Buyer's Guide to Labrador Crafts

A Guide for Craft Lovers Who Want to Purchase Labrador Craft Products

The items we now consider to be traditional Labrador crafts were once made out of necessity. Families made skin boots, snowshoes and komatiks to be able to work in the winter. Quilts and hooked rugs were made out of fabric scraps to keep the family home warm and cosy. Clothing was homemade and the makers took pride in the quality of their work.

Those same skills and quality of work can be found in today’s crafts. Labrador producers still make traditional products, including: Innu tea dolls, beadwork, grasswork, caribou hair tufting, rug hooking, duffel work, sealskin products, carvings, knitting, quilting and sewing.

This guide will help you to learn about the skills and traditions that go into the making of these authentic Labrador crafts. If you have the opportunity, ask the seller or the producer about the craft and local traditions. They will be happy to share the story of their crafts.

What is Quality Beadwork?

Many Labrador craft producers use beads to embellish their work. Some crafts people also create stand-alone beaded artwork. Here is what you should look for in beadwork.

  • The beads will be evenly stitched and lie flat when stitched on the fabric in two-dimensional designs. Some producers include loose strands of beads or overlapping beads in three-dimensional designs.
  • On slippers and mittens, the beads will be stitched tight and secure to the fabric, not loose and floppy.
  • No thread ends will be visible.

How Do I Select Quality Caribou Tufting and Sculpting?

Because the George River Caribou herd is now a species at risk, there is no longer a subsistence caribou hunt in Labrador. There are some craftspeople with caribou hair who continue to tuft or sculpt. Here is what you should look for in caribou tufting and sculpting.

  • Traditional designs of flowers and leaves often incorporate a twig for the stem.
  • The background fabric is often velvet or canvas. The background should be flat and not puckered or rippled, and will appear to be made of new material.
  • Tufts will be shaped neatly. There will not be any long hairs poking out, unless they are part of the design.
  • Wildlife will be proportioned properly and appear natural.
  • No loose hairs or dust will be visible in the artwork.
  • If the work is framed, the glass will not be touching any of the caribou hairs.

How Will I Know if the Carving I Choose is Authentic?

Carvings are made from wood, bone, antler, ivory (tusk) and stone and often from a combination of these materials. You will find inuksuk, hoods (faces), wildlife, dancers and hunters. Beware of fakes that are actually poured moulds to replicate carvings. Here is what to look for.

  • Hand carved items are significantly more expensive than the poured moulded factory made souvenirs.
  • Handmade carvings are always unique and one of a kind. If you see two identical pieces, they could be moulded items.
  • The carving will be stable and stand on its own or on its base.
  • You will not see any dried glue.
  • Some pieces are polished and some are not. Polishing will be visibly even.
  • You will see a smooth finish without chips or cracks on stone or bone. Wood will also have a smooth finish without dents or splinters.
  • There might be scratches in the design of the carving meant to create texture.
  • Facial features will be carved, not be scratched in.
  • Any attached pieces (harpoons, drums, tusks) will fit snugly and most will be removable.
  • Handmade carvings are usually signed and dated on the bottom with scratch marks.

What is Quality Duffel Work?

Duffel is a pure wool fabric that was originally used for blankets and coats. Today, this thick warm fabric is also used for baby buntings, hats, slippers, mittens and household craft items. Here is what you should look for when you purchase duffel items.

  • The embroidery or crochet edging on the work will be balanced and even.
  • You will not be able to see the seams, as they will be butted together and covered with embroidery.
  • You will not see any loose threads.
  • You will not see any chalk or pencil marks as they will be covered with embroidery or beadwork.
  • If there is a lining in the piece (e.g., slippers, mitts, coats), it will fit snugly against the duffel and will not have bulges or ripples.

How Can I Tell if the Embroidery is Good Quality?

Embroidery is often an embellishment on sewn items, but some producers create purely embroidered artwork. Here is what you should look for in quality embroidery.

  • The background fabric will be flat and not puckered or rippled. It will look like new materials.
  • There will not be any loose threads visible on the front of the work. If you can see the back of the work, it will be neat, and there will not be any knots visible.
  • You will not see any pencil marks.
  • The work will be clean. No finger prints or marks from stretching will be visible.

What is Quality Grasswork?

Grass baskets were traditionally utilitarian, made as containers for solids or liquids, gun cases, cradles, toys, and even barrels. Now they are admired for their beauty and artisanship. Even the smallest piece of grass work takes many hours to create. Saltwater grasses are collected and dried, and then the fun begins. Here is what you should look for when you purchase grasswork.

  • The piece will have a uniform shape, not unbalanced, unless it is a clearly asymmetric design.
  • The grasswork piece will not feel brittle.
  • If there is a lid, the lid will fit snugly.
  • The stitching will all appear neat, even and firm.
  • No loose grass or ends will be visible.
  • There may be slight variations in the colours of the strands of grass in shades of white, pink, green and purple, but these variations will be delicate, not stark. Sometimes the artist uses naturally dyed grass, coloured embroidery thread, or raffia to add colour to the design.

What Makes a Quality Hooked Rug?

There are many traditional Grenfell style designs used in rugs hooked with wool or scraps torn from worn-out clothing. Today artists are creating new, innovative and beautiful designs to reflect the lifestyle and nature of Labrador. Here is what you should look for in a hooked rug.

  • Rugs might be hooked with yarn, strips of wool fabric, or strips of knit fabric. Each type of material gives a different look to the finished rug.
  • Usually the loops are even and level, however some artists use a variety of levels to create texture and accents in the design.
  • When looking at the back of the mat, you should not be able to see any knots or loose threads. There should be no ‘missed’ pieces in the canvas (the back should be as smooth and even as the front).
  • The rug will hang or lay flat, and not curl at the edges.
  • The edges will be neatly, tightly finished. If not, the rug will start to ravel apart at the edges. Binding around the edge will be neat and corners are usually mitred.
  • Grenfell style rugs will have a smooth appearance with the entire surface on the same level. They will be made with straight line hooking (rather than hooking around each shape in the image).
  • Originally Grenfell rugs were made with dyed silk stockings, and later with strips of jersey fabric. Many are now made with wool, but some rug makers still use jersey fabrics or even pantyhose to obtain the silk stocking effect.
  • Grenfell style rugs often have images that are adapted from old patterns such as dog teams, polar bears and icebergs.

How Do I Select Good Quality Knitted or Crocheted Items?

Labradorians traditionally knitted or crocheted simple but durable socks, hats, mittens and sweaters for utilitarian purposes. Today, knitted and crocheted garments are both useful and beautiful. Here is what you should look for when you purchase knitted or crocheted items.

  • If you look inside the garment, it will be tidy, with no knots or loose threads visible.
  • The garment will be flat, not puckered or rippled.
  • If the piece is made in a solid colour, the colour will be the same throughout, without variation.
  • Labrador designs may include the flag colours (white/blue/green) and an embroidered twig. Sometimes, a garment is embellished with embroidery on top of the knitting or crochet work.
  • Traditional knitting may include variations on the diamond, snowflake and wave patterns. Animal patterns, such as caribou and dogs, are also popular.

What Should I Look for in Quilted and Appliqued Crafts?

Historically, quilts were made from recycled worn clothing for warmth on cold winter nights. In the past, many quilts were embroidered and appliquéd using bleached flour sacks as the background. Today, beautiful quilts are created from a wide variety of fabrics — for the bed, or as decorative wall hangings. Here is what you should look for when you purchase a quilted product.

  • The quilt will lay flat without obvious puckers or wrinkles.
  • If the quilt hangs on the wall, it will hang evenly, flat against the wall, and will not curl at the edges. When folded in half, the corners of the quilt will line up evenly, ensuring that the quilt is straight.
  • You will not see any loose threads or fraying edges of fabric.
  • You will not see any pencil or chalk marks.
  • Stitching, both hand and machine, will be neat and even.
  • Make sure that the binding is neat and even, and that mitred corners are at 45 degree angles. Some quilts may not have mitred corners, but could have a narrow binding, a scalloped or pieced finish, or a square finish.
  • If borders on the quilt are larger than 5″, they will also be quilted.
  • Inspect the quilting stitching, whether done by hand or machine. In a quality piece the quilting will be evenly distributed across the product (with quilting being no further apart than the size of your palm – roughly 5.5″). The more it is quilted, the better the item will wear and wash over time. If the quilting is spaced too much, the batting may bundle up in places once washed.
  • If possible, ask the quilt maker if the materials have been washed prior to sewing. Pre-washing ensures that the quilt will not shrink, or will not shrink unevenly when you wash it after purchase.

How Do I Select Good Quality Knitted or Crocheted Items?

Historically, families across Labrador wore handmade sealskin boots. The boots were warm and waterproof and were commonly used until the late 1960s. Nowadays, fewer people make skin boots but craft producers are making a variety of clothing, accessories and art objects using sealskin. Some producers still use barked sealskin – hides that have been dyed a darker brown colour using tree bark. Here is what you should look for in a quality sealskin product.

  • The fur nap will generally run down the article – boots: from knee to toe; mitts: from elbow to fingertip; jackets: from shoulder to hem. This will reduce wear and tear, and will enhance waterproof characteristics. However, if the mitts are going to be used for snowmobiling, the fur nap should run from fingertip towards the elbow so that the wind will blow snow and rain off the fur, instead of forcing it into the under layer of hide.
  • Make sure that the sealskin is sewn together well. If handmade, the stitches should be close together. Otherwise the sealskin and stitches can break apart.
  • Inspect the quality of the sealskin to make sure there are no bare or worn spots.
  • Commercially-made sealskin boots will include rubber soles, while handmade sealskin boots have bottoms made from soft leather for walking in dry snow, or stiff waterproof hide.

What Qualities Should I Look for in Hand Sewn Crafts?

In the past, both men and women were skilled in sewing. Trappers mended their clothing in order to stay warm on the lonely trapline. Women sewed everything from underwear to winter coats for their large families. They used whatever fabric they could find, including flour sacks, shipping canvas, furs and hide, and repurposed used clothing. Outerwear that pulls over the head (without a zipper) are cossack, dickie or amuatik, while a knapsack is often referred to as a pack sack or grub bag.

Here is what you should look for when you purchase sewn crafts.

  • The sewn piece will be clean and pressed. There will be no puckers or ripples.
  • If you can see inside the piece, it will be neat, with no loose threads showing. All the seams will be finished, not raw and fraying.
  • The garment should fit comfortably.

How Do I Know that the Innu Tea Doll is Authentic and High Quality?

There are only a few Innu people who produce these dolls. If you are purchasing at a craft sale, chat with the producer in person. She’ll be thrilled to tell you her personal story and explain about the dolls she makes. In the past, the tea dolls were used to carry tea for the family when they travelled into the wilderness to hunt. The children had a sense of purpose and a toy to play with on these long trips.

  • Use your sense of smell. An authentic Innu tea doll will include doll smoked tanned caribou hide and it will have a lovely smoky aroma. Because the body of the doll is full of loose tea, you will also smell the tea inside.
  • The doll will be stiff and able to stand, not limp, and the moccasins will fit tight to the feet and not fall off.
  • The features on the doll face will be embroidered in black thread.
  • Sometimes the clothing is completely made from hide, but sometimes it’s made of a combination of cotton, hide, flannelette or canvas. Some dolls carry babies or have shawls. The male dolls may have canvas knapsacks.
  • Ask the doll maker’s name. The doll may have a hang tag with the producer’s name. Unfortunately, Innu producers generally do not sign their dolls. If you are purchasing an Innu tea doll at a retail shop or gallery, ask the sales clerk if the producer is authentic.