The Hookers of Chéticamp

Lola, a lady of Cheticamp

 

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.

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.

Fine technique. Texture is created by pulling the yarn through to varying heights

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.

Hooking the largest rug in the world. Nine women. Eleven hours a day. Six months. 200 pounds of wool. It was 18 ft (5.5 mt.) by 36 ft (11 mt). It was delivered to a customer in Virginia and hasn’t been seen again.

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.

Connor following in the footsteps of the mothers.

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.

Hooker extraordinaire–Elizabeth LeFort

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.

Guess who? A LeFort hooked portrait.

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.

Lola the happy hooker

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19 Responses to The Hookers of Chéticamp

  1. Lola 21 April, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

    Hi…..this is Lola , owner of Jean’s gift shop….I am in Alberta until May 1st,but you can contact me on my Facebook page. Proud To be hookers and I will help you get your hooking frame…looking forward to hearing from you……

  2. Charlotte Pickens 14 March, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    i am looking for a contact in Cheticamp to purchase the cheticamp rug hooking frame help!!!

    • Kate Convissor 14 March, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

      I’m so sorry, Charlotte, I just traveled through Cheticamp a couple years ago. I don’t really have any contacts there. However, Jean’s Gift Shop in Cheticamp has a Facebook page. You could search for it there.

      Best of luck;

  3. Maria 30 March, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Kate you’re such a tease! Truly had me going with the title. *laugh*

    Love the vintage photo and the details you spiced this post with.

    • Kate Convissor 1 April, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

      So fun to stumble across stuff like this when you travel, don’t you think?

      Anyway, YOU’RE the queen of the tease and double entendre.

  4. mary leblanc 29 March, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    i loved your article. i have to say that i started lola and her mother in their hooking careers, they were quick to learn and they have become real artist, her sister annette is also quite the artist at hooking and her and lola both draw the designs on the canvas,

    • Kate Convissor 29 March, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

      So YOU were the one who started it all. Sounds like a bunch of amazingly talented people there in Cheticamp. I may have to come back.

      Thanks for reading. All the comments have been fun.

  5. David Larade 5 February, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    Lola is my favorite hooker, after my own mother of course!!! Just a note to say that I loved your article but it seems to state that Lola is Elizabeth Lefort’s sister. This is false. Lola has two sisters, Annette and Cindy.

    • Kate Convissor 6 February, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      I’m thinking that Lola would not be nearly as fresh and pretty if she were Elizabeth LeFort’s sister! LeFort having been born in 1914 and all.

      But I thought Lola told me that her sister Jean had started the gift shop and that she was now running it. So we have a bit of sister-confusion.

      Lola? Can you set me straight?

      • Lola LeLievre 6 February, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

        Sure! Jean is a lady who lived in the building with her husband and opened a one room gift shop in her home in 1973. Annette, my sister, then bought the shop in 2003 and decided to keep Jean’s name in honor of her . I have been running the shop for her during the tourist seasons .
        I have been so blessed that my sister gave me the opportunity to work for her,and happy to say that I am doing exactly what I love to do…..Hope this helps………
        Lola the Hooker!

        • Lola LeLievre 7 February, 2013 at 9:14 am #

          By the way, I am taking over the shop in September! I am so exited and nervous at the same time, but happy that I will be able to keep doing what I love,and always be proud to be a Hooker!

          • Kate Convissor 9 February, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

            Thanks for clearing up the confusion, Lola. Obviously, I only got it half right.

            Good luck with your very own shop! If ever I get back that way, I’ll be sure to stop in.

    • Capebretonite 18 December, 2013 at 11:17 am #

      David, it does not say that Lola is Elizabeth Lefort’s sister. It mentioned “Jean’s Gift Shop, which is now run by her sister, Lola.”

  6. Pierre Boudreau 5 February, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

    Good article. Everybody loves Lola. A fact you may not be aware of is that she sings like an angel. Absolutely beautiful voice in english and in french as well. I do have a 18″x18″(unframed) Elizabeth Lefort hooked portrait of a very colorful bird which she created while in her prime. It has been professionally framed. Absolitely no sign of any fading of colors. I know of no other Elizabeth Lefort masterpieces available anywhere for sale. If you know of someone interested in acquiring this unique rug, I can e-mail photos and details. Pierre.boudreau@moncton.ca

    • Kate Convissor 6 February, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      I did know that Lola sang, but I’ve never heard her. Sounds like she’s a popular woman-about-town. And to think I just stumbled blindly into her shop!

      Good luck with the LeFort piece. If you look at the comments in my previous post about mi-careme, you’ll notice one from a Ronald LeFort who lives in Ontario. I was wondering if he was a relative, and if so, might he be interested in a piece? You could reply to his comment and see if you get a response.

      Again, good luck. It sounds beautiful.

  7. Lola LeLievre 5 February, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    Well that was a wonderful surprise! I loved reading it also and I can assure you that we Cheticamp Hookers are not offfended one bit! Thank you so much and I hope that we will meet again someday! Safe travels to your future destinations…..I love the way you write…thanks again from past and present Cheticamp Hookers…..

    • Kate Convissor 5 February, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

      Ah, Lola–you’ve set my mind at ease. The whole story was just too fun to do any other way–but I was a teensy bit concerned that, you know, with your pretty smile right up front and all…

      I should have known that you were too down-to-earth and fun-loving to take offense.

      I can’t think of a better place to return to than Cape Breton Island and it’s gateway village. Keep on hookin’–and thanks for commenting. Delightful!

  8. Simone Dixon 5 February, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Loved reading it! Even learned something I did not know before. I am sure you will get a few turning to your blog when you talk about those special Hookers!” Very well written!!

    • Kate Convissor 5 February, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks, Simone. It was fun to write. Just hope I haven’t offended anyone.

      Sure had a good time in Cheticamp.

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