This Week in History


The Cowichan Sweater: Knitting Cultures Together

For the week of Monday, June 19, 2017

On June 23, 1981, the Cowichan Band Council in British Columbia established requirements for an authentic Cowichan sweater. This warm and durable garment represents a unique combination of Coast Salish symbolism and fibre preparation, and European knitting techniques.

Mrs. Helen Jimmy with a traditional Salish Spindle. The intricately decorated spindle is unique to the region. Koksilah (near Duncan), Vancouver Island, 1949
© Margaret Meikle, Cowichan Indian Knitting, Museum Note No. 21 [Vancouver: UBC Museum of Anthropology, 1987], p. 11

The Cowichan Band stipulated that the sweaters must be hand-knit from undyed, water-repellent wool, have no side seams, and feature geometric and animal designs. Coast Salish knitters have made Cowichan sweaters from southern Vancouver Island since the late 1800s. Warm and waterproof, they are perfect for the West Coast's temperate rainforest.

The Coast Salish have a long history of fibre preparation and textile weaving. Woven blankets made out of mountain goat and dog hair were prestigious gifts in potlatches and valuable in early trade. Traditional methods of wool preparation at times involved whole families, although women mainly did the knitting. Preparation included carefully washing the wool so that it retained enough lanolin to be waterproof, then hanging it outdoors to dry. Then, it was hand teased and spun into strong, single-ply yarn. Despite the Cowichan sweater’s popularity, the knitters were often paid less than a sixth of the final retail price.

A strong market for the Cowichan sweater developed in the early 1900s. During the First World War, they were so popular that military officers from Vancouver Island were granted permission to wear them. By the 1920s, they were stocked in department stores across the country, with demand growing into the late 20th century. Today the Cowichan sweater continues to be an iconic Canadian garment.

A Cowichan sweater laid out to show no side seams
© Parks Canada

Coast Salish Knitters and the Cowichan Sweater is a National Historic Event. On June 21, we celebrate National Aboriginal Day! To learn more about First Nations history in B.C., see History and Legend at Gitwangak Battle Hill and Between Two Worlds: William Beynon’s Life in Ethnography in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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