How a railway attendant and a maid created vintage Mary Maxim sweaters – Camp Kitschy Knits

How a railway attendant and his household maid created the famed vintage Mary Maxim sweaters

Posted on June 24 2015

Love delightfully kitschy curling sweaters knitted from 1950s sewing patterns? It turns out a railway station attendant and his household maid were behind their creation.

Rewind half a century to small town Sifton in Manitoba, Canada, where railway attendant Willard McPhedrain and his wife Olive bought into a woolen mill.

After morphing their business into a mail order company, the entrepreneurial couple quickly developed the very first easy-to-follow graph-style knitting charts and began shipping do-it-yourself needlework kits off to moms all over Northern America.

But they needed a snappy name for their new business, something catchy like Betty Crocker. So McPhedrain seized the name of his family’s household maid – Mary Maximchuck – and shortened it a little.

The famed Mary Maxim knitting company was born.

Bringing delightfully kitschy Cowichan-style sweaters to the masses

Mary Maxim patterns were designed as a make-your-own, more affordable version of the iconic Cowichan sweater, handmade by indigenous tribes on southern Vancouver Island since the 1860s.

Compared with the Cowichans, though, Mary Maxims were slimmer and lighter, with more whimsical patterns.

The only way to get one back then was to order the pattern and wool via mail, then knit it up yourself (or get your mom to, at least).

From upper-middle-class popularity to seventies wipe-out

The sweaters were hugely popular for a couple decades, worn without any sign of irony by everyone from everyday Canadians to politicians and visiting celebrities. They were even worn on golf courses as a folksy symbol of upper-middle-class respectability.

And then the seventies happened.

The era’s psychedelic patterns and colors made the chunky wool patterns seem outdated and old-fashioned, all but killing the classic Mary Maxim sweater – for awhile, at least.

How The Barenaked Ladies’ sparked the Mary Maxim sweater revival

Some credit Canadian band The Barenaked Ladies and their 2004 Christmas album with sparking the Mary Maxim sweater comeback.

The album’s so-dorky-it’s-cool cover featured the five band members all primly zipped to the neck in vintage Mary Maxim.

Pretty quickly, orders for old sweater patterns began streaming in once more. Made-by-mom vintage Mary Maxim sweaters are also became a prized secondhand store find.

But of course, if you’re not much of a knitter and don’t fancy wearing someone else’s stinky and pre-used sweater, you can buy brand new sweaters based on 1950s Mary Maxim knitting patterns. That’s our specialty!

Sweaters made for ‘multiple-course holiday dinners and snoozes by the fire’

So what’s it like to wear one of these loud and proud woolen warmers? Here’s some thoughts from obvious fan Sarah Barmak, writing in Canada’s The Star:

“Sheathed in it, one feels like a contented horse in a barn under a blanket. The thing is made for protracted, mind-lulling, multiple-course holiday dinners and subsequent snoozes by the fire, an abandoned Robertson Davies novel at one’s side.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Until next time,

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