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Cowichan Sweaters of the Coast Salish People

Updated on October 8, 2017
Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green is an avid crocheter and knitter. She designs and sells handcrafted goods.

A British Columbia Icon

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.

Two events, changed the course of history. Around the 1850s, sheep (likely brought in by settlers) were introduced to the area and missionaries came into the Cowichan Valley. They taught Native students knitting techniques. From early items such as mittens and socks, the Native knitters started to create larger garments, such as long undergarments. 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 and containing natural oils, were waterproof.

In time, the sweaters took on the preferences of the innovative Salish knitters and came to be embellished with traditional designs, using the Fair Isle technique, which employs two to three colors that are alternated to produce specific designs. The sweaters were knit in the round, which meant the garments did not have seams, and made from natural thick uncolored wool, the sweaters were usually in cream, grey, and black and were heavier than standard sweaters made with lighter-weight yarn or wool. All elements combined to create distinctive-looking sweaters and, over time, designs and techniques were passed down through families. One generation taught the next an evolving art form that has stood the test of time.

Soon, others became interested in these attractive-looking, incredibly long-wearing sweaters, which had become synonymous with the West Coast. Both British Columbians who lived in the area and tourists who visited Canada sought out the traditional knits.

Did You Know?

Cowichan knitting is a combination of European textile techniques and Salish spinning and weaving methods.

Knitting Skills Passed Down Through Families

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

Fast Fact

Salish knitters pulled sweaters apart to see how they were made and copied construction techniques.

Dorset, Hampshire and Suffolk Sheep Breeds Produced a Lofty Fleece

The fleece could be turned into wool that was ideally suited for making super warm sweaters.

Dorset Sheep


Hampshire Sheep


Suffolk Sheep

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 made from it was ideal for making thick, warm, durable garments.

Great effort was expended. Unlike today where wool can be purchased washed and spun and ready to be knitted, Salish knitters had much work to do before they could even begin knitting. Imagine having to handle heavy, soiled fleece and turning that into fluffy wool yarn.

  • 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 prevented the wool strands from pulling apart. Twisting and turning fibers strengthens them.

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

Salish Knitters Worked Extremely Hard

Women started knitting and selling sweaters to earn money for food for their families. They worked extremely hard because they had to prepare the fleece first before knitting could commence. Men, boys and girls also learned the craft and thus, techniques and patterns were passed down through families.

Many Stages are Required to Turn Fleece into Knittable Wool Yarn

Washed fleece, strung on lines to bleach and dry in the sun.
Washed fleece, strung on lines to bleach and dry in the sun.

Materials & Tools

Cowichan sweaters are usually made from sheep's wool.

The wool yarn was spun and created with tools that have evolved over time.

  • Salish spindles and whorls
  • spinning wheels
  • mechanized spinning wheels

Knitting needles used to knit the spun wool were rudimentary in the early years and were fashioned with materials available to the Salish, but, like the spinning tools, these have changed as commercially-produced needles became available.

  • bone
  • wood
  • wire
  • metal
  • plastic

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.

Salish Traditional & Modern Designs

paw prints

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."

Knitted Sweaters Reflect Animals and Nature

Walking Bears Cowichan sweater with charming paw prints as part of the design.
Walking Bears Cowichan sweater with charming paw prints as part of the design. | Source
Snowflakes on a warm sweater.
Snowflakes on a warm sweater.
Killer whales and waves in a traditional knit design.
Killer whales and waves in a traditional knit design.

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 heart, soul and passion into sweaters that helped them provide warm clothing for their families, develop cottage industries, and put their stamp on Canadian history, earning them the respect they deserved as a hardworking, creative people.

This book is a fabulous read, full of historical background and photos and a must-have for knitters who are interested in learning more about Cowichan knitting and how it developed into the art form it is today. A comprehensive overview of an important part of Canadian history and the hard-working Salish knitters who carved out a niche for themselves.

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

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 Cowichan wool sweaters for almost a century, and the craft is flourishing in modern times. These garments have benefited Native 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 to 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 and they may see locals wearing them.

Girl Wearing Sweater

Cowichan sweaters are distinctive-looking and extremely warm and durable.
Cowichan sweaters are distinctive-looking and extremely warm and durable. | Source

Getting to the Cowichan Valley

Cowichan 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 the 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.

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 white, cream, brown, grey and black.
  • 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 made from one ply of super thick natural wool.
  • Animals, birds and geometric designs are created using Fair Isle technique.

Have You Ever Owned a Cowichan Sweater?

See results

Cowichan Canadian Symbol

Online Sites

Hill's Native Art
Cowichan Knitting
House of Himwitsa
Dora Cowichan Sweaters
Jenny's Cowichan Knits
Cowichan Knits
Sa-Cinn Native Ent. Ltd.
Cowichan Knitting and Crafts

Where to Find Patterns for Cowichan Sweaters

  • Raincoast Studio - Patterns can be found at Etsy from Raincoast Studio. Kits include pattern and wool. The kits are a great combo because it can be hard to find the right thickness of wool and to estimate the amount needed to complete a sweater.
  • White Buffalo offered patterns for Cowichan-style sweaters. Reprints of these can also be found at Etsy.
  • Craftsy, eBay, Ravalry might also offer kits and/or patterns.

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

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. Cowichan knitters have been joined by other crafters who also enjoy working with natural fibers and making these sweaters. And an appreciative public appreciates the time, skill and love that goes into these unique works of art.

Have You Ever Knitted a Cowichan Sweater?

See results

© 2013 Athlyn Green


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    • profile image 

      2 years ago

      love them


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