The Current

People love this crocheted Maud Lewis sweater — but it's not for sale

Grace Tompkins made a sweater of a Maud Lewis painting, and got a big response online.

Grace Tompkins got a big response to her sweater that features three black cats

A woman wearing a sweater that depicts a Maud Lewis painting, three black cats on a green background.
Grace Tompkins, who describes herself as 'very Nova Scotian,' said Maud Lewis's paintings have always reminded her of home (Submitted by Grace Tompkins)

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When a Nova Scotia woman crocheted a Maud Lewis painting onto a sweater, she didn't expect it to go viral on social media — or to get a message from one of the famed painter's living relatives. 

"I had a really, really nice conversation with Maud Lewis's great-granddaughter," said Grace Tompkins, who is from Truro, N.S., and crochets as a hobby.

"She told me like, oh, this painting was actually her grandmother's favourite … this exact version with the darker green background and the three cats," Tompkins told The Current's Matt Galloway, referring to Lewis's 1955 painting, titled Three Black Cats. Cats were a regular feature in Lewis's work.

"That just kind of made me smile, and I felt very connected."

Lewis lived in a small one-room house outside Digby, N.S., where she was a prolific painter until her death in 1970. Her vividly colourful images of rural scenes have fetched big money at auctions in recent years — but also attracting forgers looking to cash in

A woman wearing a sweater that depicts a Maud Lewis painting, three black cats on a green background.
Grace Tompkins crocheted a sweater of a famous Maud Lewis painting. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

For Tompkins, who describes herself as "very Nova Scotian," Lewis's paintings have always reminded her of home, so putting one on a sweater felt like a natural fit. 

"So I did. And it went viral," she laughed.

Tompkins divides her time between Nova Scotia and Ontario, where she is a biostatistics PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. She posts her crochet work to Instagram and sometimes Twitter, but until recently only had a few dozen followers.

Just before Christmas, she posted a video of a cardigan she was making as a gift for her sister. The Instagram post went viral, and she woke up to 10,000 new followers.

When she posted the Maud Lewis sweater at the beginning of the month, her tweet racked up more than half-a-million views, while her posts on Instagram caught the attention of tens of thousands.

The posts attracted hundreds of comments, and she's been invited to talk about the sweater on multiple radio and TV shows.

"At first I didn't understand why everyone wanted to talk so much about this, but there's a lot of negative [out there] and I'm happy to have a piece of the positivity here," she said. 

"This craft has provided me with so much light in times of darkness, and it's been very positive and very fun and unexpected."

A distraction in a dark time

Tomkpins took up crochet in winter 2021, when the world was dealing with the arrival of the COVID-19 Omicron variant during the pandemic. In Nova Scotia, communities were coping with the aftermath of the April 2020 mass shooting, which happened around Portapique, 40 kilometres from Tompkins' home in Truro. 

She said the timing of taking up the new hobby was no coincidence. 

"I was very, very stressed and anxious and saddened for my community, and crocheting, honestly, was one of the ways that I kind of [dealt with] the negative energy," she said. 

"[If] I couldn't focus on school, well maybe I can just crochet a row or … distract myself, get something positive in my life." 

 A woman sits and crochets. She is wearing a sweater that depicts a Maud Lewis painting, three black cats on a green background.
Grace Tompkins spent about 100 hours crocheting a sweater of a famous Maud Lewis painting. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

She said the Maud Lewis sweater has been her most time-intensive project yet, but also her favourite. The base took 80 hours to complete, plus another 20 hours for the finer details, like the flowers and cats' eyes, she said. 

When the sweater went viral, she received a lot of messages from people looking to buy it, or asking her to make one for them. 

"I'm working on a pattern so other crafters and crocheters can make their own, because I don't have the capacity to make the hundreds that have been requested," she said. 

She's also in the early stages of discussing that pattern with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Both to make sure she's not infringing on any copyright, but also about whether the gallery could one day offer the pattern to the public.

"I want to get it right and not feel rushed and enjoy the process," she said. 

"I try to [crochet] as something that I love. And if it becomes something that I stress about, then it's not something that is a stress relief anymore for me."

She's also looking forward to wearing the sweater to visit the Maud Lewis collection at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia — but said she doesn't have any plans to sell the original.

"This is for me and it's my hobby — it's something that I love," she said.

Audio produced by Amanda Grant.

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