St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick—Qonasqamkuk to the Indigenous Passamaquoddy and Maliseet people—is an attractive seaside “heritage” town that has been a tourist destination for over a hundred years, but it’s also an inspiring, year-round residence for many makers and artists.
Rather than using Google Maps or a tourist brochure, this fibre tour is guided by three contemporary hooked rugs, displayed in prominent St. Andrews tourist attractions.
As a rug hooking artist, I visited St. Andrews in 2019 for the Kingsbrae International Residency for the Arts (KIRA).
This beautiful hooked rug (the featured image, above) is a personal cartography rug depicting St. Andrews. It was made by Debbie Lessard (Moncton, NB), and hangs in the entranceway to the Kingsbrae café.
Pictorial landscape rugs such as this are personal cartographies, highly selective geographies assigning significance to place. The conventions of this fibre map are as firm as those governing any other mapmaking. They tell viewers how to superimpose the rug on the landscape: the “top” of the rug is the hilltop, and the “bottom” is the harbour. Significant buildings are large-scale and viewed from the same unobscured angle; tree cover, less significant buildings, and other complications are edited out.
Kingsbrae, pictured at the top of Lessard’s rug, contains its own small fibre source. Thanks to Jenna, who works with the animals at Kingsbrae Garden, I was able to meet the resident alpacas. They will cautiously approach any of Jenna’s friends.
In Lessard’s rug, below Kingsbrae is the red brick Ross Memorial Museum. In addition to “Oriental” carpets, its collection holds several artifacts from Cottage Craft, an important part of New Brunswick’s fibre history. Established by Grace Helen Mowat in the 1910s, and surviving almost 100 years, Cottage Craft created a network of cottage industries across Charlotte County, including farmers, dyers, spinners, weavers, felters, rug makers, knitters, dollmakers, and other fibre artists.
While Cottage Craft, like the Arts & Crafts Movement, relied on romanticized ideals of pre-industrial labour and rural “folk,” it was successful insofar as it provided craftspeople with additional income and a market. Additionally, it cooperated with other local producers—for instance, in the 1950s, then-owners of Cottage Craft shared dye formulas with Briggs & Little mill so that more yarn could be produced. As Diana Rees noted later, “Over the past fifty years or so, the two different colour ranges have merged so that neither is exclusive any longer” (195). The colour palette is largely unchanged, influencing local design for generations. Most handmade rugs from Atlantic Canada are made in part with durable Briggs & Little yarns. Wool fibre works in Atlantic Canada often have a distinctive look and texture that can be traced back to Cottage Craft. And, because tourists visited St. Andrews and bought or received fibre souvenirs from Cottage Craft, its ethos and aesthetic spread.
At the Ross Museum, you can find a second rug collecting St. Andrews landmarks, this one by Maureen McIlwain. The rug expresses the inspiring interdependence of being and creativity in St. Andrews through the chiasmus: “life is art; art is life.”
Highlights of St. Andrews in McIlwain’s rug include (from top right) the windmill at Kingsbrae Garden, Pendlebury Lighthouse, the pebbled tidal shore of St. Andrews Harbour, Blockhouse, the Algonquin Hotel and golf course, and the circular bath house on Ministers Island. The centre shows the local Roman Catholic church, which hosts the Quoddy Loopers, a group of rug-hooking locals who meet in the basement every Wednesday, and who are welcoming, knowledgeable, and generous.
Ministers Island is near to St. Andrews, but you can only visit during low tide, when the road is exposed. Originally a Passamaquoddy summer camp, the island’s most visible history is its late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century amalgamation under William Van Horne, builder, and later president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Van Hornes spent summers on the island, which became a vacation home, artistic retreat, health spa (featuring sea bathing), European art collection, and model farm.
Our final hooked guide comes from the Quoddy Loopers, who teamed up to make the rug for a fundraising auction in support of the organization that runs Ministers Island. The purchaser kindly donated it back to Ministers Island. In the middle of the rug’s landmarks is the Van Horne house, Covenhoven.
Covenhoven contains many examples of local fibre arts. Most have no provenance or named maker. However, these treasured community gifts add vital texture and context.
Interestingly, the owners’ and family members’ rooms feature examples of finer fibre art behind ropes, while servant rooms feature functional, more worn artworks that visitors may touch. These differences in fibre displays illuminate class differences in useful ways.
Covenhoven includes some exhibits of local indigenous history. Possibly the only visible evidence of contemporary indigeneity in popular St. Andrews tourist sites is a number of baskets made recently by local (Maine-based) Passamaquoddy or Peskotomuhkati fibre artists.
We might compare St. Andrews’ relative scarcity of contemporary indigeneity in tourism and arts institutions in the summer of 2019 to the relative abundance in Toronto, including the Art Gallery of Ontario’s retrospective of Brian Jungen’s work.
William Van Horne and Grace Helen Mowat, who appeared in this fibre tour, make for a suggestive pairing. Both were deeply committed to establishing artistic St. Andrews and to boosting New Brunswick industry. Furthermore, both promoted a modern national Canadian identity founded on ideals of connecting remote rural pockets of local settler resourcefulness. For Van Horne, the construction of this national identity was literal, as railway-building was equivalent to nation-building, while for Mowat, fibre-making was equivalent to community-building. It’s worth noting that this idea of Canadian identity relied on the marginalization of the Passamaquoddy, and this near-erasure persists through much of St. Andrews’ tourist celebration of white settler cultural production.
I like to think that fibre artists are grounded, and we have a good sense of how much work is involved in making quilts and rugs and baskets. I hope when we find fibre arts in historical homes, museums, and other sites, we remember to not perpetuate an idealized past in which people had more access to fine craft. We know that the narratives of craft have been made to serve classed, gendered, and colonizing enterprises. While we tour, we might also wonder: what might the next generation of decolonizing personal cartographies of fibre look like?
Ian McKay. The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.
Diana Rees with Ronald Rees. Grace Helen Mowat and the Making of Cottage Craft. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2009.
All images by Nadine Flagel, unless otherwise noted.