I pulled this great little booklet out of a Goodwill bin, along with some other vintage booklets about Native American textiles. What really interested me about this one was the section on knitted goods made by Vancouver Island Indians. I know that knitting is not what generally springs to mind when thinking of Native textiles, but the Cowichan sweater is a special story.
In the early days of ebay chat boards, I loved to read the Vintage Fashion Board. This was in the late 1990s, or maybe early 2000s, long before any vintage blogs or other sources of information online. It was the best vintage education I could have gotten because it was an open discussion about anything and everything about old clothes.
One discussion I remembered in particular involved Mary Maxim and Cowichan sweaters. As ebay was growing (exploding, actually) one of the big concerns was using key words so buyers could find what they wanted through searching. For some reason, probably due to some “expert” on the board giving bad information, sellers started using the term Cowichan to describe Mary Maxim sweaters.
The only things the two sweaters really have in common is the use of a heavy multi-ply yarn in their making and often, the depiction of wildlife. Mary Maxim is a company that sold knitting charts and yarns to home knitters. The patterns are pictorial in nature, with themes like fishing or bowling or airplanes, usually in bright colors on a tan background. They are best described, I suppose, as novelty sweaters. Cowichan sweaters are hand knit by Indians on Vancouver Island, often with geometric patterns, but also depicting local wildlife. They are knit in neutral colors of wool.
In the course of the ebay discussion, some knowledgeable person finally showed up and set us all straight about the Cowichan. To use the term Cowichan to describe any bulky hand knit was just wrong, and to be honest, ignorant. It was a good lesson for me, not to rely on the word of people I don’t really know. Do my own research and be careful with the details. Of course it is much easier now, fifteen years later. The amount of information on the internet is far beyond anything I imagined in 2000. And it helps that today I know many people online whose knowledge I can trust.
Following is the text from the booklet, Indian Weaving, Knitting, Basketry of the Northwest, by Elizabeth Hawkins. It was published in 1978.
Knitting is a modern technique that was introduced by early Scottish settlers to Vancouver Island Indians. Today, Native knitting is predominated by the Salish women knitting the famous Cowichan Indian sweaters, and to a lesser extent, tams, socks, mitts and ponchos. Many women still spin and dye their own wool both because of the handcrafted touch it gives and to keep the cost down. Many of the sweaters are knitted in the round using as many as eight needles and therefore produce a seamless garment.
There is such a demand today for these sweaters that I was recently told that on two of the Vancouver Island reserves every woman of age commercially knits. While the southern Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley tribes are the predominant knitters the demand is encouraging a similar home industry in northern villages as well.
Geometric patterns predominate in primitive Salish design but more modern designs often incorporate wildlife. Thunderbird, eagle, killer whale and deer are crest figures often portrayed.
Duncan Fall Fair brings forth competition among Cowichan knitters.
I thought the spindles were really interesting. I’ve never seen a spinning wheel adapted from an old treadle sewing machine.
Note the Scottish influence in the sweaters hanging behind the happy spinners. I love that argyle. The snowflake is interesting as well. It looks like other knitting designs such as Scandinavian were being appropriated into the Cowichan.