The youngest knitter on the NONIA team is just 19, the young lady with the lip piercing behind the counter tells me as she’s finishing up the stitches on a traditional infant’s cap. “Does her mother knit for you too?” I ask , and she laughs and points at the cap in her hands. “Her mom knit this.”
Founded in 1920 to raise money with the sale of knit and woven goods to help outport communities access medical care, NONIA (Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association) had the ambitious plan to raise 75% of the salaries of specially trained nurses brought in from England. The other 25 % was to be paid by the government.
Observations of rural health care at the time described the need as dire indeed. The nurses also acted as midwives, and at least one contracted tuberculosis in the line of duty and died a few years later back at home in the U.K.
“They must have been very brave women,” the NONIA knitter at the counter says as she shows me a list of the 28 rural centers served between 1921 and 1934. It was in 1934 that the government took over responsibility for public healthcare.
NONIA continues the industrial side of its operations, employing almost 200 hundred knitters and weavers around Newfoundland. A “not-for-profit cottage industry,” the earnings from items sold create supplemental family income for families all over this island , in keeping with our long tradition of cobbling together a living through a combination of trade skills.
Some weavers of NONIA’s early days were so impassioned with their craft that their outports had to increase sheep population to supply them raw materials. In a province that now imports the vast majority of things, it’s an inspiring story.
Fellow knitter Abir Zain shares tips with the staff, as I take some pictures of her daughter Shams in NONIA kids sweaters and hats. Asking the English name for different stitches she sees, she explains ways of manipulating the wool to slightly change the effect of different techniques.
Everybody’s having a time. Shams is hamming it up, and I hear Abir wonder aloud if maybe she was always a Newfoundlander inside, just waiting for a chance to wind up here. For a woman who has endured the unspeakable horrors of the Syrian war and spent 2 years in a refugee camp in Jordan with her family, to hear her speak with such joy about the home she has found really moves me.
NONIA proves that crafting together still provides a “tight knit” community. I won’t be surprised if Abir is knitting for them soon.
NONIA is located at 286 Water Street