The Story of the Cowichan Sweater in 5 Parts

The Story of the Cowichan Sweater Part 1: Pre-contact Coast Salish Weaving

In traditional Coast Salish society blankets held much importance. Blankets were the primary medium of exchange. As well as serving many practical functions, they held much spiritual significance. Coast Salish weaving was a fundamental part of a Coast Salish woman's identity. A high quality blanket took months or years of work to produce.


Since time immemorial Coast Salish women wove blankets with a wool composed of mountain goat hair mixed with the hair of (now extinct) wool dogs.  The blankets were used as bedding, clothing, ceremonial regalia, and as room dividers, floor mats, and outer wall insulation.  As well as being highly functional goods, they were also invested with much spiritual power.  Wool links the Coast Salish to where they came from.  Mountain goat wool is a gift from before time.  Wool dogs were magical creatures.  They are invested with many layers of spiritual meaning.   Their quality was the equal of Southwestern Navajo blankets and Northern Tlingit Chilkat blankets. 

There were many mountain goats on the coastal mountains of the mainland.  In the spring they’d shed their coats by rubbing against bushes.  Coast Salish families would travel into the mountains and gather up the hair.  On Vancouver Island, where they didn’t have goats, the people bred wool dogs that they sheared up to three times per year.  These dogs were kept confined on small islands to keep them from mixing with other dogs, and they were fed a special diet to increase the quality of the wool.  The goat and dog wools were mixed together to create Salish Wool.  The women's exchange of goat for dog wool was part of a larger Salish trading network. 

When the two wools had been acquired they teased them to remove dirt, removed the course guard hairs, and mixed them.  ‘Diatomaceous earth’ was then pounded into the wool.  This was a fine processed dust that cleaned the wool, deodorized it, made it waterproof, and gave it thermal and insecticidal properties.  Additional filler product was added (stinging nettle fibre, Indian hemp, milkweed, cottonwood, fireweed fluff, cedar twine, down from waterfowl).  The wool was combed and spun into yarn, sometimes dyed with plant dyes, and then woven on wooden looms.  Coast Salish blankets were generally white twill-weave or twined featuring repeated geometric designs, and were thick and heavy.

Blankets were a primary form of currency with a high value attached to them.  They were given as payment to witnesses at namings, marriages, funerals, and other important events.  Women had a high status in Coast Salish society because they produced the blankets so necessary in their culture.  The ‘Puberty’ or ‘Coming of Age’ ceremony for young women was an initiation into woolworking.  Men produced intricately carved tools (beaters, combs, spindle whorl, looms) for the women.



The Story of the Cowichan Sweater Part 2: Effects of Contact with Europeans

During the 19th century contact with European society caused the cessation of Coast Salish weaving.


During the 19th century, traders brought European mass produced blankets into Coast Salish territory.  Gradually the cheaper trade blankets began replacing Salish blankets.  Indians began working for Europeans and were paid in blankets.  The most important form of Coast Salish currency could as easily be acquired by common people as by nobility.  The influence of the Chiefs was reduced.  Women formerly held positions of prestige as the producers of wealth.  Not valued in white society, they lost their position in their own society.  During the same period epidemic after epidemic wiped out much of the population.  During the 1850‘s the Hudson’s Bay Co. imported thousands of sheep into southern Vancouver Island, and hired Indians to tend them.

During the next decades, Indians were confined on tiny reserves while the rest of their lands were opened up for Europeans to develop.  The Indian population declined due to disease while the European population increased to become a majority.  Children were taken away from their families and put into abusive residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture.  The colonial government banned Potlatches, which were the largest and most central social, political, and spiritual gatherings of the Coast Salish.  Potlatches were also the primary expression of the tradition trade in blankets.  By the end of the 19th century, the Coast Salish had largely stopped weaving blankets.



The Story of the Cowichan Sweater Part 3: The Cowichan Sweater

Warm, water resistant, the ideal garment for coastal BC, they became a symbol for British Columbia. Canadian prime ministers, US presidents, Hollywood stars, and members of the British Royal family were all photographed wearing Cowichan sweaters.


After their traditional textile production largely ceased, Coast Salish women filled the void by taking up knitting needles, spinning machines and sheep’s wool.  Adapting designs from their woven blankets and baskets, they knit warm sweaters, socks and toques for their families.  Then began them trading with non-Native neighbours. 

Wool preparation was a lengthly process in the 19th century.  Women acquired raw sheep’s wool during summer.  They washed it with hot water and detergent, then rinsed it  and hung it to dry on racks.  White wool was bleached in the sun.  Once dry, it was teased (pulled and puffed up), and any loose dirt removed, then carded (combed).  Next it was spun into yarn, then perhaps dyed.  Today the women are provided with wool that has been cleaned and carded, but continue to spin the yarn and knit the sweaters by hand.

Contemporary Cowichan sweaters are knit from natural, hand spun, undyed sheep’s wool.  This strong and stretchy yarn makes a sweater that keeps its shape.  The high lanolin content of the wool makes a water repellant, stain resistant sweater that keeps its wearer warm and dry, absorbs body moisture, and ventilates body heat.  These sweaters, if taken care of should last for decades.  They are passed down from generation to generation. 

Coast Salish women have created an industry.  Modern Cowichan sweaters are marketed nationally and internationally.  Knitting sweaters puts food on the table and gives the women the freedom to practice their culture by taking caring of their families and attending ceremonies. 



The Story of the Cowichan Sweater Part 4: The Cowichan Sweater Business

During the 20th century a huge demand for sweater developed. Non-native merchants took control of the Cowichan sweater trade to the detriment of the Native artisans.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Coast Salish were a prosperous people.  They were rich in food resources of seafood, wild game, wild plants and garden vegetables.  They had access to seasonal work on farms, orchards, mills and canneries.  They also sold knit goods for extra money.  During the great depression of the 1930’s, the Coast Salish People became impoverished.  Native people were excluded from the shrinking job market while colonial expansion was limiting their traditional food harvesting.  During this period the demand for knit sweaters continued and knitting became a central economic activity.  With work so hard to get, men got more involved in the knitting business.  They helped with washing, carding, selling finished goods, and some knitting.  Children helped with some of the preparation and knit socks, toques and sleeves.  Knitting became a family business and the main source of food and essentials

Women hung Cowichan sweaters that were available on a line outside the house.  Prospective customers would drive through the reserve and stop when they saw one that suited their requirements.  Knitters would lay their goods out on blankets at the side of the road.  Women traded knitting for food products with farmers and at grocery stores in town.  When the women couldn’t make a retail sale, they would sell for half the amount to merchants that would resell the goods.  This spread the popularity of the sweaters outside of Coast Salish territory.  During the 1940’s the economy expanded and sweater sales expanded with it.  Popularity spread across the province, then nationally, then internationally.  They were bought by hunters, fishermen, and those that worked outdoors, including soldiers and police for their warmth and damp resistance. 

When the war boom ended, the Coast Salish fell back into destitution.  Racism excluded them from the new economy.   Consumers ceased buying sweaters directly from the Native producers.  They bought them at the stores in town.  The sweaters were tagged with the knitter’s name.  Many non-native people grew wealthy from the Cowichan sweater business, while the creators suffered poverty.



The Story of the Cowichan Sweater Part 5: Imitation Cowichan Sweaters

Many companies make and sell imitation Cowichan sweaters. Some are direct forgeries, falsely labelled and hand-knit offshore or in Canada by non-Native people that get paid very little. Others are mass produced machine-knit look-alikes that may be called ‘Cowichan style’ or ‘Indian style’ sweaters.


As long as Coast Salish women have knit Cowichan sweaters, there have been imitations produced.  During the 1950’s knit sweater kits by ‘Mary Maxim’ appropriated Cowichan Indian designs - snowflake, deer, salmon, whale, wave, and totem pole.  ‘White Buffalo’ and other companies followed with kits that were blatant imitations and were sold as ‘Cowichan style sweater kits’.  During the same period, cheap, poor quality ‘Indian style’ sweaters began to be produced commercially. 

The international demand for sweaters grew until during the 1970’s and 80’s it exploded, and so did the mass production of ‘look-alike’ sweaters.  These undercut the genuine Cowichan sweaters by using synthetic yarns which weren’t water and cold resistant. They also eliminated the uniqueness and creativity by standardizing the designs, colors and sizes.  The ‘Yarn Barn’ produced a look-alike yarn and registered the trademark ‘Cowichan’ for it.  After much controversy, the ‘Yarn Barn’ stopped using the trademark. 

The Cowichan Tribes registered “Cowichan”, “Genuine Cowichan”, and “Genuine Cowichan Approved” as trademarks for goods that “have been hand-knit in one piece in accordance with the traditional tribal methods by members of the Coast Salish Nation using raw, unprocessed, undyed, hand-spun wool, also made and prepared in accordance with traditional tribal methods.” 

The HBC sells imitation Cowichan sweaters that are machine knit and mass produced in China.  They provided the official sweater of the 2010 winter olympics that included obvious Cowichan elements. 

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