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.

For More Info:

The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island

Canadian Fashion Connection: The Sweater from Paris…

(Originally blogged April 11, 2010)

Colour advertisement for Mary Maxim sweaters, mid 1950s. Curiously, the patterns and catalogues were never dated.

Unlike most Canadian cities that share their name with a foreign capital, Paris Ontario is not named after the City of Lights but rather the lime gypsum found in the area that was used to make plaster (as in plaster of Paris.) Despite the namesake’s lack of prestige, there is at least one important fashion based in Paris Ontario – the Mary Maxim sweater.

It all began when Willard and Olive McPhedrain of Sifton Manitoba opened a small woollen mill in 1937 to make blankets and work socks. In 1947 Willard felt that Sifton Products didn’t portray the right identity for his goods so he advertised his goods under the name of Mary Maximchuk, an employee of the McPhedrains (the name was later shortened to Mary Maxim.) At the time, using women’s names was thought to give a product a more homey, comforting feel; the most famous woman’s name brand was probably the fictitious Betty Crocker who first appeared in 1936.

Catalogue showing some of the earliest designs for men including beaver, curling rocks and brooms, totem poles, and bulls

By 1950, everyday knitting was falling in popularity – it had become associated with the Depression and World War II when the craft was more of an economic necessity. In the post war world of the 1950s, store-bought socks were more desirable but there still remained an appreciation for hand crafted fashion items. In 1951, Alma Warren from Woodward’s department store in Edmonton Alberta suggested to McPhedrain that his company make bulky yarn sweaters. She suggested he look at sweaters made on Vancouver Island by the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish Natives; Cowichan sweaters were made with Native spun sheep wool in a circular knitting method using European Fair Isle style patterns with totemic motifs worked into the designs.

Later that year, McPhedrain hired Barry Gibson as his manager/designer and the two then laid the groundwork for the Mary Maxim 4-ply wool sweater style and its distribution through department stores across Canada. The company created and copyrighted designs based on outdoor activities and Canadian emblems and hired Stella Sawchyn to design a sweater with a Reindeer motif. Sawchyn and Gibson created a graph style pattern for Mary Maxim sweaters and soon reindeers, prancing horses, curling brooms, beavers, and totem poles were appearing on men’s women’s and children’s sweaters.

Graph pattern for Three Little Pigs sweater

The graph style patterns were a hit and created a new international standard for knitters who preferred to work from graphs than words. The company quickly found success and in 1954 Mary Maxim was officially incorporated. The new headquarters were in Dauphin, Manitoba with a branch office opened in Paris, Ontario, managed by Earl Shaw, the McPhedrain’s son-in-law. In 1956 an American office was opened in Port Huron, Michigan, managed by Willard McPhedrain’s son Larry. By 1958, Barry Gibson had left the company but Mary Maxim continued to expand when Earl Shaw opened an office in Leicester, England. That same year the McPhedrains moved the company’s headquarters to Paris, Ontario to be near its largest fibre supplier, Spinrite Yarns in Listowel, Ontario.

Antique cars pattern, one of the later patterns, c. 1960

The Mary Maxim sweater era was coming to an end when Earl Shaw left the company to buy a woollen mill in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1964. By the time Willard McPhedrain died at the age of 68 in 1971 the sweaters were considered kitschy and were no longer popular. However, Cowichan sweaters increased in popularity throughout the 1970s, spurring on copycat styles in earthy-coloured wool using a combination of totemic and Fair Isle motifs. The classic Mary Maxim style sweaters depicting everything from antique cars to oil rigs never found the same popularity they had from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. There was a small revival in popularity for Mary Maxim sweaters in vintage clothing stores in the 1980s when collectors and museums began to appreciate their designs and they have remained a collectable vintage clothing style ever since.

The company continues to operate, selling a variety of yarns and their graph style patterns. Rusty McPhedrain, the grandson of the founders, currently runs the company after his father Larry McPhedrain passed away in 2002.

Update November 7/17: The Port Huron branch of Mary Maxim closed November 4, 2017 so the company now sells only via online, or through stores in Paris and London Ontario.

Comments »

1. I have always loved the patterns that Mary Maxim did!! I own one myself and it is a timeless and super warm sweater!! I recently listed a fabulous Robin Hood design Mary Maxim pattern in my etsy shop…it is one of my all time favorites! Comment by Bonnie — April 11, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

2. Great information. I had no idea the company was still in operation. Comment by Lizzie — April 20, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

3. My family has been bringing patterns to the world forever, this was a wonderful piece to read. I dare say Mary Maxim’s is a little bit of Americana. While I did not got into the ‘family’ business I spent 5 years working the warehouse and art department. It’s what got me into advertising. Thank you to everyone who has shopped the catalogs and stores both here and in Canada throughout the years. Thank you from our family to yours it has meant much to my father and my family. Comment by Gregg McPhedrain — May 9, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

4. In the ’70’s I worked for the Nelsons at THE KNIT SHOP in Anchorage, Alaska. We called them Alaskan sweaters and they were greatly popular during that time. Marge Nelson loved to visit with Larry during her buying trips. The first project we gave beginning knitters were your sweaters because they could learn most all the basic stitches while completing a beautiful sweater. We did repairs on very old wool sweaters for fishermen and they served them well for many many years. I, myself have lost count of how many I’ve made, well over 60, I’m sure. I now make them for our 15 great-grandchildren. Oh how I miss Northland wool. And what happened to Titan? I’m sad that you no longer offer the nylon liners, too. I would love for you to bring back all the pattern kits in your catalog again. Comment by Mrs. C. Wilson — June 14, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

5. What a wonderful piece on the founding of Mary Maxim in Paris Ontario! My sister took me there & it’s truly a wonderful store. Loved the article on the start of a wonderful business in the 30’s. Comment by Heather Mattice — July 20, 2010 @ 7:21 am