The Oldest Sweater

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

When Rodger Moore from Veregin Saskatchewan heard about the Great Canadian Knitting Tour he suggested I find the oldest sweater in the country. Good idea, I thought, but I think I already know where the oldest sweater is. So here is my challenge to you. Does anyone have an older sweater than this early version of the Cowichan?







But now I realize that finding the oldest sweater isn’t about finding a winner. It’s about pulling out all the old sweaters we have packed away in our closets and trunks and basements and celebrating how much we have loved those hand-knits. So with that in mind, I have a second entry.This sweater was owned by Herbert Goulding Wilson, brother to the owners of W.J. Wilson, fine clothiers in Victoria. It was knit in the early 1920s and is now in the possession of Dianne Sterling, Wilson’s daughter. It was known as an “Indian sweater” because it was knit by a Coast Salish woman out of hand-processes local wool.

Those were the days before Indian sweaters became known by their unique bands of designs and the sweaters were simply named after the people who made them. This sweater was part of a display we put together for the launch of and thanks to Judy Hill’s amazing collection of old Cowichan sweaters we were able to show samples of the sweaters from over the past 90 years.








This beautiful sweater belonged to Skip Crawford from Saanichton, BC. His uncle Reg, the dentist, had his office next to Skip’s family’s General Store, which meant the whole corner was pretty much a family affair. Reg owned the sweater and said it was knit by a woman from Tsawout First Nation in Saanichton Bay. Skip remembers his uncle wearing the sweater when they went hunting and, come to think about it, Uncle Reg wore it most of the time. In 1951 Reg died and left his old sweater to his 15-year-old nephew.


Skip doesn’t remember a time when his uncle didn’t have the sweater and that when he inherited it, the sweater was already old and worn-out. Putting two and two together he figures it must be at least as old as he is—that dates it back to the 1930s. Skip only wore the sweater once or twice before he stored it safely in the closet….for more than 60 years. That makes my second entry at least 75 years old.


One of the wonderful things about this sweater is the bright orange high-lights in the first rows of the pattern and the pillars of garter stitch that makes the stocking stitch more interesting.


These were knitting techniques used by Coast Salish women years ago. And what do you think – did the knitter mean to turn the butterflies upside down on the sleeve? Perhaps so that she could see them right side up when she raised her arms? Cowichan sweaters weren’t always what they have become. The knitters were innovators and artists who tried different things and made sweaters that pleased them aesthetically. Customers bought what the knitters produced—it was a great relationship. Since then the combination of the marketers and the politics have narrowed the scope of the knitters’ creativity and reduced the sweaters to a certain fixed format.

So there are my submissions for the oldest sweaters in the country. Does anyone else have an old sweater and a great story to go with it?





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