The Cowichan Indian Sweater

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.

Design

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.

13 Comments

Filed under Curiosities, Novelty Prints, Vintage Clothing

13 responses to “The Cowichan Indian Sweater

  1. Joyce

    Great article!. I have a beautiful hand knitted sweater purchased in Victoria. Warm enough to wear in place of a winter coat, my sweater is one of my favorite items I own. Anyone who loves a warm, artisan knit should treat themselves to a trip to Vancouver Island to purchase one of these beautiful sweaters (–and a stay at the Empress Hotel).

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  2. The word primitive is a problem. Not sure what is used in art history today instead.

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    • Primitive in reference to modern societies is problematic, but the author was referring to the design motifs. Especially in 1978, I don’t think many people would have had a problem with the usage. Today is a different matter, though. Excellent point.

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  3. a friend of mine sent me one – and – like Joyce I wore mine in place of a winter coat – on the coldest day in DC or in the late Fall – just great !

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  4. QueensGirl

    Thanks for such an informative post. I was recently in the Pacific NW and didn’t see any mention of knitting in any First Nations exhibits. Such gorgeous work, glad to have learned something new.

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  5. I always marvel at the breadth of your knowledge, and your ingenuity tracking it down. All I can say is that you have some pretty fascinating Goodwill bins! And all of it rescued for the Bramlett museum and library.

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    • They say if one lives long enough they can know just about everything!

      I was lucky to get this one, as the competition for books is very fierce. There are at least 5 people who are there all the time who resell books. Only one of them in interested in old books, but he was there. I really hate to think about what happens to the books that are left over after the feeding frenzy. I imagine they go to a paper recycling plant, so I always love to save gems like this one.

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  6. I just got a used craft book called Adventures in Stitches from 1949 by Mariska Karasz (not expensive, apparently sold a lot of copies) which is the most wonderful book of mid-century modern embroidery designs. Karasz was talented artist who came to the US from Hungary, already versed in Hungarian traditional embroidery. Her work is in an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Arts & Design in NYC. If you like midcentury you will love the exhibit. I’m glad I rescued this book from its shelf in a warehouse.

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  7. That misnomer was used widely back in the day. In fact, when we first began investigating a modern remake of our Westerley cardigan in the 2000s, someone who had worked here since the 1970s referred to it as “the Cowichan.” Somehow, this had become the standard way to refer to a bulky knit that could serve as outerwear. A trip to the archives confirmed that our sweater has always been called the Westerley. Your brochure on authentic Cowichan knitting is a grand find. Thanks for posting.

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