Ancient tradition, dog fur and 1800s knitting: The surprising history of Canada’s Cowichan sweaters
Posted on June 03 2015
It’s pretty easy to love knits inspired by Canada’s iconic Cowichan sweaters just for their outrageously loud and kitschy designs. I mean, giant buffalos charging across your chest, anyone?
But behind the absurdly awesome designs of these sweaters lies an intriguing story of ancient tradition, the fur of a now-extinct dog and 1800s knitting.
Who knew, huh?
Fancy wearing goat wool, dog hair and plant fibers?
It all begins with the indigenous tribes of Cowichan Valley, on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Before Europeans rocked up, the Coast Salish people were expert knitters, whipping up highly prized blankets and woven textiles from mountain goat wool, goose down and plants fibers like cedar bark.
Even a now-extinct small white canine, known to the First Nations people on the coast as “the woolly dog”, was domesticated by a few tribes and bred for its fur.
That all changed around 1860, when European settlers brought in sheep, and missionaries introduced local women to two-needle and multiple-needle knitting, which they combined with their own ancient fiber processing and spinning techniques.
Each sweater was a unique piece of art, featuring traditional designs of animals, birds, sea creatures and geometric shapes.
The incorporation of symbols representing Coast Salish clans and local wildlife made the sweaters immediately recognizable as a product of this landscape – and the Cowichan sweater was officially born.
Vancouver Island’s ‘gift to the world’
So iconic are the woolen sweaters that the Canadian Government deemed them an object of national historic significance in 2012.
That recognizes the sweater as Vancouver Island’s “gift to the world”, a blending of ancient techniques with modern technology.
“It is truly one of our Canadian stories, when we came together as indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. It fused our history and our skills together,” Sylvia Olsen, author of Working With Wool, a prize-winning book about Cowichan sweaters, told Canada’s The Globe and Mail.
Snap up your piece of wearable history
While Canada’s Native knitters still whip up authentic Cowichan sweaters today, you can get yours mitts on a Cowichan-inspired sweater for a fraction of the cost.
Many of our Cowichan-style knits are based on vintage knitting patterns from the 1950s, popularized by famed knitwear company Mary Maxim.
But all of our knits are handmade in the Andes Mountains by a cooperative of indigenous Ecuadorian knitters, using 100 percent wool.
Oh – and our sweaters are completely new, not stinky, sweat-stained and previously used “vintage” sweaters!
Scoot on over to our online sweater store to bag yourself a piece of Canadian history.
Until next time,