk stockings, and the shift to nylons after the war ended the remains of the tradition in the post war years.

NONIA Newfoundland label from sweater

However, when Grenfell mats were just becoming successful, they were an inspiration for the creation of the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association (NONIA), founded in 1920 and incorporated as a non-profit business in 1924. It was also established to assist Newfoundland communities by creating better access to health services, raising money from the sale of hand-knit garments to pay the salaries of public health nurses. The health care portion of NONIA’s operation was taken over by the government in 1934 but the industrial side was maintained and continued on. Today, NONIA employs approximately 175 knitters and weavers across the province to knit sweaters, socks, hats and mitts, and weave scarves and table linens.

Addendum March 22, 2018: A recent article about NONIA

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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