a grenfell parka for the Pope

made by Marilyn of the Great Northern Peninsula

by Bobby Bessey & Marilyn Bessey - an excerpt from a conversation about how a stay-at-home mother in the small northern outport of Raleigh on the Great Northern Peninsula became a busy business owner in the early 1970’s. And made a garment for the Pope.

For the best part of 25 years Marilyn Bessey’s Grenfell Style Parkas were a central piece in many a Newfoundlander’s winter wardrobe. Bobby Bessey and her brothers grew up sitting on the back of Marilyn's sewing chair reading stories and chatting while the parkas were being created.

Marilyn Bessey's parents in their new winter coats, circa 1980s. Marilyn Bessey photo

"My mother (Ada Taylor) insisted that all the kids learn to sew, knit and embroider, even the boys. I never planned to sew for a living. After I got married I just began to make baby clothes and dresses for the family. Soon community members began asking me to make dresses and jackets for them.

Eventually I asked to sew for the Grenfell mission and they gave me $8 per coat. That was a lot of money then! It became a full time job. Dr. Grenfell sold the products to the European market. Most were commissioned. I know, because the material was given to us with the address to the recipient attached.  Once I sewed a coat addressed to the pope!

One day I heard on the radio that the Cod Jigger on Duckworth street was looking for someone to supply them with parkas. I called them up and soon couldn’t make enough to keep up with the demand. I had to get help with the embroidery. I eventually employed about a dozen women embroiders. Often I’d have to teach them how to do it first. I drew my own designs. I kept the northern themes of seals and ice fishing, but everyone knew my coats because no one else’s embroidery looked like mine.

After that I started flying in to St. John’s for the NLCDA craft fair (Now the Craft Council Fair). Flying was a big deal for us then. My customers knew I’d be at the fair and would meet me there. I’d often have a line-up of people who had waited to order so I could measure them in person rather than over the phone.

Hand-embroidered snowshoes on a Marilyn Bessey coat. Bobby Bessey photo

Phone orders weren’t easy you see. I had to teach people how to measure their own bodies and carefully find out if they carried their weight on their bum, or their belly, or their bust. Surprisingly the coats almost always fit. I began to use the post office so much that the post master in Raleigh had one bin saved for me to send and receive.

I never needed to advertise. People would find me in the phone book. Eventually I ordered a big spool of labels that said, Handmade by Marilyn Bessey. Just my name. No contact information. People would look me up in the phone book, or get my name from a friend. I had customers who would order a coat from me every two years and wouldn’t buy a coat from anyone else. At the peak of business I would start sewing at 6am most days.

Eventually, every Marilyn Bessey coat had its own label. Bobby Bessey photo

I never formally decided to stop, but the business ended sometime around 1995. After  a quarter century of not being able to keep up with demand, the market suddenly disappeared overnight. I always thought it was because at this time a lot of makers got embroidery machines, and that flooded the market. But you know, I always said if I can only keep this going till the kids finish university I’ll be grateful, and that is exactly what I got. So I can’t complain.”

Marilyn Bessey continues her creative expression today in the form of hooking, painting and music. These days her sewing consists mostly of fixing the knees on her active grandsons pants. To do this she still uses the heavy duty industrial singer sewing machines that churned out a few thousand Grenfell style coats in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.

Scenes of the north were common themes for Marilyn Bessey coats. Bobby Bessey photo

first published on Guide to the Good in December 2018

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Bobby Bessey

Bobby Bessey is Marilyn's daughter, a yoga instructor and owner of local business Shakti Yoga, and Chair of the Board for thegreenrock.ca ~ Live Sustainably NL. Bobby credits her mother’s influence for her own independent entrepreneurial spirit.