[Before I begin, please note that this is an article about Cowichan sweaters. This is not a shop for Cowichan sweaters, or sweater patterns, or knitting services, nor can I give out advice on techniques or wool sources. Sorry! Many seem to conclude from reading this that they can put in an order here for products or research. Again my apologies, but this is just a design blog. Thanks.]
Above is an example of the Cowichan sweater, photo courtesy Cowichan Tribes. The Cowichan are part of the coastal Salish Nation, which is long renowned for its fine weaving, so it’s not surprising the Cowichan people easily adapted their own designs to the knitting they learned from white settlers. Wool was plentiful too; Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands were ideal for sheep-farming so wool was readily available.
The Cowichan sweater is unique in that it has a collar and was traditionally knit all in one piece. While nowadays the sweaters sometimes have a heavy metal zipper, they’re otherwise unchanged. Many sweaters have traditional Salish motifs on front and back: usually killer whale, salmon, eagles or deer. I grew up with one of these—a proper pullover one with no seams —and many British Columbians would have had a similar one. The wool is not dyed—darker sheep produce the dark brown and grey wool for the designs. When the wool is washed and carded by hand, more natural lanolin remains in the wool. This allows the sweaters to shed water in the wet BC climate.
These sweaters show up in popular culture all the time, though most of them are cheap knockoffs – to a British Columbian eye, the ones in The Big Lebowski and Starsky and Hutch are obvious fakes (or are simply what is known as curling sweaters). What makes a Cowichan sweater authentic? It’s not necessarily even absolute adherence to traditional motifs. It’s more the quality, colour and weight of the wool. The fibres should be natural in colour, not dyed; and they should have the banded arms with traditional Salish weaving patterns.
I strongly recommend buying Sylvia Olsen’s excellent book on these sweaters: Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater.
Since it’s one of the most iconic BC designs, it seemed fitting that a custom-designed Cowichan sweater would be proposed for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as part of the giant merchandising circus we’ve been subjected to here in BC for the past few years. Well-known Cowichan knitter Emily Sawyer-Smith, above, produced the Olympic design sweater you can see being presented below to BC’s premier Gordon Campbell, at left, and Jacques Rogges, IOC president, at right. This actually seemed like a great development but to the shock of many, and despite the fact that the well-organized Cowichan bands had assembled enough knitters to supply the Olympics with these sweaters, The Hudson’s Bay department store created controversy by claiming the Cowichan knitters’ output would be too small. Instead they had odd faux Cowichan sweaters made for their official line of 2010 Olympic clothing—in China. (Photo at bottom). And in maroon! However, despite that fact that the public considers The Bay’s sweater to be a “cowichan,” The Bay claims it is not – and in some ways it’s right. Many however still consider the design to be theft or appropriation. More here about the conflict over trademark and cultural property, and you can also read about the meeting held between the Bay and the Cowichan band here. In the end, after threats of Olympic relay disruptions and a lot of media coverage, an accommodation was reached at the end of October – real Cowichan sweaters would be sold at two Olympic pavilions as well as at the Hudson’s Bay. But the story doesn’t end there for First Nations art at the Olympics, where many other imported art objects are sold as “authentic aboriginal art” and are edging out true First Nations art. See that story here.
Above is the weird hybrid knockoff being sold at the Hudson’s Bay Company as an official 2010 Olympics souvenir. It clearly references the Cowichan sweater, but it also has the look of those mass-produced curling sweaters (often with belts), and its wool is dyed, unlike the wool in an authentic Cowichan. Maroon is just wrong, even if you’re trying to get close to the red of the Canadian flag. While there is no completely standard design for these sweaters—they are after all a culturally hybrid product—the above knockoff seems poor on many levels, and as a British Columbian I’m a bit embarrassed that this is how the world is going to see our craft and design. What was the Hudson’s Bay Co. thinking? For successful innovations in Cowichan designs , Emily Sawyer-Smith’s Olympic rings design is great.
CBC broadcaster Grant Lawrence’s sweater, below, is another fantastic innovation. Further below is Canadian WWII officer Cecil Merritt in in a Nazi prisoner of war camp along with fellow officers. He’s wearing a Cowichan sweater sent to him by relatives in Vancouver.
For more discussion on the sweater and its appropriation, see KnowBC and UBCWiki. Authentic Cowichan sweaters can be found at places like Authentic Cowichan Indian Knits, 424 W. 3rd St, North Vancouver, 604-988-4735, or online from individual makers, like this. Below is a somewhat odd pair of sweaters, given the fraught historical relationship of the church to First Nations (photo from Wikipedia by Marg Meikle):
Again I strongly recommend buying Sylvia Olsen’s excellent book on these sweaters: Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater.
And please visit Emma Charlie’s great blog! She’s a 3rd-or-more generation Cowichan knitter.
Tags: "Grant Lawrence", aboriginal art, authenticity, BC, British Columbia, china, corporate Olympics, Cowichan, Cowichan sweater, cultural appropriation, Emily Sawyer-Smith, favourite, First Nations, Gordon Campbell, Hudson's Bay Company, import, Indian sweater, IOC, knitting, lanolin, textiles, The Bay, Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Vancouver Island, VANOC, wool