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Knit wit: 5 things you didn’t know about Canada’s beloved Cowichan sweater

BENJAMIN MACDONALD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In the first instalment of an ongoing Canada 150 series exploring iconic domestic design, Nathalie Atkinson breaks down the history of the Cowichan sweater, which adapted the centuries-old Coast Salish knitting tradition to become, arguably, the country's first cross-cultural fashion garment

The wool-working tradition dates back hundreds of years to blankets traditionally woven of mountain-goat wool and used for ceremonial and, later, trade purposes by the Coast Salish knitters of southern Vancouver Island. Early designs were knit in natural shades and available in geometric patterns and motifs taken from nature and wildlife.

The original date of commercial production on those first sweaters is unknown but some Coast Salish families can trace ancestral fibre workers back to the 19th century. The first documented instance of Coast Salish European circular knitting was at a Roman Catholic mission in Duncan, B.C., in 1864, when the sisters taught local girls and women to knit. The sweaters appeared commercially by the early 1900s.

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Sweater production involved entire families and extended family groups, and became an important contribution to the off-season and postcolonial home-based economy, although throughout the decades of commercial production and interest in the garment (particularly during a period of strong international demand in the 1960s), Coast Salish knitters were seldom fairly remunerated for their work. Before needle knitting even begins, the fiber is processed: twigs or debris are picked from raw fleece before it's cleaned in boiling water so that it retains some of its natural lanolin, the rich oil that gives it that water-resistant quality – and squeaky sound.

Sometimes also called curling sweaters, the similarity of styles – like the kitschy version worn by The Dude in The Big Lebowski – is a case of mistaken identity. The Cowichan Band Council has a registered certification mark on authentic Cowichan product, found inside the garment. According to research in Working with Wool, Sylvia Olsen's book on the sweaters, by the First World War they were popular enough that officers from the region stationed in Europe were given permission to wear them underneath their uniforms.

Over the years, authentic sweaters have been presented to dignitaries from Harry Truman to Queen Elizabeth. In 2010, the Hudson's Bay line of Vancouver Olympic apparel included a heavy-knit lambswool zip cardigan emblazoned with maple leaves and elk that was incorrectly marketed as a Cowichan (the Bay's sweater was only inspired by the traditional design and not knit by its practitioners). In 2011, the Government of Canada designated Coast Salish knitters and the Cowichan sweater an event of national historic significance.

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