Emily and I both grew up on the coast of British Columbia and one of the most iconic knits from this region is the beautiful Cowichan sweater of the Coast Salish peoples. Growing up it was the kind of sweater that your parents or aunts and uncles would own, maybe as a kid you had a vest in the same style. These types of items are ones that are passed down, patched when worn through, and generally well loved. The bulky wool was perfect for the cold damp days here. Of course I adore the designs, containing both geometric patterns (my favourite) as well as traditional First Nations imagery.
These beautiful sweaters have a complicated and often exploitative history. I have had the opportunity to hear Sylvia Olsen speak on the topic a few times and she is absolutely riveting. The story of her own history living and working with Cowichan knitters on Vancouver Island and selling Cowichan sweaters is fascinating. I really loved her books Working with Wool and Knitting Stories; I couldn’t put them down and one of her stories even had me shedding a tear in the middle of a crowded airport. I highly recommend giving them a read! Cowichan knitting is more than just the garments themselves, it has a specific style. While I personally almost never catch my floats when knitting stranded colourwork, the Cowichan style catches with every stitch. Sylvia offered a wonderful class in which we made a hat using this technique.
So, with my interest in these beautiful sweaters piqued, I was so pleased when my friend Jane Richmond came out with her West Coast Cardigan pattern! The geometric patterning appealed to me immediately and I had to cast on. There are a lot of great projects on Ravelry here in all different colour combinations, it was nice to be able to look through them before choosing my colours. I planned to knit a West Coast Cardigan for my aunt, Tessa, and I knew she would like it in some cool neutrals, so I decided on greys. I picked up some Briggs and Little Country Roving and away I went! I had to make only a few modifications. I knit the yoke as written, then I wanted to make the sweater longer, since Tessa is pretty tall. I added in a few extra rows of stockinette in MC between motifs, and I added in an extra motif at the end as well.
There is really only one thing I would do differently next time: I would follow Jane’s advice (that is written right into the pattern), and knit the sleeves with the wrong side facing outwards. This would force my floats to be a bit longer. This wasn’t a problem in the body, but my sleeves came out a smidge tight. When my Dad saw the sweater he immediately declared that he needed one too, in exactly the same colours. I will have to get on that!
Some chunky knits from TCK:
April 21, 2018 @ 7:17 am
Thank you. My husband and I are sitting talking about our feelings after seeing Indian Horse this week (a few of my students are in it, and much of it was filmed blocks from my house) . I have been in some deep learning around indigenous teachings this week as well, and Cowichan sweaters have been much on my mind in this context. Thank you for including the fact that this was, at times, an exploitative situation. Looking forward to diving into Sylvia Olsen.
April 20, 2018 @ 8:24 am
I too have read Sylvia’s books and taken her Salish knitting class. Yup, brought me to tears too! (I will never understand how cruel some people can be.) I’ve become enamoured with the technique of catching the floats and used it on my last colourwork project. Nice job on the sweater, by the way!
April 20, 2018 @ 4:42 am
Lovely, and it’s always good to get positive feedback quickly after knitting.