The wild & woolly Cowichan sweater: Indian art, Scots know-how and a Japanese status symbol
UNEDITED version: The young Japanese strolls proudly along Tokyo’s Ginza, aware of his unusual attire and grinning impishly in response to the curious glances it provokes. A friend greets him with a warm, understanding smile: “Hi. I see you’ve been to Canada. Did you have a good trip?” “Ah. Very good,” replies the young man, just back from a holiday tour that took him to Victoria and Vancouver. “Obviously you have noticed my wonderful sweater. Thank you.” The Japanese glances down at his genuine Cowichan sweater with its unique design, which he has bought in a store on Government St. Like most Japanese, he is well aware that a Cowichan sweater is one of the finest souvenirs that can be purchased at any price. It is an undeniable status symbol that lifts its proud owner a few notches up on the social scale in the Land of the Rising Sun. “Among visitors to Victoria, the Japanese are the most avid buyers,” says Norman Laugheed, former owner of the Cowichan Trading Co., one of the largest retail distributors of the sweaters. A clerk in another downtown store said she once sold 11 sweaters to a single Japanese customer. Traditionally, the Japanese are great bestowers of gifts and they return laden from every trip. The individual who purchased 11 sweaters was buying for mama-san, papa-san, big brothers and sisters, even young sons and daughters. Yes, they knit the sweaters in tiny sizes, too. Other keen buyers are Americans from the Midwest and Northwest, especially Montana, Minnesota and Michigan, where the winter snows are heavy and are often driven by piercing winds. New Englanders, who are also subject to the cruelest vagaries of weather, are also fascinated by the Indian knits and are easily enticed to loosen their purse strings. Norman Laugheed, whose interest is so enduring that he still works in the store he sold a few years ago, manifested his trading ability at an early age. He was only 12 when he bought his first Cowichan sweater for $3 and reaped a tidy profit when he sold it to a chilled Chinese cook, who wore it constantly and ceased to voice his bitter complaints about the Canadian cold. Our Japanese friend probably would not have had a Cowichan sweater to wear on the Ginza had it not been for the Scottish settlers, those intrepid pioneers who have left indelible marks on many facets of life in British Columbia. It was the skilful Scots who taught the Indians the art of knitting. Responding well to instruction, the women applied themselves and quickly learned to manipulate the needles. Soon, they were fashioning sweaters, their nimble fingers flying like hummingbirds. Because the woollen garments were attractive, withstood hard use and kept the wearer warm on the coldest days and dry when it poured rain, they soon attracted the interest of the white man and a cottage industry was born. According to Margaret Meikle, of the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the Salish Indians wove blankets, leggings and burden straps out of mountain-goat wool, dog hair and other fibres before the 1850s, when the first European settlers arrived to courageously face the challenges of a new land. Today, sheep wool is used exclusively for knitting Cowichan sweaters and much of it comes from the Saanich peninsula and Saltspring Island. Naturally, the preparation of the greasy wool demands that several steps and procedures be modified over the years. “The oldest wool processing method involved six basic steps,” says Margaret Meikle. “The wool was washed, dried, hand teased, drawn out and loosely spun by hand to make a roving (the strand from which yarn is made), then tightened with a spindle and whorl. “Some knitters still buy shorn fleeces and use traditional methods of preparation but most buy the washed and carded wool from a commercial carding mill such as Modeste Indian Sweaters and Crafts Ltd. on the Koksilah reserve in Duncan.” Modeste buys the fleece from the sheepherders. Then, using machines that resemble an old Rube Goldberg cartoon, it washes, dries and bags it as carded wool for sale to the Indian knitters. Some of the knitters market the finished product themselves; others sell the sweaters to Modeste, which acts as a wholesale outlet. The fleeces come in natural colors of black, white and shade of brown. Not every black sheep is as dark as its name implies, except when she is young. As she grows to maturity, her wool gets rustier; in old age she is almost grey. No dye is used in a Cowichan sweater. For the availability of black wool, we can thank the first flockmaster of the Hudson’s Bay Co. on Vancouver Island, who refused to follow the common practice of destroying black lambs. Back in those days, black wool was considered inferior and fetched a lower price on the ordinary market. A man of foresight with an iconoclastic streak, the HBC flockmaster bred his black lambs, providing a plentiful source of black wool, which later proved to be just what the Indians required to fashion their famed black-and-white designs. Most knitters adopt one design and use it almost exclusively. It may be taken from some traditional object, from almost anything that attracts their attention and is eye-appealling. Animals and birds, which occupy an important place in Indian lore, are longtime favorities. Our friend on the Ginza had been to Victoria and was wearing a genuine Cowichan sweater, purchased for about $140. Other Japanese, seeking a status symbol but not anxious to travel, sometimes buy imported Indian sweaters (some genuine Cowichans and some not) in Tokyo’s carriage-trade shops. The price is steep; as much as $400 or $500. A less-affluent Japanese might be induced to acquire an imitation, made in his native Japan, for considerably less. But instead of impressing his friends, he would certainly lose face, if any curious person looked closely at the label.
Source: Lunny, V. (1998). The wild & woolly Cowichan sweater. (February 28). Islander, pp. M1, M4.