Monday, November 5, 2012

Weaving in the Woods

This past Saturday the ICH office, in partnership Memorial University's Folklore 6740 graduate class, put off a pillow top making workshop.

Pillow tops are woven with wool on wooden frames and were traditionally crafted by Newfoundland lumber camp workers to be gifted to their wives, girlfriends or mothers. They are sewn onto pillows, used as throws, pot holders or place mats.

Today this handcrafted tradition is being carried on by Elizabeth Murphy of the Burin Peninsula. She grew up in a house where crafting pillow tops was a winter pastime and learned to make them from her parents in the early 1960s. This is a skill which she has gone on to teach for several years and we were fortunate to have her lead this workshop. The event was a great success and everyone who participated walked away with a lovely pillow top and the skills they require to continue this traditional Newfoundland craft.
 Susan Lee, June Russell, Arlene Penney, Nicole Penney, Elizabeth Murphy and Raymond Russell (left to right) examine the differences between the Russell's pillow top and the three Murphy brought. All these pillow tops are between 30-50 years old.  

The beginning step of making a pillow top is layering the wool on the wooden frame.
Raelene Thomas

Jillian Gould teaches Folklore 6740 and
 partnered with the ICH office on this project

Elizabeth Murphy instructing Jenny Taroff,
a student in the Folklore 6740 class
Caitlin Bethune of the Folklore 6740 class (blue hat/shirt) works alongside a workshop participant

After layering the wool the next step is to tie off the back. We were shown by Murphy how to use fish net twine and a twine needle for this step. 

Raymond Russell, who made a pillow top while working in the lumber camps in 1958, helps his daughter, Arlene Penney, with her pillow top. 

Murphy (back) looks over some of the workshop participants as they weave their pillow tops. 

The Next step, after layering all the wool and tying off the back, is to cut the wool. This  cutting will  form the  pom poms on the pillow top. Be careful not to cut all the way through! As you can see in the picture above, a few strands of wool are not cut in order to form the backing of the pillow top.

Dale Jarvis and Nicole Penney, of the ICH office, cut their pillow tops to form the pom poms
Shamus MacDonald, of the Folklore 6740 class, tries his hand at cutting wool.

The very last step is to steam the wool in order to fluff up the pom poms

A close up on the pom poms

Two of our participants showing off their finished pillow tops. 

If you have any pillow top memories please contact Nicole Penney with the ICH office. We are actively collecting information about this interesting Newfoundland craft. Nicole can be reached at (709) 739-1892 ex. 6 or via email at

Photographs courtesy of: Christina Robarts


Susan said...

This workshop was great fun! Nice job on the photos too. :)

Denise Dolliver said...

Is there a photo of what the back looks like during the "tying off" process? And how do you step up to the next row in the tying off process - or do you do a row and knot each end of row?

We are doing a heritage workshop with the elementary school children next week and I am trying to produce an example following your information.

Nicole Penney said...

Hi Denise,
I'd be happy to make you a little video this weekend and send it along. Please feel free to send me along your email address so we can get in touch. You can contact me at

Denise Dolliver said...

Thanks so much Nicole! My e-mail address is

By the way, I live in Cow Head on the Northern Peninsula. I have found here that making pillow tops was a craft people learned in the sanatorium while being treated for tuberculosis. I have not found any men as yet that made pillow tops as a past-time in the lumber camps in this area.

Nicole Penney said...

Here's a little instructional video on how to tie off the pillow top backing with a twine needle.
Hope this finds you well! :)

julia said...


I am interested making a pillow top. which way is the best to thread it. and are the edges cut away nearest to the board. and what is the best size to make these. thank you