The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island

Cowichan KnitterThe late Amelia Charlie, prominent designer and promoter of the Cowichan sweater

[Before I begin, please note that this is an article about Cowichan weaters. This is not a shop for Cowichan sweaters, or sweater patterns, or knitting services. Many seem to conclude from reading this that they can put in an order here for products or research. Sorry, 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.

 Emily Sawyer-Smith, Cowichan knitter, by D'Amour

Since it’s one of the most iconic BC designs it seemed fitting that a custom-designed Cowichan sweater would be proposed for the 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.

Emily Sawyer-Smith's Cowichan sweater should have been the Olympic sweater

hbc-cowichan

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, and so is CBC broadcaster Grant Lawrence’s sweater, below. 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.

Cecil Merritt in Cowichan sweater

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 Miekle):


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.

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49 Responses to “The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island”

  1. sharron pope Says:

    I’m canadian and did not buy the knock-off sweater when I shopped as I want the real thing. Shame on all of us who keep sending our business off shore we are selling our people out and all this should be stopped.

  2. SherryR Says:

    At least Hudson Bay did not steal Emily Sawyer-Smith’s design. Imagine how American quilters felt when our American quilt patterns began to be made in China. It is truly a shame when a culture is stolen!

  3. SherryR Says:

    A further comment to clarify…

    The first part of my above comment sounds as if it is okay to make the faux sweaters. That was not my intent. Hudson Bay should’ve stuck with authentic Cowichan sweaters…not the knock-offs. Not only have they infringed on the rights of the original makers, they have also suckered consumers. Shame!

  4. LB Says:

    It’s rampant. You can just imagine, too, how the Inuit people felt about having their sacred inukshuk appropriated as a cartoon logo for the 2010 Olympics…

  5. Carol Anfinson Says:

    I am not a Canadian, but many years ago I purchased the yarn, pattern and knitted
    two cowichan sweaters.. I admire their unique designs and can’t believe they had these farmed out to China.. no wonder things are in such a muddle..

  6. Jan Rose Says:

    Welcome to the “world of greed.” It seems to be the way the whole world. Nobody seems to want to do what is RIGHT. It’s all about doing what is expedient and profitable. I DETEST it!

  7. LB Says:

    I actually went and spoke to a woman from the Cowichan band who was selling her knitting in the First Nations area, next door to the Four Host Nations pavilion at the Olympics. She had some really stunning sweaters, and a hat made by her 80 year old mother who doesn’t knit so much anymore thanks to arthritis. I was talking to her about the whole Hudson’s Bay sweater scandal and she just sort of shook her head. About the Bay sweaters she said “they’re cheap! They’re going to look awful in 6 months! A real Cowichan sweater lasts decades.” Apparently she has seen 100 year old Cowichan sweaters – the old type, with lots of lanolin and almost wiry wool. It’s amazing people are willing to line up for 3 hours for cheap souvenirs.

  8. AMac Says:

    I had no idea until now that origin of Cowichan sweaters was in BC Canada. When I was in Alaska in the mid 60′s I purchased wool yarn from an American company, and knit my very first “Alaskan” [or so they called it up there] sweater. After that I made several more. I still have my oldest daughter’s sweater and it is still in very good shape after 50 years. Any one who has the opportunity to purchase an original, should do so. You don’t need any other jacket or coat if you have one of these in your closet. As far as sending products out of the country, no matter what country it is, it should not be done. I would love to have an authentic Cowichan sweater and not a knock off. But as long as I make my own, I feel that I am not hurting anyone. Cultural arts of all countries should be studied and revered by all.

  9. Jan Rose Says:

    If you are “knitting your own,” you are not trying to make a profit with “knock-offs.” I bet that your work is beautiful and you are preserving a wonderful part of BC culture. My hat off to you. I love to knit, but I’m not sure if I am good enough to do work like what is shown my the TRUE Cowichan sweaters on this site.

  10. LB Says:

    I’m sure hand-knitting your own sweaters is homage, not knockoff. And Jan, I’m sure you can do it. If you can find proper wool with lanolin in it, even better. I am going to post some sources for the wool as well as the sweaters soon. AMac, that’s very interesting – it’s true, when the sweaters are made from the proper wool, they don’t disintegrate.

  11. Stephen Says:

    Does anyone have a link or name of someone who will make an original Cowichan sweater? It would be much appreciated. Looking for one with Olympic colors like Hudson Bays design except hand made. One for myself and spouce. A gift for our anniversary.

  12. LB Says:

    Hi Stephen, the problem is that as soon as you have those colours, it’s not a Cowichan sweater anymore, because those use a different sort of natural, undyed, lanolin-heavy wool. I’m sure local knitters could make you a handknit copy of the Olympic sweater in your area?

  13. d johnston Says:

    LB,

    I’m very curious to know how these cowichan sweaters are cleaned. Because someone on here is knowledgeable to state they can last for decades and some for even 100 years, I’m very interested in how they are kept. If they do have a lot of lanolin in them then washing or dry cleaning would remove that natural resistance to the weather, would it not?

    I lived on the Island(VI) and I know how much pride is put into these Cowican sweaters. I’m so glad they stood their ground. I’m also wondering if the contract they negotiated with VANOC was a good one for them. It seemed to me that any orders they could have filled were left much too late into the scheme of things. Are they still filling these orders?

  14. LB Says:

    I’m not sure if many of these sweaters were sold at the two Olympic outlets, or at the Bay, but I hope so.

    The authentic Cowichan sweaters will continue to sell. Many Salish women are knitting them still and you can find some of these knitters online, and many knitters also sell to shops. The level of lanolin in the wool now is not quite as high as it once was.

    Little known fact: baby shampoo in tepid water is an excellent cleaning method – for many fabrics, not just sweaters.
    There’s a good entry here which has some interesting information:
    http://wiki.elearning.ubc.ca/LeslieAlbers
    “if the sweater is not washed too often, say about once every four or 5 years in very mild detergent so as not to remove the natural oils, the sweater will have a life span of about 80 years” (TCS, n.d.)!”

  15. Vickie Goodrum Says:

    Where can I get the yarn and patterns? I’ve made a few icelandic sweaters but have always wanted to make myself a Cowichan sweater. I live in Post Falls Idaho.

  16. LB Says:

    The sweaters, to be truly authentic, have to be made by Salish women, which is probably why authentic patterns are rare. I haven’t seen any in BC but I imagine they must exist. Originally the patterns were specific to the wearer’s clan and family. Does anyone out there have any patterns? And there’s also the tricky matter of finding the proper local wool with the lanolin still in it. I expect you can find rough carded wool in natural colours.

    This link discusses the wool and the hardy sheep used to make it:
    http://wiki.elearning.ubc.ca/LeslieAlbers

    This forum might interest you – other knitters looking for patterns:
    http://www.knittinghelp.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-61622.html

  17. Phoebe Says:

    To Stephen who posted on Feb. 23rd, looking for someone to knit two of these sweaters, let me just say that I am an avid knitter/teacher and have already begun developing a pattern from this design to knit one for myself. If you are still interested in hiring someone to knit your gift sweaters, please contact me at my email address: seapurl1@gmx.com . I will gladly work on these for you, as well.

  18. Phoebe Says:

    It is my understanding that part of the reason the Hudson’s Bay design was chosen over a more traditional pattern is that they wanted to include Canada’s red maple leaf into the design. As soon as that decision was made, as you can see from the above comments, the official sweater stepped out of the realm of traditional Cowichan design. The goal then became to include elements found in more traditional sweaters, but to incorporate the red maple leaf from Canada’s flag and the color red into certain aspects of the sweater’s design while maintaining the overall character of a product associated with Canada’s history and culture. The final product became a blend, but I do not believe it was intended as a knockoff because Hudson’s Bay Company very clearly stated it was not a Cowichan sweater.

  19. Diana Says:

    Hello
    I was wondering if you could knit a plain sweater with a crew neck top meant for a man. it would have no embelishments other than the yarn chosen.

    Best Wishes,
    Diana

  20. LB Says:

    Diana,
    I do knit, but just for myself, not commercially, not here on my design blog! I’m just the writer here. Perhaps one of the readers on this site would be interested? If anyone wants a knitting job, comment here and I’ll put you together with Diana.
    Lindsay

  21. Richard J. Vielbig Says:

    I would like to find where or from whom I could “see” an inventory of the Salish Indian, Cowichan woolen sweaters. I am interested in possibly buying one to use when I go skiing.

    Please respond to my email address. Thank you.

  22. LB Says:

    Richard, Thanks for your message. I don’t know where you can find one of these. Do any readers know? Comment here and I will pass the message to Richard. Lindsay

  23. Sheila Says:

    http://www.sa-cinn.com/cowichanmain.htm I searched for cowichan sweaters and found this site. Hope it is helpful to you. I read this same article in one of the knitting magazines but I can’t remember which one. I have a pattern for one of these sweaters and made it about 25yrs ago for a friend. It may not be authentic but it turned our real nice.

  24. John C Downward Says:

    I owned my first Cowichan sweater in the early 60s and used it whenever I went fishing until 1986 when I sold my boat. Unfortnately my wife washed it because she thought it was badly stained and it lost its character.
    I have now moved to Kelowna from Vancouver Island and would like to buy another cowichan sweater if the price is not too high.
    So I have to come to your store to buy one or is there a place in the Okanagan where I can see, feel, try on?

  25. LB Says:

    Hi John, Sadly I am not a store! This is a design blog only. But many knitters come to this article, and I am hoping that one of them will be able to steer you to a place where you can buy a Cowichan sweater. Of course it’s a coastal thing so you will of course have better luck on trips to Vancouver and beyond. Anyone know of a shop or traditional knitter in the Okanagan for John?

  26. Judith Says:

    Hello, while watching channel 4 in the middle of the night, I watched a fascinating story on the Cowichan people and history of the knitters. Boy, was I educated on exploitation and knockoffs! You knitters are craftswomen, and hopefully get paid for it now. I used to own a 2nd hand Cowichan sweater which I used for jogging. It was warmer and more water repellant than any fleece or gortex! I was wondering if any one of you pattern makers had ever thought of making a sweater that was close to knee length with a hood? That way it would be warm and toasty as well as good for the rain and wind.

  27. Ali Says:

    I just wanted to let anyone interested know that this website: http://www.nativeonline.com/athentic.htm is an original site for Cowichan Sweaters.
    When I was in Alaska, also in the 60′s as the other lady, I purchased wool yarn from a U S company [Mary Maxim] but they no longer carry the wool yarn to make these sweaters with. Even though I do not want to duplicate the authentic Cowichan sweaters, I need an outlet where I could purchase 100% wool of the same weight. My great grandson wants his high school sweater ( in 2 years ) done in his school colors. Dark Blue, Silver white, and black. I have already designed the wolf head for the back of the sweater and he likes it. If anyone can help me find some yarn that would be a close match in weight I sure would appreciate the help. Thanks

  28. John C Downward Says:

    My comment is that when I had a Cowichan sweater I used it when I when fishing both on the sea and in the lakes and streams and rivers. I found the one I had was excellent and it always kept me warm whatever the temperature was. Unfortunately it was washed by mistake because it had stains on it from all my outdoor activities. I intend to go to Vancouver Island sometime this year and will drop into the Cowichan Band store that I have been into many times in the past and select a new sweater. Also I have always been on the side of your band and the Hudson Bay should not have copied it just to make money.

  29. bill Says:

    The sale of culture and everything else for no other end than profit, regardless of any other side effects, is what this whole society is built on.

  30. Nicole Says:

    I think that though it does appear odd the picture of the Cowichan Sweaters with Church reference images I think it goes to show that there are many shades of stories out there and maybe these church people were kind to them and felt sad for them and their culture being lost…Some of the Natives felt this and so made a sweet and large gesture with these sweaters…Just like there must have been many Nazis that were horrified by Hitler and his extreme ideas and felt caught up in the middle of the madness.Im sure there must have been Germans who were shot themselves along with the Jews during emotional outbursts of disagreements.We have to have these thoughts to remain neutral unless we want to continue the hate.

  31. rose white Says:

    please send me some pictures (patterns) of sweaters knits and crafts of sweaters the prices oa each sweaters how much they are.
    my address is 7818 Bellerive dr. Houston, Txas 77036
    phone 713-334-5418
    men small size or medium
    woman small size

  32. LB Says:

    Dear Rose, Sorry, but this is not a shop. This is a design blog. It offers only writing about design. You can have all these thoughts for free! However I don’t sell sweaters or patterns or any other knitting service. Thank you! PS any readers of this post are free to contact Rose.

  33. Linda Simon Says:

    There is now an online store called West Saanich Woolworks. It is Authentic and you can order online. Also there are several local stores in downtown Victoria that carry them. The sweaters are knit on circulars and then cut to put in a zipper. It’s amazing to watch these knitters slice into a beautiful pullover to turn it into a cardigan.

  34. Ellen Says:

    I worked in a store in Sidney 20 plus years ago selling Cowichan Sweaters. One of the knitters I befriended made me the most amazing Cowichan sweater I have ever seen. It has two whales facing eachother on the front with raw hide closure half way up the front of the sweater and a big hand-warming pocket at the front. I have had it for over 25 years and still love it. I bought a Cowichan sweater for my daughter 11 years ago when she was only two and she wore it, my son wore it and it has now been passed along to my goddaughter who just had a baby brother before Christmas….so he will also have it. I did tell the parents it was just on loan as I would like the sweater back as I can use it for my grandchildren! I live in the UK but I am from the island and I LOVE authentic Cowichan sweaters…..I would NEVER EVER wear a fake!! Spend the money and get an original as it will last forever and can be passed down. (I air my sweater out and have never washed it as it would ruin the water proofing on the sweater. I don’t know what you would do if you weren’t careful with it or sweat a lot??)

  35. Trudy Says:

    I bought a Cowichan Sweater made by an elderly lady. Out of respect to the people I have not shopped at the bay since and will never shop there again.

  36. lorna adams Says:

    In regard to these lovely sweaters, my dad bought one in the 60s and one of my sons is still wearing it to this day. The cuffs started to wear, but as i am a knitter and had some of the original wool I was able to repair.

    As to CLEANING it can be done…..HAND WASH in cool water with a good liquid soap….rinse in cool water several times…..DO NOT WRING out the water but gently squash out the water…..on your last rinse add liquid lanolin (yes this is an item that can be purchased) or a good olive oil will also work. Roll your sweater in a towel and work out all the water….you’ll have to use several towels. Reshape and let your sweater AIR DRY —– place it on a towel, somewhere out of the way on the floor, or safely outside…..

  37. LB Says:

    Hi everyone. Thanks to Lorna for those washing instructions – very useful. Where did you buy liquid lanolin?
    I’d also like to draw everyone’s attention to a fantastic book on these sweaters:
    “Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & The Cowichan Sweater” by Sylvia Olsen, Sononis Press, 2010. Beautiful book. The link to buy it will at the bottom of the post above shortly.
    Thanks for all your comments on this post – so informative.
    Lindsay

  38. lorna adams Says:

    To purchase lanolin first check with a good wool shop, alternately, and I know this sounds strange, go to your local farm feed supply store, they use lanolin on the udders of critters to keep them soft and smooth…..and probably cheaper at the feed store.

  39. LB Says:

    Hi everyone, please take a look at Emma Charlie’s blog and shop. She’s at least a 3rd generation Cowichan knitter (Hi Emma!):
    http://cowichansweaters.wordpress.com/

  40. ESTE Says:

    Hi Lorna.
    My father-in law gave us two authantic Cowichan sweaters on our trip out west.
    I am right now cleaning one sweater and I am using olive oil in the rinse. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Thanks for the washing and drying tip.

  41. ESTE Says:

    Hi Lorna.
    My father-in law gave us two authentic Cowichan sweaters on our trip out west.
    I am right now cleaning one sweater and I am using olive oil in the rinse. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Thanks for the washing and drying tip.

  42. nancy bouchard Says:

    I would like to source some authentic wool for a sweater; I have knitted dozens using the commercial wool, which is too fluffy and has little lanolin. By the way the patterns are remarkably easy and interesting to create: just use graph paper with the appropriate squares for stitches and draw your own. If anyone knows where I can get good wool, please reply! I have a daughter in Ft St John and she needs one before the summer ends!

  43. Lorna Adams Says:

    Nancy. Briggs and Little make a very good comparable wool in 5 ply It comes in cakes costing about 11$ Canadian each. B and G is based out if New Brunswick and has a web site. My local yarn shop orders it in for me here in BC.

    Just as an aside I have approximately 40 of the Cowichan Patterns and will knit on request.

  44. Jaime Rosario Rivera Says:

    I love my sweater and two vests. I have an Eagle sweater, and two vests, Whale and White Buffalo I recently received from my adopted Mum Margaret Charlie Roland who lives on the reserve in Duncan, BC. As soon as I put the vest on I could feel the warmth against my body since I am very sensitive to the cold dampness of this area. It helps me stay warm and is amazing wind proof and definitely waterproof. Who needs Gore-Tex? I will treasure and cherish Mum’s work always. Love you, Mum!

  45. John wm charlie Says:

    Picture above is my grandmother the late amelia charlie who was famous for making and promoting the Genuine Cowichan sweater . a true Cowichan sweater is made by people of the Cowichan tribe and with real sheep wool not imported new Zealand wool . Real Cowichan sweaters can still be bought on the C owichan reserve and carry a Genuine Cowichan logo on them . Most of the stores that sell Cowichan style sweaters pay very little to the people that make the sweaters and sell for a huge profit . Please support the local knitters and buy from them not the huge companies that offer nothing to the original people that own the rights to Cowichan sweaters

  46. LB Says:

    John,
    Great to hear from you! I will add Amelia Charlie’s name to the post. What an amazing woman, sweater – and photo.
    Thanks for this information.
    Lindsay

  47. darlene Says:

    I would support the local knitters, but how do you get in contact with them. Of course their work would be so much better than factory knitters and I’m sure if you figured how many hours they spent on knitting it would be a very low hourly wage. They deserve to be recognized for their hard work.

  48. LB Says:

    John I also found this photo of your grandmother Amelia Charlie on the Cowichan Museum site. http://www.cowichanvalleymuseum.bc.ca/archival-collection/index/module/media/pId/102/id/1084/category/gallery|Cowichan-Sweaters/start/0/

  49. Laurie Says:

    Hi
    I am looking wondering if the patterns for your sweaters are available for sale. I have been looking for quite some time for such a pattern and if your patterns are not for sale would you know the name of a company that would have patterns for sale. My (adult) children have love the look of these sweaters and have asked me to make one for them but as I have stated I am unable to locate such a pattern.

    Regards

    Laurie

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