A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater
By Sylvia Olsen
Cowichan sweaters, with their distinctive bands of design and untreated, handspun wool, have been a British Columbia icon since the early years of the 20th century, but few people know the full story behind the garment. Now Sylvia Olsen tells the tale, drawing on her own experience, academic research, and her four-decade friendship with some of the Coast Salish women who have each knitted hundreds of sweaters.
The sweaters appeared in the early 1900s, but the Coast Salish people have had a wool-working tradition for hundreds of years. Sylvia describes the ingeniously woven blankets, made with mountain goat wool and the hair of little white wool dogs, that caught the eye of the first Spanish and British visitors to the west coast. These blankets were valued trade items and also held a non-material, almost mystical, importance in Coast Salish culture.
As European settlers began to populate Vancouver Island, the Coast Salish woolworkers learned from the newcomers how to knit and soon developed their unique sweaters, warm and water-proof for the B.C. environment yet attractive, fashionable, and ultimately popular around the world.
Sylvia shows how the story of the sweater and its knitters reflects the history of the Coast Salish people in 20th-century Canada. The knitters experienced grinding poverty, destructive racism, government paternalism, and cultural appropriation, but they battled back, using their sweaters to survive and to disprove the stereotypes that excluded them from the mainstream society and economy.
As Sylvia says, This story is a small contribution to our collective identity. It speaks of the heart and soul of many people, their lifeblood and passion. It is a story of government officials who promoted the sweaters, merchants who sold them, and people who bought them and wore them with pride. The sweaters introduce readers to the Coast Salish people, especially the Coast Salish women who have always been hard workers, but who have also always loved creating and working with wool.
Watch a video of Sylvia speaking about Working with Wool.
Download a pdf with more information about Working with Wool.
Awards and Nominations
Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize History 2011 (Nominee)
Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing (Winner)
City of Victoria Butler Book Prize (Nominee)
George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature (Nominee)