8. The Cowichan Sweater

Recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for its contribution to Coast Salish Identity in March of 2012, every Cowichan Sweater is a west coast one-of-a-kind piece of wearable art. Their creation began in the mid 1800’s and with little evolution past the early 20th Century, they are is still being made now, as then.

Cowichan Sweater
before 1919
Image © UBC Museum of Anthropology
Photographed by Kyla Bailey
Vancouver, Canada

Authentic Cowichan Sweaters are created by Canada’s West Coast Salish Natives in British Columbia’s Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island. These men and women have been knitting them for over one hundred and fifty years. They raise the sheep, they shear the sheep, and they gently wash the wool so that not all the natural oils are removed, which leaves the final garment rain resistant. The fleece is is not dyed, it is used in it’s natural shades of brown, black and white. The wool is carefully carded to prevent damage to the fibres and then hand spun. The sweaters are hand-knitted, with no seams, with this pure, un-dyed, virgin wool. A variety of geometric patterns, animals, birds, fish or whale images are used to create each one. Each sweater represents hours of hard work and painstaking labor. No two sweaters are alike!

Although the Cowichan people had previously created some woven textiles, they did not have sheep, nor did they know how to knit. The sheep came with the European settlers,  in the 1850s and the missionaries Sisters of St. Ann, who came in 1864, taught them how to create yarn and to knit. They began with simple items such as socks and mitts and slowly progressed to develop knee-length underwear and sweaters. The earliest Cowichan sweaters were all of one colour, knitted with a turtle-neck and most likely inspired by the sweaters of the British fishermen who had settled in the area. The use of the patterned Fair Isle technique of sweater knitting is generally attributed to Jerimina Colvin, originally from the Shetland Islands of Scotland, who had settled in Cowichan Station in 1885 and by 1890 had introduced the natives to her practices. However, unlike the Fair Isle or Shetland garments, Cowichan sweaters are always made of the thick, handspun, one-ply yarn, which produces a warm bulky outer garment, heavier than the multi-coloured Scottish garments made from lightweight two-ply dyed yarn.

Cowichan Sweater
left: Back
right: Front
before 1938
Image © UBC Museum of Anthropology
photographed by Derek Tan
Vancouver, Canada

By the mid 1940’s they were being promoted across the country as something uniquely Canadian, that could be marketed as sportswear.

MAYFAIR MAGAZINE
1945.01
lower left

IN the early 1950’s, Cowichan Sweater concept was copied and modified to be a “knit with seams” garment decorated with popular motifs of the time by the Mary Maxim company (Canadian), so that home knitters could create their own version.

Groovy in the 1960’s…

MISS CHATELAINE
1966
SPRING

In 1979, The Cowichan Sweater, along with other Canadian designer and manufactured goods, was featured in the “Canada Fashion Mode” campaign catalogue; published by the Canadian Government and shipped abroad, to promote and hopefully sell Canadian Fashion to others.

Canada Fashion Mode
1979
page 54 55

 

 

 

Canada Fashion Mode
1980
page 56 57

 

 

 

The sweater was seen around the world when worn by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, on the annual  Trudeau Family Christmas card, photo’d by Margaret Trudeau.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3280490/Justin-Trudeau-named-Canada-s-new-prime-minister.html

IN the 21st Century, it has been accorded the ultimate gesture of having “made-it” in the fashion world, it has been  knocked-off/copied by Ralph Lauren and many others, sometimes with a credit to the origin and sometimes not.

The Cowichan Sweater made headlines as it featured in a debacle during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver; The Hudson’s Bay decided to have it copied and mass produced in China, to include in their line-up of Olympic merchandise. With the threat of protest, a timely deal was struck and the sweaters were instead produced in smaller quantity by their Cowichan originators, and were offered for sale exclusively on site at the Olympics and in the Hudson’s Bay Vancouver store. It was claimed as a win win for all…

Today they are sold with an individually numbered label as your proof of purchasing an authentic Cowichan  Hand-knit Sweater.

What other garment do you know of that comes with a 10 year guarantee? For more information see:

http://www.sa-cinn.com/category/cowichan-apparel/

 

“Salish Indian Sweaters”
by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts
ISBN-10: 0932394132
ISBN-13: 978-0932394132

 

”Working with Wool
A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater”
by Sylvia Olsen”
ISBN 13: 978-1-55039-177-0; 1-55039-177-1

 

“Yetsa’s Sweater”
by Sylvia Olsen
Illustrated by Joan Larson
ISBN 1-55039-155-0