Newfoundland knitters

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

What a privilege visiting Doris at Green's Harbour. Ninety-three years old and still knitting for new babies.

I often get asked if we found some places in Canada where knitting was more popular…or less…than other places. There are busy yarn shops with vibrant knitting communities all across the country. If participation in the workshops is any indication of knitting’s popularity then Vancouver, Vernon, Kelowna, Edmonton, Scarborough and Fredericton (and Ottawa, Halifax, Barrie…) top the list. But smaller shops also filled their rooms; and workshop attendance is not a very useful indicator of knitting popularity. Enthusiasm was equally widespread across the country—but then who’s not in a great mood when they take an afternoon off to hang out with knitters? 


What I am saying is that I’m the wrong person to answer that question. It appears to me that knitting is gaining popularity in all the places we visited. Yarn shop owners and guild organizers say there has been increased interest in knitting in their area for several years. Not only are there new knitters, there are new yarns and techniques that are turning out exceptional products. Designers are producing creative works of art and knitters everywhere are taking courses and workshops to improve their skills. The knitting business is alive. I don’t think it is making anyone rich but in all other regards it’s a progressive field across the country. No single city or province has the corner on this market.

But something different is going on in Newfoundland and it’s not new. We came across hand knitting in gift, clothing and craft stores, in restaurants and even gas stations. It reminded me of the past, when shops on the west coast carried Coast Salish knitting as a side-line to everything from groceries to sporting goods. This style of knitting in Newfoundland is not modern. It ranges from dish clothes to slippers, mittens and hats to kids’ sweaters. Most of it is now being made by older women who have been knitting all their lives. I’m not sure if historically Newfoundland women knit more than women from other provinces but their knitting tradition has lasted longer. The knitted things I remember at church bazaars and hospital auxiliaries when I was young can still be seen everywhere in Newfoundland.


I was particularly interested in Newfoundland knitting because I was under the impression that many women used to and still do knit for a living. I wanted to find out if their industry was similar to what Coast Salish women did for decades—knit to feed the family.

We met Judy and Joanne at NONIA to find out. NONIA is the province’s oldest and most famous knitting company. The name stands for Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association and was founded in 1920 to provide funds to hire medical care in the outports through the sale of hand knit garments. It is this unusual history that makes NONIA different from the Coast Salish knitters.

Judy and Joanne at NONIA

In the mid 20th century Coast Salish knitters made sweaters to feed their individual families…without them the kids would have nothing to eat…literally. Newfoundland knitters and many other knitters across the country knit for society…without them hospitals, church food kitchens, children’s groups…would not operate…society would not function…literally. Maybe it’s not that different after all.

Tex inserts here a little factoid…Newfoundland has the highest per capita charitable donations in Canada—historically they had the lowest income but the highest level of giving. Knitting was part of that great tradition.

Joanne generously organized a tour for us to visit NONIA knitters in the small villages outside St. John’s. We met women in St. Phillips, Whiteway, New Chelsea, Whitbourne, Bristol's Hope, Carbonear, and Green’s Harbour. Could this have been the highlight of the knitting tour? It was, at least, in the top five of my most favourite things we did. Visiting Doris, Linda, Audrey, Joan, Margaret, Jean, and Yvonne reminded me of the women I spent so much time with, buying Cowichan sweaters…Laura, Madeline, Cecelia, Nora, Elizabeth, Roberta, May….I miss them.



Although NONIA knitters were pleased to get remunerated for their knitting, and, in the past, some of them needed the money, none of them that we met said that being paid was their reason for their work.

Knitting has a long tradition of community service. All the elderly knitters in Newfoundland knit socks for the war…and loved it.


They still love knitting. They dread the thought that one day their hands or eyes will give out. These women credit knitting with keeping them mentally fit and happy. “Knitting passes the time, keeps the mind fit, arthritis at bay.” They are proud to make beautiful things that people will enjoy—complicated cables come easy... “There’s nothing to it when you gets to do it.” “Oh I loves to knit. I hopes NONIA keeps it up and my hands and eyes stay working.” 

"Our knitters are our mainstay, they are from every nook and cranny of the province and represent both young and old alike.  Some knit purely because they love to knit, others because their household depends on the extra income.  Together they carry on the tradition of hand knitting in Newfoundland."   Judy Anderson, NONIA manager

There’s the modern side of knitting in St. John’s as well. We had a great workshop in Katie's Cast on, Cast off, a lovely bustling yarn shop with coffee, muffins and great sofas. Another city “living room” that only has one problem, “On knit nights the place can be so crowded there is often nowhere to sit down.”


I was delighted and surprised to find my beautiful niece Jerusha waiting for me when we arrived. We had lots of fun with her and Brandon over lunch.

We had a great visit with the grade fives at Bishop Field Elementary with possibly the brightest Canadian geographers in the country. Those kids knew their country’s provinces and cities. There wasn’t a place we visited that they didn’t know about.

St. John’s is a spectacular city. In most cities we avoided the more prevalent suburbia and found the historic, cultural centres of town. That’s where we ate and mostly where we stayed. The further east we traveled the more amazing these places became. But St. John’s is possibly Canada’s most unusual major city. The whole inner city is like the photos. Street after street of colourful vernacular houses nestled around a working harbour…more on this later…too much to think about for now. 


Lots of love 

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