Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ethnic Knitting by Mary Glendinning

When I was growing up in Canada many people wore what are now called, "Cowichan Sweaters".  You may be more familiar with the old Mary Maxim patterns of the 50's and 60's that many people knitted instead.  The Mary Maxim patterns were sometimes called "curling" (as in the sport) sweaters and they often had a motif on them, such as horses, deer or other animals or birds.

The true Cowichan sweaters were knitted by the Salish People that live in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, Canada.  These women began a tradition of knitting sweaters with yarn they spun themselves and used only the natural colors of the sheep.  The sweaters are traditionally done in natural white, dark brown, grey and black and featured geometric designs.   The designs were made up by the knitter at the time the sweater was made and often no patterns were written down.

These sweaters were knitted holding six strands of thin roving (yarn that has not be spun yet) together making a very heavy sweater.  Sweaters were knit in the round from the bottom up with raglan sleeves and a shawl collar.  The lanolin was left in the roving to help the sweaters be somewhat waterproof in the very damp and wet climate of the island.

Other residents of the island soon began noticing these beautiful and warm sweaters and it wasn't long before people began purchasing them and they became something of a cottage industry, bringing money in for the women that knitted them.  Of course, with all great things, someone decided to begin writing patterns and producing yarn so that all knitters could make the sweaters themselves.  White Buffalo Yarns of Canada produced the yarn for many years but went out of business a number of years ago when the sweaters were no longer in style.

When the Winter Olympics came to Vancouver in 2009, the Canadian team came out at the opening ceremonies decked out in "Cowichan Sweaters" and began a resurgence in interest for these sweaters.  Unfortunately, it was discovered that the sweaters were actually not made by the Salish people, but were mass produced in Japan, causing a huge outcry from knitters and non-knitters alike!  The "Cowichan" inspired sweaters were sold in department stores as the real thing.  After a great uproar the government now requires the true "Cowichan" knit sweaters to carry tags of authenticity so that someone purchasing a sweater knows they have the real thing.

Like many other Canadians I have decided to knit myself a "Cowichan" inspired sweater.  I am almost finished the back - here is a picture.

So many of us have traditions in knitting from all over the world.  Aran sweaters, fair isle knits, Swedish lace, the list goes on and on.  We should be proud of these traditions and as knitters we should strive to make sure that they continue.  If you are interested in more information on the Cowichan sweater there is a great group on Ravelry called - Cowichan Inspired.

Mary Glendinning

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