Closely Knit Families and the Cowichan Sweater
September 22nd, 2012
For much of the 20th century, handmade Cowichan Indian sweaters—bulky, distinctively patterned, woolen sweaters that were cozy and repelled the rain—were handed down from generation to generation, preferably unwashed, worn for work and play, never for fashion.
We felt proud to own one because the Cowichan Indian sweater was as British Columbian as we could get. Our province gave them as gifts to Harry Truman, Bing Crosby, Pope John Paul II and Charles and Diana. And they didn’t get ’em from The Bay or ebay.
We all knew the product was from the Coast Salish people.
That’s why the Hudson Bay Company stumbled into a public relations fiasco in October of 2009 when they unveiled the official 2010 Olympics clothing line and everyone—including Macleans magazine—noted the bulky, 2010 Olympic sweaters were derivative of the Coast Salish garments.
The retail giant admitted their design was “inspired by a great fashion icon that is recognized as a knit sweater all across the country” but no Coast Salish artists had been invited to serve on the design team. Global consumers would not be informed of the sweaters’ historical and stylistic origins. Compensation for the indigenous industry would be nil.
The main voice to confront The Bay, and speak on behalf of the Coast Salish knitters to the media, belonged to Sylvia Olsen, who entered the fray with reluctance. Although she had lived on the Tsartlip Reserve for 34 years, she was clearly white in terms of her own racial origins.
The settlement with The Bay was paltry: The Cowichan were accorded the right to sell their (relatively few) handmade sweaters alongside the mass produced garments. The controversy, like the overall costs of the Olympics, disappeared from the media spotlight as soon as the events began.
But now Sylvia Olsen is getting the last word.
Her Working With Wool (Sono Nis) blends ancient coastal history; the stories of women who have made the sweaters, the memories of the people who marketed the sweaters, the families that wore them and some brief recollections of The Bay confrontation— from someone who can walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
At age seventeen, in 1972, Sylvia Olsen married Carl Olsen, a Coast Salish. As a young mother, she learned how to knit Cowichan sweaters from her mother-in-law, Laura Olsen.
In those days, knitters were paid $55 for a sweater which they would later see on the dealer’s rack with a tag for $270. Since the wool, itself, cost $45, for all their labour the knitters only made $10. Olsen says every Coast Salish family on southern Vancouver Island has at least one story of selling a Cowichan sweater to a non-First Nations customer so they could buy food for supper or shoes for the kids.
“In 1978 we started buying Indian sweaters from our family and a few neighbours,” she recalls.
“We nailed a sign on a tree at the end of our driveway — Indian Sweaters for Sale— and placed a five dollar advertisement in the newspaper. Soon a steady trail of customers found their way to our place.”
In 1981, Carl built a log “sweater shop” behind their house. His father, Ernie Olsen, named it Mount Newton Indian Sweaters after the sacred mountain that they could see from the backyard.
Sales flourished. The Olsens were able to pay 15 percent more to the knitters than they could get in Victoria. Everyone was happy until the cost of wool increased and the price of sweaters did not.
“By the 1980s the market was being driven by skyrocketing wholesale exports to Japan and Europe, which drove the price to the knitters down rather than up. They had to mass-produce thousands of sweaters for foreign markets, while the local demand all but disappeared.”
By the early 1990s, knock-off imitation sweaters were flooding the market. Having closed her business, Olsen went to university and at age 35 gained a Master’s degree in history, specializing in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations.
Her 1996 thesis on Coast Salish knitters served as the basis for the National Film Board documentary, The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters, made by Christine Welsh.
Sylvia Olsen’s picture book Yetsa’s Sweater (Sono Nis 2006) introduced the art of making the sweaters to younger readers.
The Provincial Government has presented sweaters to Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau (who wore a Cowichan sweater for one of his Christmas cards) but the characters who drew Olsen to tell the story of the Cowichan sweater in Working with Wool were the knitters such as Cecelia, Ethel, Sarah, May, Yvonne, Elizabeth, Madeleine and Laura.
“Washing wool outside and knitting all night was Cecelia’s favourite thing to do,” says Olsen. “In the early days, before the 1950s, before hydro wires were strung through the reserve, she had a coal oil lamp for light. If she was out of oil she used candles.
“Late at night it was quiet—no radio, no TV, no kids, just the clicking of her knitting needles. The repetitive movement of her hands uncluttered her mind and gave her time to reflect.
“Most nights she stayed up until three or four in the morning, and sometimes later if she needed to finish her sweater. She’d sleep for a few hours and then get up and wash and block the sweater for sale later in the day. That way the kids would have something for supper.
“When she was finished telling me her story, she looked up to the ceiling and crinkled her brow. After a few moments of silence she turned back to me with a thoughtful look on her face and said, ‘We Indians are sure hard workers.’”
It was that statement, accompanied by a chuckle, that convinced Olsen she must one day write a book on the subject of Cowichan sweaters. Olsen and Cecelia agreed that few people knew much about how First Nations people lived, and stereotypes of First Nations people did not reflect that they were hard workers.
Olsen takes pains to depict the knitters of Cowichan sweaters as artists. Each knitter brings unique traits to their designs and spinning techniques.
When she was once called to act as a witness in a break and enter case, Olsen was able to identify who had knit a particular sweater for the court. From the stitch, tension and size, and the rounded collar with strips of black and white, and a raised join at the shoulders, she knew the sweater could have only been made by Cecelia.
May’s sweaters were bulky and heavy. Yvonne’s sweaters were dense and tightly knit on small needles. Elizabeth’s sweaters were rough, as each stitch did not exactly line up with the previous stitch. Laura was an artist. Each sweater was a new creation. She tried different collars, sleeve insets, buttons, ties, belts, hoods, pouches, or slash pockets. If she saw a knitted garment on the street, she came home and tried to match its design.
Many B.C. families, aboriginal or otherwise, have passed a particularly treasured Cowichan sweater down from one generation to the next. For some families, writes Olsen, “a Cowichan sweater might be so fiercely coveted that the recipient must be named in the owner’s will.”
Olsen claims that Coast Salish women were making sweaters from goat’s fleece prior to the advent of European settlers. Others have suggested the garments can be traced to the introduction of knitting techniques by early British settlers. Either way, the debate continues over appropriation and what constitutes cultural property that should be protected.
Is it the designs, the style, the wool or a particular configuration of all of the elements that make up a Cowichan? Or is it the feeling you get when you wear one? Fewer and fewer British Columbians are going to know. These days, only May and Yvonne still knit. So Sylvia Olsen has recorded the story of handmade Cowichan sweaters in the knit of time. Just as Olsen’s mother-in-law had taught her sons and daughters to knit, Syliva Olsen has taught the knitting skills to her daughters, Joni and Heather.
Laura Olsen died, age 91, hoping her grandchildren would not have to subsist on knitting income as she did, but wanting the skills to be preserved.
Essay Date: 2010