As promised, today I have a discussion with our Cowichan-style knitalong panelist Andrea Rangel about what a Cowichan sweater is and is not, pop-culture and mass-market appropriation of the style, and whether there’s anything wrong with knitting a sweater in the Cowichan style. There’s been a lot of discussion around all of this since the knitalong kicked off and I’m happy to see so much interest. Andrea is not Coast Salish herself, but has lived in the Cowichan Valley and spent time studying the Salish people and their sweaters, with their influence having made its way into her design work. Her most recent pattern happens to be a Cowichan-inspired pullover vest, Tokul, and she’s also the first panelist to have completed her knitalong vest — so I’ll have her FO interview and pics soon!
In addition to the links previously provided, Andrea has posted some videos on her Instagram feed showing how she traps floats, which she says is not 100% the Salish way, as they would typically hold both yarns in the right hand. But whether you’ve watched the videos mentioned in the links roundup post, take a minute to watch Andrea’s as well. And one more link to mention, shared by Eliana in the comments: Cowichantribes.com, with contact info for Cowichan craftspeople. For those who’ve wondered how to buy an authentic sweater directly, that might be another path!
I also want to say a big thank-you to fellow panelist Kathy Cadigan for the photos included in this post, which she shot three years ago when touring Cowichan Valley with Andrea (which you can read more about on Tolt’s blog). The photos were taken variously at the Duncan farmer’s market, Leola Witt’s weaving studio, and Hill’s trading post. Note that the photo up top is not of authentic Cowichans, but of a Sylvia Olsen vest design, samples knitted by Andrea (left) and Sylvia (right), which I thought you might like to see. (Sylvia considers her own design style to be a fusion of influences from her own Scottish/English ancestry and Coast Salish ancestry of her former husband.) The sweater Andrea is modeling above is a vintage Cowichan, likely from the ’50s, and belongs to Witt. Hopefully all of this will add to your understanding and appreciation of the Cowichan tradition!
What’s the most basic, one-sentence answer to the question “What is a Cowichan sweater”?
A Cowichan sweater is a sweater knit by a person with Coast Salish heritage that is generally made with undyed superbulky-weight yarn and often features some color patterning. Coast Salish people are a group of indigenous people from the Pacific Northwest Coast, including Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, who are ethnically and linguistically related to one another.
What are some of the key characteristics that make a Cowichan sweater a Cowichan sweater?
Like most knitting traditions, Cowichan sweaters are a fluid form, so there are many exceptions, but some general characteristics are:
– undyed, often hand-spun superbulky yarn
– geometric or animal-motif color patterns
– often featuring three sections of colorwork — narrow bands at the hips and shoulders and a wider band across the chest.
– drop-shoulder or modified drop-shoulder construction (raglan and set-in sleeves are rare among Cowichan sweaters)
– usually seamless
– 3-needle-bind-off shoulder joins, often showing as a design feature on the public side of the work
– color patterns that often include sections with long floats — i.e, large pattern motifs
– a characteristic collar worked in three sections. After both front sections are worked, stitches are picked up along the back neckline. At the end of every row of the back collar section, a live front collar stitch is knit together with the last back collar stitch. When all the front collar stitches on both sides are gone, the collar is complete and can be bound off.
Also, in order to avoid long strands at the back of the work as well as to manage tension, floats are caught every other stitch. This is apparent on the inside of the sweater, and you can often see it a bit on the public side too — the contrast color will often peek through a bit. A blend of intarsia and this catching-every-other-stitch method is also frequently incorporated if there’s just one big motif – like an eagle on the back.
The sweater pattern we’re knitting for the knitalong is a “Cowichan-style sweater” because it doesn’t have the right ethnic or geographic origins to be called a Cowichan sweater, but what other ways does it deviate from the true Cowichans?
– using red as one of the colors
– being worked in pieces and seamed
– having a collar that’s seamed rather than progressively knit together as described above
– having shoulders that are seamed rather than joined using 3-needle-bind-off
Cowichans are a little like the lopapeysa in Iceland (aka lopi sweaters), where you have local guilds knitting these indigenous sweaters to be sold largely to tourists. Right? The lopi apparently only dates back to the mid-20th century. How old is the Cowichan sweater tradition, and also: Tell us how it is that you come to know so much about all this.
I’m not quite as familiar with the history of Icelandic knitting, so aside from the sweaters being knit for tourists, I don’t know how similar the traditions are. Historically Cowichan sweaters were sold directly from knitters’ homes (often hung in the yard so that passersby could see them), but I haven’t heard of that happening recently. It’s possible to get a genuine Cowichan sweater from Hill’s Native Art in Duncan, BC. These include a Cowichan tag and often the name of the knitter. During summer months you can also find knitters knitting on the waterfront with sweaters and accessories to sell, so in that case you’re buying directly from the knitter. There are a couple other shops in downtown Victoria that sell native art including Cowichan sweaters, but I don’t know how much of the profit goes to the artists and knitters or how authentic the products are.
Coast Salish people had a long tradition of weaving, but started knitting around the time that British Columbia was colonized, in the mid- to late-1800s. The current idea of the Cowichan sweater has been developing and evolving since then.
I’ve learned about this tradition mostly because I moved to the Cowichan Valley a few years ago and was very curious. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Sylvia Olsen, the author of Working with Wool and Knitting Stories, who also lives in this region. She has a fascinating personal history with this tradition and has researched and written about it in a wonderfully poetic and scholarly way. Working with Wool should be the primer for anyone interested in learning about Cowichan knitting.
So what we’ve got here in our knitalong sweater is a Japanese take on the Cowichan sweater. It’s become a fairly common style to appropriate, but the Japanese seem particularly taken with it. I’m asking you to generalize here, granted, but how do the Coast Salish people feel about their knitting tradition being co-opted by other cultures?
I can’t speak for Coast Salish people, but as far as I know, they object strongly to anything being called a Cowichan sweater that isn’t one.
One thing that’s been mentioned a few times since we kicked off this knitalong is the collaboration between two Canadian companies — Roots and Mary Maxim, both of which are new to me — to produce “Cowichan” sweaters. (Mary Maxim was apparently founded in the ’50s on patterns for sports-themed faux Cowichans.) Whether or not either company actually calls them Cowichans, the sweaters are clearly indebted to the native knitters, who in no way benefit from this mega-brand collaboration. What’s your feeling about appropriation of knitting traditions, especially with regard to Cowichan? And is there anything wrong with non-Salish knitters knitting themselves a sweater that’s Cowichan-inspired?
I’m glad you raise this question. I think it’s an important topic and I think you could get a lot of different opinions. I wish we had a Coast Salish knitter here to speak about this because I’m not sure how she or he would answer.
Labeling a sweater as “Cowichan” or even “Indian” (a term that was historically used before Cowichan to describe the sweaters) when it isn’t is a violation of the creative and intellectual property of the Coast Salish. And we have to acknowledge the historical and current cultural oppression and racism that continue to have a negative impact on the Coast Salish community. That history and current reality have to inform our thinking about this topic, and I think it’s vital that we take special care not to exacerbate the disenfranchisement of that community by claiming their cultural property as our own.
But I also think that fashion is always in flux. We are all constantly inspired and influenced by what we see around us. In the United States, you can’t copyright a clothing design and I actually think that’s sensible – there are so many elements to a piece of clothing that it seems nearly impossible to boil down its essence and say that someone owns that. (Is it the pattern of the fabric? the fiber content? the cut? the techniques used to create it? the placement and number of pockets?) To say that any item of art or culture is 100% original or pure is nonsensical to me – all of our creations are iterations of something else. I find power and beauty in that connection back to our mothers and grandmothers and back and back. We are all interrelated and the huge variety and mixing of knitting traditions are a wonderful visual and tactile representation of that.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with knitting a Cowichan-inspired sweater. I’d love if there were patterns available from Coast Salish knitters so we could also be supporting that community, but I have yet to find any. And I think there would most definitely be something wrong with a non-Salish knitter claiming that their sweater was a Cowichan, particularly if they used that label as a sales tactic.
One of the most famous Cowichan-style sweaters in pop culture (along with Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe) is the one worn by Jeff Bridges — aka “the Dude” — in The Big Lebowski. It’s not the most flattering portrait of a garment, and yet that sweater became iconic. (And you actually published a knitting pattern several years ago for the Dude’s sweater.) Do you think the fame or infamy of that sweater did anything as far as raising awareness of the Coast Salish people and their traditions, knitted or otherwise? Or do you think people even thought to wonder about it — it was just a cool sweater.
That is a great sweater and it was definitely heavily influenced by the Cowichan sweater tradition. I think it’s a great example of how fashion works — we’re influenced by what we see and like and then alter it to suit our own market, aesthetic, or to achieve other goals. Because it was called a Cowichan sweater (though there are so many ways in which it is not), I think it has generated interest in the Cowichan knitting tradition among knitters and people interested in the history of fashion. Most folks, though, probably just think it’s a cool sweater.
Photos © Kathy Cadigan