National Post (National Edition)
COWICHAN, VANCOUVER ISLAND
Bulky, durable and water resistant, Cowichan (pronounced cow-i-chin) sweaters, from wet, cool Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley, are distinctive for their collars and bands of plain color and design work, featuring geometric patterns or animal motifs reflecting First Nations weaving traditions. For centuries, Coast Salish women wove heavy, multipurpose blankets out of dog and goat hair. In the late 19th century, European settlers brought sheep, knitting needles, early Fair Isle patterns and nuns who taught knitting. Out of this “awesome collaboration of materials, technologies and skills,” said Sylvia Olsen, author of “Working With Wool,” a book about Cowichan knitting, Coast Salish women created their own distinctive patterning and an industry.
“It was the key economic activity for Coast Salish women in this particular area for 30 to 40 years,” Olsen said. “These were hard-working, creative, innovative women with initiative who fed their families.”
Since the mid-20th century, the Cowichan sweater's popularity has spread beyond Canada. If you think you recognize it but didn't know its name, that's because knockoffs have appeared everywhere from Pendleton's look-alike worn by the Dude in “The Big Lebowski” to the Hudson Bay Company's 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics clothing. Authentic sweaters are made only from undyed wool by Coast Salish knitters, such as Dale Edwards, who learned to knit from his grandmother as a young child and today sells various garments through I-Hos Gallery, at ihosgallery.com. Contact him via Facebook and he'll create whatever sweater design you want. You can also order directly from the Cowichan Tribes' list of knitters found on cowichantribes.com.