Canadian Fashion Connection – The Cowichan Sweater

Various authentic and knock-off ‘Cowichan’ sweaters, late 1970s – early 1980s

Bulky knit sweaters are unquestionably a Canadian fashion. Their creation has been the result of a fusion of European and Native techniques and designs that developed over the last century. There is some confusion over what to call these bulky yarn sweaters that include: ‘Indian’, ‘Cowichan’, ‘Curling’, ‘Buffalo’, ‘Mary Maxim’, ‘Siwash’, and even ‘Big Lebowski’. However, there is only one name for the original bulky yarn sweater, and that is ‘Cowichan’.

Coast Salish First Nations traditionally live on the west coast straddling the present-day border between Canada and the United States, with the Cowichan Valley, southern tip of Vancouver Island, and the gulf islands at the centre of this cultural region.

Earliest known photo of a Cowichan Native wearing a sweater, 1913

Coast Salish blankets made from goat wool and dog hair were central to the pre-contact Native economy and potlach ceremony. The source of wool for Coast Salish blankets quickly changed when Europeans brought sheep into the Cowichan valley beginning in the 1840s. A Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) account from 1886 records 292 sheep were owned by the Coast Salish.

The first documented instance of Coast Salish knitting took place at the Sisters of St. Anne Roman Catholic mission which opened in 1864 in the settlement of Duncan – in the Cowichan Valley in the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island (which become a part of the province of British Columbia in 1870). Until 1904, the Sisters taught local girls and women how to knit using multiple needles (seamless or circular knitting) instead of two needles (flat knitting). Examples of socks knitted by Native women from the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish were reportedly exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

By the end of the 19th century, commercially produced blankets and the outlawing of the potlach ceremony effectively ended the Coast Salish production of woven blankets and shawls. Knitting supplanted weaving as the last examples of traditionally woven blankets date from before 1915, around the same time the first sweaters appeared.

Earliest known surviving Cowichan sweater, c. 1918

The earliest ‘Indian’ sweaters (called that because they were knit by Indians, not because they had anything identifiably Indian about them) had very little in common with today’s Cowichan sweater style. The earliest known photograph of a Cowichan sweater dates from 1913 and appears to have a cable pattern (a technique no longer used in Cowichan sweaters) but is made from a bulky hand-spun wool – a feature that remains today.

During World War 1, officers from Vancouver Island wore Cowichan made sweaters under their uniforms while stationed in Europe during winter. The earliest known surviving Cowichan sweater dates from this period and is a plain knit pullover in undyed sheep’s wool with a faint linear pattern.

Fair Isle patterned sweater by Jemina Colvin, dated 1929

Mrs. Jeremina Colvin, a Shetland Islander who settled in Cowichan Station in 1885, is sometimes attributed with introducing Fair Isle pattern knitting to the Coast Salish. A Fair Isle patterned sweater made in bulky wool by Colvin dating from 1929 is in the collection of the Cowichan Historical Museum. However, Fair Isle pattern sweaters were popular sportswear fashions in the 1920s, especially with golfers. The only difference is that the commercially made and Scottish hand-knit versions used finer wools and brighter colours, whereas Cowichan sweaters typically were made up in natural coloured bulky yarns.

Canadian Prisoner of War wearing a Cowichan sweater, early 1940s

The number of Cowichan knitters had grown by 1942 when the DIA reported that knitting in the Cowichan valley had become a viable means of bringing the Coast Salish into the mainstream economy. Most often sold through West Coast sporting goods stores for hunting and fishing wear, ‘Indian sweaters’ were recognized for their warmth, durability, and weatherproof quality for outdoor pursuits. By the late 1940s, the sweaters were becoming known outside of Vancouver Island and although everyday knitting was falling in popularity in the postwar world, because of its association with the Depression and War when hand-knit goods were an economic necessity, there remained an appreciation for hand crafted fashion items.

American reindeer pattern sweater, early 1940s

In 1951 Alma Warren, from Woodward’s department store in Edmonton Alberta, suggested to Willard McPhedrain that his Mary Maxim Company make bulky wool sweaters and suggested he look at examples made by the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish. McPhedrain hired a designer to create Mary Maxim 4-ply wool sweaters to imitate the bulky Cowichan sweaters. However, Mary Maxim  (commonly called curling sweaters at the time) did not copy Cowichan sweater construction. Mary Maxims were made from flat knitted panels sewn together with set in sleeves. Fair Isle motifs were used by Mary Maxim as well as animal and other pictorial designs that had been popular on commercially produced cardigans and pullovers since the late 1930s. A 1949 photograph of a Cowichan woman with her sweater depicting opposing reindeer, a popular motif that appeared in commercially made American sweaters from the early 1940s, is the earliest evidence of animal designs used in Cowichan sweaters. Whales, thunderbirds, and other totemic motifs began to be infused into Cowichan sweater designs during the 1950s.

Mary Maxim pattern catalogue showing Cowichan inspired patterns and other designs, mid 1950s

Cowichan woman spinning wool with a sweater showing double reindeer pattern, dated 1949

That same decade, the Canadian Indian Art and Handicraft Association, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, as well as other organizations, brought First Nations arts and crafts to mainstream Canadian art and souvenir shops for the purpose of advancing the economic conditions of Native Canadians. This was the same period Inuit lithograph prints came onto the market.

Cowichan woman holding her sweater with Totemic and other designs, early  1950s

Although Mary Maxim sweaters were more popular in the 1950s, the demand for Cowichan sweaters was on the rise. By the mid 1960s the demand was growing quickly and wholesale prices climbed from $15.00 per sweater to $50.00 per sweater by 1970 when an estimated 10,000 sweaters were produced by about 600 Cowichan knitters that year. Despite the higher demand, wholesale prices did not increase during the 1970s or 1980s because Cowichan sweaters were now facing competition.

Queen Elizabeth being presented with two Cowichan sweaters, 1959

By 1970, Mary Maxim curling sweaters were considered kitschy, and Cowichan styles became more popular, especially with Japanese buyers. Honing in on the trend were several companies that created patterns for home knitters and used a Salish-style thick single-ply wool yarn sold under various brand names including ‘Icelandic’ and ‘White Buffalo’ brands. More competition came from hand-knit sweaters modelled after Cowichan styles that were produced with labels like “Hand Knit in Western Canada”, implying authenticity, but that were less expensive because they used a cheaper wool spun in New Zealand to imitate Salish yarn.

Terminology became blurred as ‘Cowichan’ began to be used as a generic term to describe all bulky yarn knit sweaters. The Cowichan band began legal proceedings in July 1979 to protect the Cowichan name from being used by other wool manufacturers or knitters, which they won in January 1980. Since that date, every Cowichan sweater has been given a registration number and is labelled as a genuine Cowichan product.

As commercially produced imitation sweaters continued to threaten genuine sweaters, the Cowichan Band Council produced a resolution on June 23, 1981 that listed the necessary requirements for an authentic Cowichan sweater:

  • A durable hand knit finished product made from unprocessed water repellent wool
  • Of long stranded wool spun to produce a strong yarn
  • Having geometric or animal designs on the clothing
  • Sweaters which are knit in the round producing a tubular seamless body
  • Sleeves are knitted or attached by yarn
  • Having no artificial or natural dyes

In 2011, the Government of Canada designated Coast Salish Knitters and the Cowichan Sweater as an event of national historic significance.

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The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island