Some N.L. crafts are facing extinction, and this heritage project wants to save them

·2 min read
In 2017, artists Diana Chisholm and David Dyck made these ropes using a ropemaking machine they built themselves. (Diana Chisholm and David Dyck - image credit)
In 2017, artists Diana Chisholm and David Dyck made these ropes using a ropemaking machine they built themselves. (Diana Chisholm and David Dyck - image credit)
Diana Chisholm and David Dyck
Diana Chisholm and David Dyck

A new Heritage N.L. project is seeking to salvage Newfoundland and Labrador's traditional crafts from decline.

Terra Barrett, a researcher with the organization, says the skills and knowledge associated with endangered crafts, which include everything from birch broom making to bark canning to sealskin work, are precious intangible heritage that must be conserved.

Barrett said the goal of the "craft at risk" list is to teach "what a traditional craft is, what goes into it, and how that differs from something mass made," she said.

As part of the project, Heritage N.L. consulted with craftspeople across the province to get a sense of which practices were thriving, and which were on the way out.

Of the 54 traditions documented, more than 40 were marked as endangered. Only one — ropemaking — is considered extinct.

The practice thrived well into the 20th century, with the Colonial Cordage Company operating a ropewalk on its namesake thoroughfare in St. John's.

Diana Chisholm and David Dyck
Diana Chisholm and David Dyck

Diana Chisolm, a Nova Scotia-born multidisciplinary artist, got a glimpse into the importance of the tradition while showcasing a replica ropemaking machine this summer at Union House Arts festival in Port Union, N.L.

"It's interesting because every time we've presented it, you hear stories of people remembering the process," she said. "There's a lot of reminiscing."

A sign of the times

Barrett says the reason many traditions fade away is because better, more durable materials are developed.

Synthetic rope, for instance, didn't require the same maintenance through the winter.

Other traditions are lost due to scarcity of resources, like the caribou fur and sinew used in traditional tufting and snowshoe making.

"Caribou hunting isn't as common in Labrador as it was before," Barrett said. "If you can't access that material that [tradition] might get lost."

Consumer behaviour also plays a role in the preservation of tradition, Barrett said. That's why part of the project's focus is "getting people aware of the time and energy that goes into the craft, and that perhaps it is worth what the craftsperson is asking."

Wriggle fence making is one of the dozens of crafts marked "critically endangered."

A traditional structure still found in many Newfoundland and Labrador communities, wriggle fences are fashioned from three long stakes of wood with vertical palings woven through.

This past summer, a former resident of Newfoundland requested a workshop so he could pass on the precious technique to his children while visiting the province.

Requests such as those give Barrett hope the province's precious traditions may not be as endangered as they seem.

"We'd love to be able to move things around on this list and find activities that aren't extinct," she said. "We would love to be wrong."

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