Highlights from a 45 Year Collector of Antique Canadian Textiles

When Dennis Mills invited Rogues’ Hollow Antiques to visit his comprehensive collection of antique Canadian textiles we knew that it was a rare opportunity worth documenting for its glimpse into Canada’s early history.

Textiles are as varied as the world itself. Simply defined, a textile is any cloth or woven fabric produced by weaving, knitting or felting.  But textiles of course, are much more than that. They reflect our social and cultural history, and while they may be primarily designed to protect and shelter us from the cold, they can also be objects of great aesthetic beauty, imagination and ingenuity.

Dennis came from a Scottish and Irish heritage steeped in an appreciation for textiles.  His forbears were avid quilters and embroiderers who often gave gifts of textiles as a rite of passage at weddings or graduations. He describes hand-made objects as being, “…inherent in his genes”. There were others outside his family who influenced him while he was studying Fine Arts at the University of Guelph. Gordon Couling and Greg Curnoe, both professors of his, were passionate advocates of Canadian art history and of the visual arts. While attending Teacher’s College in Toronto, Dennis would regularly visit the Royal Ontario Museum, which was only a five minute walk from the college. Although there were periods during his teaching career, and while raising a family, when collecting took a back seat, he always maintained an interest in textiles.

Today, Dennis has a varied collection of textiles, primarily from the 19th and 20th centuries, including hand woven coverlets, blankets, home spun quilts, samplers, hooked and woven floor coverings, costuming and weavers’ tools. He is currently in discussions with a few museums to determine which items he will bequeath to their collections for the benefit of future generations.

When selecting an object for his collection Dennis focuses on five areas to uncover the story of the artifact:

1)     Social: Does the object fit in this community and is it appropriate to the lived experience of Canada’s past? Was it woven for a known or particular purpose?

2)     Cultural: Why and for what purpose was the object made? Does it fit with the popular cultural traditions and interpretations of its time?

3)     Historical: Who owned the object? What was their background? How did it influence them in their new settlement? How did it contribute to Canada’s past? Was the weaver and early owner known in a particular community?

4)     Technical: Who made the piece? Was the maker part of a Weaver’s Guild? To identify the construction, quality and uniqueness of the object.

5)     Aesthetic: The object’s colour, design, and use (practice piece versus special occasion or daily use object)

Circa 1850’s Carpet Found in North Leeds County

Dennis describes his role as “detective work”. For example, he recently came across an early woven 9’ x 12’ rug that was found under a linoleum floor in North Leeds County, Ontario. He initially saw the rug in an antique shop and tracked down the original house where it came from by taking photos of every single stone house in the area, and then verifying the rug’s original home with the antique dealer and auctioneer. After that, he used reference libraries and available archive information to track down the weaver. All of this work established the rug’s provenance and resulted in identifying an early woven rug from the 1850’s, made by the Gibson family of weavers for the Shank family, originally from Ireland.  Mr. Shank came to Canada as a contractor for the building of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa; so the rug has historical significance, as well as being a rare surviving example of an early woven textile used by our early settlers. To put this find in perspective, according to Burnham and Burnham, in their book, “Keep me warm one night”, the earliest known example of a similar rug dates to 1828. Rather remarkable for something Dennis happened to spot one day in an antique store while visiting North Leeds County.

A man’s shawl is another interesting item in Dennis’ collection. Men’s shawls have only been seen in Ontario and are a rare find. They were not as wide as those made for women, but were much longer, sometimes three to four yards in length, and resembled the Scottish shepherds’ plaids in form. They were worn in rainy and windy weather, and were often wrapped around the upper part of the body. As Burnham and Burnham point out, “A shawl was expected to last a lifetime. The yarns were spun with special care and carefully woven so that it might be worn with pride. It’s in shawls that some of the best hand-weaving is found.”

When we asked Dennis if he has a favorite piece from his remarkable collection, he simply replied, “It will be my next find”.

We can hardly wait and would like to thank Dennis for generously sharing highlights from his collection for our readers.

Photo Credits and Addendum Note

  • Wrapped shawl example from “Keep me warm one night, early handweaving in eastern Canada”, Harold B. Burnham and Dorothy K. Burnham. Published by University of Toronto Press in Cooperation with The Royal Ontario Museum. Reprinted 1975.
  • Young Napanee man with his shawl from S. Benson Collection, Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives
  • Traditional Scottish Piper from a 1960’s postcard of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Addendum note: For early weaving the terms plaid (plaidie) and kilt were used to identify a man`s shawl (now a more modern classification).

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