How We Did It: The Traditional Skills Network

An Interview with Serena Etheridge, Quebec Labrador Foundation

Interview recorded by Craft Labrador.
Photos by S. Etheridge, J. Pye.

Lately there has been an interest in finding ways to develop experiences for visitors to Newfoundland and Labrador. For example, in the craft sector, we might be looking for ways to show visitors how crafts are made and ways to let visitors try out the craft themselves.

From 2000-2010, the Quebec Labrador Foundation (QLF) did just that – they had a project called the Traditional Skills Network that told the story of craft making through demonstrations to visitors. The project operated in the Strait of Belle Isle region and included craft makers and communities in Southern Labrador, on the Northern Peninsula and on the Quebec Lower North Shore. Local individuals demonstrated traditional crafts and the crafts that they made were sold to support the salaries of participants.

We talked with Serena Etheridge of L’Anse au Clair, who managed the project for the QLF.

Traditional Skills Network Craft Demonstrations

Serena, how did the Traditional Skills Network get started?

The concept came about because of an identified need to preserve traditional skills that were in jeopardy of dying out. We wanted to find a way to revive these skills while providing local employment – and so the idea of the TSN came to be. We started off with 9-12 people at different sites. The sites included local businesses, museums and visitor centres. Over the years, the number of participants changed – it went as high as 30 participants and as low as 3 over the span of 10 years.

What were the craft producers hired to do at these sites?

We started out by identifying what skills were in jeopardy of being lost versus which skill sets were still being practiced or available in each of 3 regions (Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Southern Labrador and the Quebec Lower North Shore). Our hiring process was based on the skills that residents were able to offer in relation to the identified needs, ranging from quilting to boat building to seal skin crafts.

Traditional Skills Preservation: Boatbuilding

The goal was to revive and preserve traditional crafts and to create local employment in the process. We tried to have the craftspeople working in high visitor areas that had a tourism or cultural focus. We developed partnerships with these local businesses and tourism sites – they allowed the various crafts to be demonstrated at their locations, and once finished, the products were then placed in their corresponding gift shops. In addition to having a cultural heritage activity at their sites, the businesses were given a small percentage of each sale.

The basic concept behind it was that the crafts person would:

  • Produce a (traditional) craft that had relevance to the region and/or site
  • Demonstrate, through a specific site set-up, the process of craft production for the visitor (or local person)
  • Enhance the meaning behind the craft by relaying a story that it reflected (most often, the craftspeople had traditional clothing that helped with the setting)
  • Whenever possible, have a sample product that the visitor could physically try
  • Sell the craft to the visitor.

A small portion of the money would be given to the site, but the remainder would be reinvested in the Traditional Skills Network toward material costs and salaries of those who developed the products. Typically, the craftspeople would work between 8 and 12 weeks during the summer months when tourism season was at its peak.

There was always a focus placed on trying to tell the story behind the craft. If it was boatbuilding, it wasn’t just about the boat, it was about the fishery and its history or heritage. Most often there was something the visitors themselves could try, so it was a way for them to take.

We would set up a scene at each site, with a sign identifying the name of the program. Visitors were intrigued to see the craftspeople in costume, the scene set with lanterns on the table, samples of the finished crafts placed around, and accessories to help enhance the storytelling aspect. As an example, with the hooked mats, the crafts person would talk about where the materials came from, the patterns and the ideas behind them. They really told the story which enticed visitors to buy. Ultimately, it was the story they were selling as much as the product.

Was the project able to be self-sustainable from the sale of crafts?

It was a learning process. We did get some initial pilot project funding to hire craft demonstrators in the Strait of Belle Isle region. We found that we needed to determine participants’ skill sets and identify our target markets. In order to make it sustainable we had to focus on products that would give us the best return. For example, crocheting didn’t work because you could buy the same thing somewhere else for $2, when it took 15 hours of someone’s time. We had to find the products that were in demand, find the people who would produce them and sell the story behind them, and make it work. Our research showed that with a one on one demonstration, more sales were made.

One area that was totally self-sustaining was the sealskin products.

Did you also sell crafts outside of the local region and at craft fairs?

We sold at a couple of auctions in Boston that were connected to QLF. They also made some custom orders, knowing the types of products we were producing. That spread by word of mouth across Canada and we had people from as far away as Alberta contacting us, looking for specific types of hand-made crafts.

We also sold products at a museum in Sept Iles and in Montreal. We participated in several craft fairs in the Labrador Straits and on the Quebec Lower North Shore. We likewise sold various products at a high-end craft store in St. John’s – including trigger mitts, carved wooden paintings, wooden boats, sealskin products and landscape quilting items.

Crafts were sold at gift shops, craft fairs and auctions.

Did you involve youth in your project?

We had a Youth Apprenticeship Program. Every summer we hired local students who worked side by side with the craftspeople for the duration of the summer. They went on to learn about the craft and develop it themselves. The goal was to instill some of these traditional skills and to help carry forward the knowledge of these traditions. Among several success stories, we had a young girl who built a model boat and went on to build a couple of them for her family. There were also a few young girls who learned to make quilts and hook mats.

Did you do other skills development in the project?

We did a lot of workshops – everything from product development to pricing and promotion. We thought it was important to know how each price came to be, or how to adapt a traditional skill to more modern products. Not everyone wanted to buy a $400 quilt, but some people wanted to take little wall hangings with them- representative of the skill, but more practical to carry. We had workshops in Newfoundland, in Labrador and on the Quebec side. The people who were involved in the Traditional Skills Network in the three regions were always exchanging and connecting.

With the goal of helping tell the stories behind the products, we developed little write-ups and hang tags to accompany the crafts. The tags identified who the craftsperson was, what the item was used for in earlier days, and how it was made. Whenever possible, we attached it as a souvenir for the visitor to take home. It also helped tell the story at times when we didn’t have the demonstrators available.

Learning and Sharing Traditional Skills

What advice would you give to craft groups or craft producers who want to interact with the tourism industry?

Value the Work: One thing that I keep coming back to, and found it the hardest to really convince participants of, was the incredible value of their work. We went to an auction and a lady from Newfoundland was making a beautiful quilt by hand and I asked her what she thought she would get for it and she said, “$100 if you’re lucky.” I went to the auction (in Boston) – and without hesitation – we got $1400 for that quilt. A lot of people say “I’ve always done it, there’s no value in that,” but sometimes it takes an outside perspective to point out just how incredibly valuable their work is.

Identify Skill Sets: Identify available skill sets and build on that. You’re not necessarily going to have a seal skin product factory if there’s nobody who knows how to make seal skin products. You need to assess what’s available, and how those skills can best be utilized. Adapt those skill sets to what’s in demand. Of course, you’re going to want to create what’s going to sell, and what will help generate a profit if you want to make the initiative self-sustainable.

Be Aware of Trends: Be aware of trends and know your market both locally and globally. We were surprised by how many locals bought as well. There were some differences in what they were looking for. Locals did not want to hear talk of mittens knitted with 100% wool, they wanted the softer synthetic yarns, whereas visitors would only buy them if it was 100% wool. Based on what customers are looking for, you can always adapt existing skills to new products.

Identify Key Products: Identify the proper products to create – products that are in demand and can sell, but are also unique. By the time visitors get here they’ve seen a lot of knitted goods, but if you are able to create something different with that skill, it will help move your products. Customize it so that it’s specific to the story that you’re selling instead of something very general. Understanding the market demand and adapting products around that are important to keep in mind.

Enforce Quality Control and Standards: Some people make things differently; it all comes back to having the right people involved. Don’t be shy to enforce quality standards. It only takes one or two not so good items to diminish the value of the work that’s being done in the organization. With this being said, offer skills training and reinforce quality products. It helps build participants’ confidence and steers you in the right direction.

Develop a Pricing Strategy: Be careful of pricing- don’t undervalue but don’t overprice. If it’s too inexpensive it undermines the value and sends the message that it is of poor quality. In the same token, if it’s too expensive, it will be more difficult to sell. You need to make sure that it fits within the market standards, that you are covering your basic costs and able to make a profit from.

Our pricing model at the time was: Cost of materials X 2 + a percentage of labour/hour.

Help Tell the Story: Always try to add that special touch. Tell the story through the exchange somehow – whether it’s through demonstrations or hang tags. Visitors don’t want to find the same souvenir here that they would find somewhere else. It needs to be authentic and representative of the region that they are visiting. Again, the story conveyed or meaning behind a product might be the selling point as much as the craft itself.

Did you have to do a lot of project management work in the off-season?

It depends on the season and the extent to which you would like to build the business or venture. It could mean selling off a couple little things left over or preparing for the subsequent season. But you need someone to oversee the project, whether it’s enforcing quality control, or selling, collecting and buying materials. The craftspeople are busy focusing on the demonstration and production of crafts. There is little time for them to work on coordinating or organizing the administrative aspects of the initiative. In my opinion, it always helps to have a project manager who can oversee the human and material resources, and then help pull everything together to make it a successful venture.

As part of the Traditional Skills Network, we also did a cookbook, a traditional music CD, and a series of “Inter-generational Exchanges”. This included local seniors going into schools and teaching youth traditional skills (net mending, quilting, cooking, boat building and square dancing), while youth taught seniors some things they were interested in (mandolin, computers, and modern dance). It was a really nice addition to the program, which connected people at a community level, encouraged learning, and was not so heavily focused on the ‘sale of goods’, but rather the sharing of information.

About the Quebec Labrador Foundation

The Quebec Labrador Foundation (QLF) is a non-profit, registered charity in both Canada and the United States. Founded in 1961 by Rev. Robert Bryan, the organization has been working on the Quebec-Labrador Coast since it was first created there some 57 years ago.

QLF’s mission is “to promote global leadership development, to support the rural communities and environment of eastern Canada and New England, and to create models for stewardship of natural resources and cultural heritage that can be applied worldwide.”

In this capacity, QLF works with a broad range on partners all around the world, with a focus on projects and programs that foster leadership, conservation efforts, and stewardship of both natural and cultural resources. It is through QLF’s cultural heritage program that the “Traditional Skills Network” came to be in 2000-2001.