Cowichan Sweaters of the Coast Salish People

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Photo: Cowichan Sweater
Photo: Cowichan Sweater | Source

An Art Form That Combines Skill and Traditional Designs

Authentic Cowichan sweaters are known the world over--and with good reason. Cowichan knitting is an art form that combines both skill and traditional designs.

These beautiful and sturdy wool sweaters had their genesis with the West Coast Salish people. The inhabitants of the Cowichan Valley on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia were skilled at making warm garments and coverings out of different materials, which included mountain goat wool, dog hair, and other fibers available in the area. They used weaving techniques, employing spindles and looms prior to the arrival of the European settlers.

Around the 1850s, sheep (likely brought in by the settlers) were introduced to the area. Missionaries came into the Cowichan Valley and they taught Native students knitting techniques. From early items such as mittens and socks, Native knitters started to create larger garments. These knitters put the readily available wool to good use and went on to create hand-spun sweaters that withstood coastal elements such as rain and snow. The sweaters, made as they were from real wool, were waterproof.

In time, the sweaters took on the preferences of the innovative Salish knitters and came to be embellished with traditional designs. They were knit in the round, which meant the garments did not have seams, and made from the natural uncolored wool, usually in cream, grey, and black.

Knitting Skills Passed Down Through Families

Photo: Traditional Cowichan Sweater
Photo: Traditional Cowichan Sweater | Source

From Sheep to Sweater

In the early years, fleece from Dorset, Hampshire and Suffolk sheep was used. These breeds produced a lofty fleece that was lightweight, so the wool was ideal for making thick, warm, durable garments.

  • Washing: After sheering, the wool had to be washed and rinsed a couple of times to remove sweat, grease and dirt.
  • Bleaching: It was stretched over lines and left to hang outdoors so that rain and wind would help clean it and the sun would bleach it.
  • Teasing: The wool was then teased to separate tangles and to remove matted and clumped areas, as well as anything embedded in the strands.
  • Carding: The wool was carded to align the fibers.
  • Made into Roving: The carded wool was loosely spun by hand to create roving.
  • Spun into Yarn: Roving was tightly spun on a spindle or whorl, which made the strands tough and prevented the wool from pulling apart.

As can be seen, this was a labor-intensive process. After all these preliminary stages were completed, knitting could commence.

While some knitters prefer the old methods of preparing wool, many buy washed and carded wool. And to meet the demand for authentic Cowichan sweaters, Native knitters now make use of modern time-saving tools, such as motorized spinning wheels, while largely sticking to traditional knitting methods, so as to continue to produce authentic, quality garments.

A Garment That Wears Like Iron

Buying a Cowichan sweater could be viewed as a lifetime investment. These sweaters are pricey but they have a lifespan of approximately 80 years, so are well worth the initial cost.

The durability of real wool has to be experienced to be believed and these sweaters are naturally water resistant.

If you have a Cowichan sweater in your possession, you are fortunate indeed.

Facts About Traditional Knitted Cowichan Wool Sweaters

  • Each sweater contains 4.5 pounds of wool.
  • A sweater takes a couple of weeks to complete.
  • Traditional sweaters are knitted "in the round," which means they are almost seamless (sweaters with fewer seams are more durable).
  • A wool sweater, cared for properly, has a lifespan of approximately 80 years.
  • Symbols on sweaters represent clans of the Coast Salish people and/or reflect wildlife seen in the area.
  • Sweater designs have been passed down through families; other motifs have been borrowed from basketry and weaving designs.
  • Cowichan knitted sweaters are considered ethnic art forms.

Author's note: genuine Cowichan sweaters are hand numbered. Check the label for a registration number indicating a genuine "Cowichan Indian Knit."

A Prize Winning Book by Sylvia Olsen--Hardworking Salish Knitters Disproved Stereotypes

A Tale of Endurance Knit One Stitch at a Time

It could be said that the Cowichan sweater tells the story of the Coast Salish knitters and their journey past poverty and racism. They survived and prospered using their skills as knitters to produce quality sweaters that eventually helped to disprove stereotypes. While they were largely excluded from society, Salish knitters mustered on, pouring their heart, soul and passion into sweaters that helped them to put their stamp on Canadian history and earned them the respect they deserved as the hardworking, creative people they were and are.

Knitting the Cowichan Sweater

Traditional Garments Benefit Native Communities and the Human Family at Large

Talented Coast Salish knitters have combined artistry and skill to create distinctive and durable Cowichan wool sweaters for almost a century, and the craft is flourishing in modern times. These garments have benefited their own communities and the greater human family around the globe.

Where to Find Cowichan Sweaters?

Authentic Cowichan wool sweaters, made by Khowutzun Native knitters, are in great demand--so revered, in fact, that they have been presented as gifts to royalty and visitors to the Province and collected by many as Canadian souvenirs.

Modern-day Cowichan bands offer traditional sweaters that consumers can purchase online.The "wear-ever" knitted sweaters continue to attract a wide following of devotees. Consumers can select First Nations symbols or other designs when choosing custom-made knitted sweaters.

Visitors to Vancouver Island or the Cowichan Valley may spot these distinctive sweaters in shops around the West Coast area.

Getting to the Cowichan Valley

A markerCowichan Valley, B.C. -
Cowichan Valley, BC, Canada
[get directions]

Fast Facts About Vancouver Island's "Gift to the World"

  • The federal government has designated the Cowichan sweater as an object of national historic significance.
  • Cowichan knitters presented sweaters to Queen Elizabeth for the Royal Family.
  • The province of B.C.'s official royal wedding gift for the Prince and Princess of Wales was a Cowichan sweater.
  • The Cowichan band presented a sweater to Harry Truman.
  • Dwight Eisenhower also received a sweater.
  • Entertainers and visiting dignitaries have also received these knitted sweaters as gifts.

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Cowichan Sweaters in Modern Times

Have Cowichan sweaters changed much over time? What can consumers expect when purchasing one of these knits?

  • Modern Cowichan sweaters are still made from undyed virgin wool, in natural hues of black, brown, grey and white.
  • Care is taken so that the wool retains its natural oils (lanolin) which give the knitted sweaters their water-resistant quality.
  • The thick wool sweaters are distinctive-looking: animals, birds and attractive geometric designs are woven in thick-stranded natural wool.

Cowichan Canadian Symbol

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Keywords to Use When Searching for Patterns

If you are looking for Cowichan or Cowichan-style knitted goods, good keywords are:

  • Cowichan sweater patterns
  • Cowichan sweaters
  • Chinook sweaters
  • Indian sweaters
  • Raincoast Studio
  • Salish knits
  • Salish Native knits
  • Siwash sweaters
  • White Buffalo Patterns

Where to Find Patterns for Cowichan Sweaters

  • Raincoast Studio - Patterns can be found at Etsy from Raincoast Studio. They offer patterns and kits that include a pattern + wool. The kits are a great combo because it can be hard to find the right thickness of wool.
  • White Buffalo offered patterns for Cowichan-style sweaters and reprints of these can also be found at Etsy.
  • Craftsy, eBay or Ravelry might also offer patterns and/or kits.

Salish Sweaters Works of Art

In an age when run-of-the-mill lightweight sweaters are mass-produced in factories, a dedicated community of knitters continues to work with natural fibers to create "last-a-lifetime" sweaters using virgin wool and long-standing spinning/knitting techniques, while sticking with the subtle and lovely natural colors seen in real wool. Cowhichan knitters have been joined by other crafters who also enjoy working with natural hand-spun fibers and enjoy making these sweaters.

An appreciative public, as well, appreciates the time, skill and love that goes into these unique works of art.

© 2013 Athlyn Green

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