At the turn of the last century, families in Chéticamp were large. Livelihood was uncertain—mostly hard won from the sea, the land, and the forest. Life was hardscrabble.
So what did the wives and mothers of Chéticamp do to bring in extra pocket money?
They became hookers.
And over time, the hookers of Chéticamp became justly famous for their, um, technique, which was artistic, subtle, detailed–and fast. Visitors couldn’t get enough.
Their secret was two-ply.
Yarn, of course. What were YOU thinking?
At first, the ladies of Chéticamp hooked rugs for their homes, using rags and scraps. Traveling salesmen were the first to appreciate the ladies’ talent, and they began to take rugs in exchange for their goods.
The ladies got what they wanted and so did the gents.
But it was Lillian Burke, the fancy visitor from New York, who saw serious dollar signs in the homespun rugs.
Lillian Burke taught art in Washington and summered on Cape Breton Island. With a little finesse, she thought the rugs could become a hot commodity in the big cities in the East. So she taught the willing hookers of Chéticamp how to produce more sophisticated designs with more subtle colors. She insisted that they use high-quality, 2-ply yarn, which yielded a finer, more detailed product.
I’m sure the woman was imperious and demanding, but she brought home the bacon. In her second year she sold 200 rugs in the US, and opened a gallery in New York City. She created the designs and set the standards. The hookers were paid by the square foot.
At that time, everyone in Chéticamp, from children to grandmothers, hooked rugs. “My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all hooked,” said Connor, who is learning the craft as well.
By the 1930s, the era of the well-heeled middle(wo)man was coming to an end. Local people were forming co-operatives and were beginning to peddle their own goods. Plus, a new highway to Cape Breton Highland National Park placed Chéticamp at the entrance to the park, which it still is today. The days of isolation and economic dependence were over for the hookers.
The most fabled of the Cheticamp hookers was Elizabeth LeFort, who took the craft to a new level and in a different direction.
First, she was fast—3300 stitches per hour—so once she had drawn the design and dyed the wool, the actual hooking went quickly. Second, she began focusing on landscapes and portraits, which hadn’t been done before. Third, she was very skilled at dying wool. Some of her work uses dozens of shades of one color.
LeFort made portraits of popes and presidents in wool yarn, and her portraits hang in the White House, the Vatican, and Buckingham Palace. Many samples of her work are on display at the Trois Pignons gallery in Cheticamp. Don’t miss it.
Every shop in Chéticamp is chockablock with hooked items, but my favorite was Jean’s Gift Shop, which is now run by her sister, Lola.
Lola the hooker. It works.
She came to Chéticamp with her parents when she was 10. She and her mother learned to hook and eventually made rugs “for food.”
“It’s a good thing we both loved doing it,” she says.
Lola now lives on nearby Chéticamp Island. She married “a Frenchie” and is a happy woman working on her 2-ply technique.
“It’s a good life here,” she says.