When Florence Crocker was a young girl, hooking mats was a required skill for living in outport Newfoundland and Labrador.
Her mother showed her how to do it, not as a pleasant pastime, but because their family needed mats for the floors of their home in Westport on the Baie Verte Peninsula.
Now 88, Crocker can look back at how that basic expertise eventually grew into a true art form for her.
She eventually developed quite a knack for not just hooking mats and rugs, but also making quilts and knitting up a storm of socks, mittens, caps and sweaters.
She and others in the community sometimes hooked rugs for the Grenfell Mission, an organization that helped improve the health and quality of life of people living in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. Some of those mats and rugs, which were mostly sold in retail stores elsewhere in North America, are now considered works of art in themselves.
After her first husband, Cyril Gale, died in 1977, Crocker gave up the little store she operated in Westport, married Herbert Crocker and moved to his hometown of Trout River in 1982.
By that time, she hadn’t hooked a mat in years. That all changed when Herbert’s mother, Flora Crocker, asked Florence if she knew how to hook rugs and if she was able to finish one her mom had left unfinished.
“I guess you could say I was hooked again,” she said during a recent interview.
In the early 1980s, the tourism sector was beginning to grow in the newly established Gros Morne National Park. Many of the visitors who came wanted to know about life in rural Newfoundland and Labrador and rug hooking was one of the crafts they wanted to learn.
Crocker would share her knowledge with anyone who wanted to learn. When the Discovery Centre was built in nearby Woody Point years later, she would go there a few times each summer to set up her hooking frame and work away as the tourists came and went.
“They all wanted to learn how to do it because it was a lost art, really,” she said.
Some of those tourists would order mats from Crocker and get them when they returned to visit again the following year.
One of her rugs is on display in the Discovery Centre’s lobby. It shows a girl carrying buckets of water towards her outport home.
Another of her creations, an image of the Deer Lake Manor retirement home, welcomes visitors to that building, which Crocker has called home since 2012.
The rugs and mats aren’t simple patterns. Many are quite intricate, like one she did that featured two of the complex Detroit Red Wings spoked wheel logos.
She once made one for her son featuring the simpler Montreal Canadiens logo. When he lost that rug, along with the rest of his home, in the devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray in 2016, she made him an even better one. In addition to the famous Habs logo, the new one featured two hockey players and many other symbols of the sport.
“It’s time-consuming, but I don’t mind,” she said of the detail she sometimes puts into her projects. “I guess it would be hard for someone who didn’t know how to do it, but it just comes naturally to me now.”
While the hockey ones are among her sentimental favorites, one of her proudest pieces was one she created for a worker at the retirement home. That person wanted a typical Newfoundland scene and provided Crocker with a series of images to inspire her.
The final product incorporated elements of some of those photos, including the ocean, a gull, a boat, a point of land, a wharf, a lobster trap, a clothesline and a shed.
“I just made my own scene out of it,” she recalled fondly. “I don’t think I have any one favorite. It’s like, whenever I finish one, then I feel that was my best one.”
When she makes a mat, Crocker says she’ll usually just sit and work on it for an hour or so at a time. She figures it would take her about two weeks to complete one if she put in two or three hours a day.
“It’s got to be something you enjoy doing,” she said of the tedious nature of the craft.
Crocker still uses the old frame and hooker Herbert, who died in 2012, made for her soon after she arrived in Trout River. She draws the image out on a piece of burlap before stretching the base out on the frame and starts looping the material.
The last time she used it was last summer. She was going to break out the frame and hook something this winter, but was ill for a while and just never had the inspiration.
She has been working on a quilt this winter, though.
She hopes to get the creative juices for rug hooking flowing again soon.
“All I need is someone to ask me if I am still hooking mats and if I will hook one for them,” she said. “Even if that don’t happen, I just might take it into my head to sew one in the frame.”