NONIA’s preservation of knitting traditions allows Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to wear their pride on their sleeves.
Marie Hayward’s eyes widened when she was recently presented with a huge basket of wool.
“When do I got to have that knit up?!” she asked with some alarm.
Edna Duffett, president of the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association (NONIA), quickly assured her that it was a gift, to do with as she wished, and not another knitting order from the not-for-profit organization.
Hayward was being recognized for 70 years of knitting at NONIA’s Annual General Meeting at Government House in St. John’s. The basket was a gift from a wool supplier.
One of over 150 women around the province of Newfoundland and Labrador who knit for NONIA on a regular basis, Hayward is - amazingly - not the first to reach the 70-year milestone. Many of the group’s knitters are part of a family tradition, where mother, grandmothers, aunts, and others have contributed for generations.
Founded in 1920 to help the province’s outport communities access better health care, NONIA used funds raised from the sale of hand-knit garments to pay the salaries of public health nurses. In 1934, the association’s mandate was taken up by the government. Despite the support, the group’s original homespun mandate was maintained, providing valuable assistance to outport households over lean decades.
Today, NONIA retains its status as a not-for-profit cottage industry, managed by a volunteer Board of Directors. Its retail location in downtown St. John's employs a staff of five to eight persons, depending on the season. The organization’s knitters continue to craft sweaters, socks, hats and mitts for all-ages. Table linens are hand-woven as well. Signature sweater styles are named for Newfoundland communities, including Fortune Bay, Cape Freels and Rocky Harbour. Products are also sold through the group’s website, as well as via select retailers across the region and at the annual provincial craft fair.
Over time, NONIA’s brand has become renowned, both at home and abroad, for its quality. In the province’s outport communities, it is still a badge of honour to be a NONIA knitter, as it signifies a high-level of ability.
NONIA’s mission now also includes the preservation of knitting heritage. For example, an iconic piece of local handwear known as a trigger mitt was traditionally knit by every rural woman in Newfoundland. The mitt is part glove, with a separate index finger, providing greater dexterity for outdoor work, including hunting, splitting fish and cutting wood. Two strands of wool were used for extra warmth, and the knitters developed intricate patterns to make the mitts both interesting and attractive.
Knitting skills were first brought to Newfoundland and Labrador by European settlers - the area’s Indigenous peoples did not knit, instead using furs and hides as their primary clothing materials. Most of the landed immigrants were Irish, English and Scottish, so many of the province’s knitting patterns have Celtic roots. In fact, NONIA’s business model was borrowed in 1920 by Lady Harris, the wife of Newfoundland’s English Governor, from a similar organization in Scotland.
“NONIA was key to increasing knitting skills in Newfoundland, by distributing high-quality wool and patterns, and giving outport women a mechanism by which to share their skills,” writes Shirley Anne Scott, author of Canada Knits: Craft and Comfort in a Northern Land.
The organization is blessed with a passionate group of board members, many of whom have supported the group for years.
“Once NONIA comes into your life, it is there forever,” says long-time board member, Karen Hickman. The association has also enjoyed the loyalty of many long-serving staff members, including Cathy Marsh - who has worked on the retail side of the business for 32 years - and Judy Anderson, who recently retired after more than two decades of service.
“Many of us grew up in NONIA knitwear,” notes the group’s manager Keelin O’Leary.
“NONIA’s history is woven into the fabric of both the province’s heritage, and into the hearts of her citizens.”
O’Leary is encouraged to see that tradition being passed along to younger generations.
“One of my favourite stories is of 11-year-old Aiden Lawlor of Lethbridge, Bonavista Bay. His great-grandmother, Iris Skiffington, knit for NONIA for over 50 years, and Iris’ sister was also a long-time knitter for the organization. Aiden recently did a school heritage project about us, using all kinds of interesting materials saved by Iris over the decades. Aiden is now keen on supporting and promoting the association, and he may very well become our first male knitter in many years!”