Diane Krys: The Cowichan Sweater Tradition

This display window in downtown Victoria,B.C. instantly brought back memories of my mother’s knitting. Years ago she made a multitude of these type of sweaters. Growing up I was accustomed to living amongst these sweater parts as they were being made and then seeing my Dad, uncles and family friends wearing them once they were finished.  Even so  I didn’t fully appreciate the  cultural history that inspired them until my recent trip to Vancouver Island.

We called them buffalo sweaters because of the Buffalo brand yarn used to make them, which was in fact not buffalo fiber at all but sheep’s wool. Also referred to as Indian, Siwash, Mary Maxim or Curling sweaters, the original iconic sweater was developed by the Coast Salish people in the early 1900’s and is now know as the Cowichan Sweater. 

The Coast Salish have wool working traditions that go back hundreds of years;however, they used these skills primarily for weaving wearable blankets until European settlers came to Vancouver Island and introduced them to knitting.

The Coast Salish women combined this new technique with their love and knowledge of wool to create a unique garment perfectly suited for their coastal climate and to keep a husband warm while he fished. They only used the natural colors of the sheep and processed the fleece by hand into a roving style yarn. ( as opposed to twisted and plyed like most yarns) Thick wool was warm and leaving in some of the natural lanolin also made it very  water repellent. Using a Fair Isle technique they incorporated symbols and images from their life and culture in the banded motifs. These were hard working, practical, stylish sweaters and because of that they gained popularity far and wide. Times were extremely tough and Coast Salish women would make sweaters to feed the demand and feed their families. In some ways this history reminds me of rug hooking  and how it evolved from a practical need and a “work with what you have” sensibility where designs came from daily life and immediate surroundings.

A cottage industry developed that continues to this day. This shop on Government Street in Victoria has been there since 1967. They have  different women hand knitting their sweaters. Each one is authenticated and signed. While the original roving is still used, spun yarn is now favored by some knitters. Martha was a knowledgeable  salesperson and with her  help I could appreciate the details that were unique to each knitter. Variations in yarn thickness, construction techniques,collar style, pocket details, etc revealed the person that made them and the sweaters were more special for it.

In Sylvia Olsen’s wonderful book,”Working With Wool-A Coast Salish Legacy &  the Cowichan Sweater “, one story recounts a grandmother’s advice to a young granddaughter learning to make a sweater,”… do it with love in your heart and care in your hands so you do a nice job.” Perhaps this simple philosophy is the real key to their enduring beauty and appeal.

“Cowichan Sweaters have been worn by Queens and Presidents and Hollywood stars but for most of us they are simply old friends– well worn treasures that have been part of our lives and part of our families for generations.”

Christine Welsh from The Story of Coast Salish Knitters

 

 

 

All photographs were taken with permission.  The spinning artifacts and archive photograph  are displayed in the Royal BC Museum.

This trip altered my normal posting date but I’ll return to schedule with my next post on May 10th.

Thanks for stopping in!

15 thoughts on “Diane Krys: The Cowichan Sweater Tradition

  1. Linda, thanks so much for the note. I have a cousin living in Duncan so we did spend a day in the Cowichan Valley area. I saw a glimpse of the rich artistry, enough to make me want to spend more time on my next visit to the island. It’s spectacular country and I felt the landscape to my core.

    (also thanks for noting the location of my Totem photo. I should have labeled it. We walked the Whiffin Spit and lunched at Sooke Harbour House to warm up… when you get down to it, I could have written 10 different posts about my experiences on the island!)

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  2. Such an interresting read. I live in the Cowichan Valley, about an hour and a half from Victoria, and these sweaters are everywhere. They’re comfortable, familiar reminders of a hand made ‘fine craft’. The picture of the beach and totem pole is Sooke Harbour House, and Whiffin Spit, out the West coast of the Island. If you had travelled North from Victoria, and come to Duncan, City of Totems, I’m sure you would have enjoyed even more, authentic Cowichan artistry.

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  3. Forgot to mention….I like to hook a bit of the cowichan wool into my rugs. The different colors make great hair!

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  4. Meryl, I remember those lopi sweaters. So many things we think we know actually have much bigger stories and histories. It’s keeps a curious cat like me endlessly fascinated! I’m happy to know you enjoyed the post and appreciate your comments.

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  5. as a knitter and rug hooker I really appreciated your telling this story – fascinating and love that the sweaters have so much tradition attached to them..thank you

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  6. Thank you for researching and writing this post Diane. I too grew up knitting the “lopi” sweaters, which seem to be a variation on these sweaters and were knit on circular needles with alafoss lopi yarn. This was a very interesting read!

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