The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

I have been loving, writing about, studying, knitting, wearing, buying, selling, repairing, zippering, and making films about Cowichan sweaters for more than 40 years. So you can imagine how excited I was when I opened Facebook this morning and saw a photo of the late Ethel Wilson, a dear friend and superb knitter, along with the notice that the film The Story of Coast Salish Knitters was now available on YouTube.

My excitement was dampened on second and third thoughts…on one hand I’m a story-teller not a business person so I want everyone to see and hear the story, on the other hand I know that if people can get for free what costs thousands to make there’s a problem. And, as Christine Welsh, the director of the film, said; youtubing this film is also a violation of intellectual property rights and the main reason why there is no money for this kind of film and video production anymore and why filmmakers can no longer make a living making films. So even though the film is out there and easily accessed I’ve decided not to add the link to this blog.

I am conflicted on fourth and fifth thoughts….I am grateful that the film was made at a time when the National Film Board supported expensive productions and that a brilliant artist like Christine turned my story into this beautiful visual gift. But I can’t get over my first hand….I want everyone to see it. (Now that it is already out on YouTube it becomes messy business indeed.)

Christine and May Sam during the filming

The film started as my love story when I was a Masters student at the University of Victoria. I had lived on the Tsartlip Indian Reserve since I was 17 and Cowichan sweaters had become my passion, my livelihood, central to my social and family life and the topic of so many unanswered questions—there was no contest—the story of the Coast Salish knitters would be the title of my masters thesis. I had been privileged to live and work with the knitters, I had learned everything I needed to know from them and now I was going to be able to share that  amazing story with others.

Not long after I graduated a good friend and amazing filmmaker, Christine Welsh said she’d read my thesis and wondered if I’d like to make it into a film. What a question! I’d been told that on average 4-6 people read masters thesis other than the student’s committee. I already knew my thesis had a large readership but a film? What an opportunity!

Christine and I got to spend  the summer of 1999 traveling southern Vancouver Island visiting many of the knitters I had come to know and love. They told us their stories and showed us their skills. In 2000 we screened the film to hundreds of sweater knitters and lovers and it has been shown hundreds of times since then.

I wasn’t finished. Coast Salish knitting was not only what the knitters did, it was what I did—it had become my life. As an ‘outsider’ to First Nations I had to do some thinking about how my identity had become inextricably tied to my experience with the sweaters. In the end I just had to go with it—Sylvia and Cowichan sweaters are knit together (it’s unavoidable…I can’t write about wool without using the metaphors at least a few times.) But it wasn’t easy. Cultural appropriation is a hotly contested topic and one that I respect—ripping off someone’s culture is simply not okay.

Am I done? You’d think so. But probably not. I have many more knitting designs in mind and ideas for essays that just don’t quit, so give me time and there will be a Knitting Stories two…three???
After years of sleepless nights I finally realized I was a writer and that as a writer I had to write about what I knew and that what I really knew about was my life in a First Nations world and Cowichan knitting. It wasn’t a rip off—it was me, it was my family, it was my life. So I carried on writing and soon I had published Yetsa’s Sweater, a children’s picture book about making wool, Working With Wool, basically a book version of the film in many hundred pages and with much more detail, and now Knitting Stories, my first book of essays and knitting designs.


My hope is that we can continue to find ways to share our art through the production of beautiful books and films.

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  • I did see the video on youtube, and I am soo thankful that I was able to. I have been enamored with the Salish Coast people ever since, and their beautiful work. I have contacted several of the knitters in the film, and they have been so kind in their replies.
    I understand about the money, as I know good and well that it does not grow on trees! But I am thankful that it was shared, even if for a time. I was able to share it with my family, and long to go sit at the feet of those women and just listen to them.
    The film was well done, and just got better the multiple times that I watched it. You have blessed me with your work, and though I can’t pay for it, I am grateful.

    Ja on
  • What a beautiful documentary on the making of these wonderful sweaters and hard working beautiful knitters.
    What a legacy you are leaving your grandchildren. I am a knitter but nothing like these ladies. If I get to the island I will come by to see you.
    Happy new year. Mary Ann Tame.

    Mary ann tame on
  • I love reading/looking at “working with wool” and am looking forward to getting your new book, great work.

    Rodger Moore on

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