The Cowichan region (also known as “the land warmed by the sun”) of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island is the birthplace of a Canadian icon: The Cowichan sweater. With the slow, gradual arrival of winter, British Columbians adopt a style that to some can be viewed as practical, and at times understated. Think: equestrian styled boots, layers, oversized bags, and the occasional pair of UGGs (which I consider an invasive species). While our style won’t put us on the map for being a place known for high fashion, we do have the Cowichan sweater. The iconic sweater is embedded with the culture, spirituality and the physical identity of the Coast Salish people of the Cowichan Valley.
Renowned for their intricate work of weaving, the Salish woman were already making blankets, leggings and other apparel. However, the Cowichan sweater did not come to exist until the European colonization of Vancouver Island in 1850. A time when knitwear in the region would forever change. European colonization introduced the Salish women to knitting, a textile technique that would later be combined with Salish wool spinning. The Salish women would process the wool by hand to ensure the natural oils in the wool would not be lost in order to remain water, and stain resistant. The wool was washed, dried, hand teased, hand carded, drawn out and loosely spun by hand to prepare it for the spindle and whorl. Imagine wools in rich, warm, earthy tones from black sheep, goats, buffalo, and wooly dogs (now extinct). The sweaters ability to protect against the elements made it popular amongst the Coast Salishʼs outdoor society.
The cultural combination of textile methods the Cowichan sweater is comprised of, makes it an acculturated art form. Today artisans of the Cowichan Valley continue the tradition that was passed down to them over the generations. Many of the motifs found on the sweaters stem from aboriginal symbology. The First Nations have a strong connection to the earth, and animal symbology plays an important part. Eventually the Cowichan knitters moved from Nordic motifs of snowﬂakes, to the inclusion of animals. Popular animal motifs include the eagle, salmon, whale, and deer. If you’re curious about the animal symbology and meaning, here is a little preview for you: the eagle in First Nations symbology represents bravery, power, prestige, wisdom and is a sign of spousal devotion, while the whale, for instance, represents intelligence, kindness and compassion.
When purchasing a Cowichan sweater, you can always tell if it is authentic. First, no two Cowichans are alike, and second, they must be hand knit by the people of the Cowichan Valley. You can easily ﬁnd reproductions of the sweater, but they pale in comparison. When buying an authentic piece, you are buying a piece of art that preserves Canadian history, but more importantly the cultural identity and reverence of the Coast Salish people. Now as for what to wear with a Cowichan, they look amazing with leggings, and chunky inﬁnity scarves. Plus when the rare snowfall touches down in British Columbia the sweater will keep you warm, and dry enough to enjoy a snowy winter’s day.
As a side note to those visiting British Columbia via YVR (Vancouver) airport, a whorl is on display in the customs hall, made of Red Cedar by the artist Susan A. Point, titled “Flight”. The whorl incorporates traditional First Nations imagery, of an eagle, and a man welcoming visitors with raised arms.