Every sweater tells a story don’t it baby

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

When Doug Speirs from the Winnipeg Free Press brought his old Cowichan sweater to the workshop on Wednesday he told me his parents had bought the sweater for him on the coast in the mid 70s and he wanted to know its story.

“Is it a good one? Is it unique? Do the designs tell a story? Can you figure out who made the sweater by the designs?” he asked.

When I talk about sweater stories many people think I mean that the geometric designs have meaning that can be interpreted. They imagine that there are apocryphal stories about families owning specific symbols and that those families can be traced through their sweaters. Other than designs derived by artists from their own work these stories are more myth than reality.

From my experience most knitters have favourite designs so if you know the knitter well you may be able to pick out her sweaters because of a certain combination of designs she likes to use. In general knitters use designs for their aesthetic appeal not their meaning or because the knitter’s family has special rights to the designs’ reproduction. The root of most geometric designs are not only found in Coast Salish basketry, blanket weaving and knitting, they are universal and can be found from Italian mosaics to Peruvian wool work to Ukrainian stitchery. These symbols are not only geographically widespread they date back in history to the walls of 60,000 year old caves.


Sorry Doug, your sweater carries the most common style of what is called the Greek key and a variation of what some people call the X/O design or other people call a wave. That’s not to say your sweater didn’t tell a fascinating story. But that’s because when I’m reading a full sweater I’m not only looking the designs.

The wool in Doug’s sweater told me a story as soon as I saw it. It threw my mind back to the time he said he received the sweater and I could imagine exactly what might have been going on with the knitter.

photo by Doug Speirs

The main colour of wool in his sweater had faded to a mottled brown and cream, it had tufts and was rough. This told me that it was from local sheep and had been hand carded. Yet the design wool was an incongruous, deep steel grey colour, now, forty years later still as bright as the day the sweater was knit. It was in this incongruity in the wool that the story of his sweater unfolded.

In the mid 70s Cowichan sweaters (Indian sweaters in those days) were so popular farmers couldn’t produce enough dark wool to satisfy the demand. By the early spring, before the first shearing, many knitters still had grey and white but had used up all their dark wool they needed for the design. At the same time a company called White Buffalo had come out with a six-strand yarn, which was meant to mimic handspun wool. The wool was dyed making dark wool as plentiful as light. Jackpot for Coast Salish knitters who had run out of their design colour.

Doug’s sweater was likely made during a short period of time before sweater dealers began importing large amounts of New Zealand roving and before Sarah Modeste opened Modeste Wool Carding on the Cowichan Band and produced local roving making dark wool readily available. For a few years packaged wool was the only option readily available to dark wool starved knitters.

Doug wasn’t as impressed with my story as he would have been if I had told him that the designs had a mystical connection to their maker. But for me, his sweater brought back memories of Laura, my beloved mother-in-law, who thought the manufactured wool was a godsend. No one thought about how the sweater would age and that the dyed wool would hold its colour while the handmade wool would weather and age naturally.

Doug’s sweater tempers some of the sentimentalism we have towards what we now call Cowichan sweaters. The knitters were not very sentimental at all. They were practical. By that I mean they used raw, undyed handspun wool because that’s what they had always used and because it was inexpensive and available. But they knit to feed their families and pay the bills. When the kids were hungry they had no time for sentimentality. So when a knitter ran out of raw, undyed, handspun and she needed food for the kids’ lunch she would buy dyed commercial yarn to finish her sweater so she could sell it and get paid.

The sweater holds a wonderful story of the knitter. By reading the wool we can imagine her process of making sweaters, her family economy and her thrift and necessity in acquiring the materials.

Also, Doug, thank you thank you thank you, for your article:

And thanks Doug for dragging your story in on your shoulder and sharing it with us. It has been obviously well worn and well loved. Next time I meet your sweater I’ll bring my darning needle and fix those holes around the collar.

Thank you Tammy and the Manitoba Craft Council for sponsoring the workshops at McNally Robinson and the Edge Gallery. 

I have read about the controversies over the Canadian Museum of Human Rights; the funding, the politics, and, not the least, its architecture. The building is chaotic, nothing is predictable, and I can imagine people are either off-put by it or, like me, excited.

But now it's built, Winnipeg I'd say you have an edifice with great possibilities. The alabaster trail that winds its way up to the top is unforgettable. We didn't have much time but I let my body absorb the powerful energy of the intriguing stone. I felt light, transported, almost giddy when I descended. Cynics was a wonderful feeling. I'll be back for more.

The REDress Project: a haunting installation by Winnipeg’s Jaime Black. Her memorial to missing and murdered aboriginal women.

And of course there was knitting in the museum...a collaborative yarn bomb project made by grandmothers in Durban, South Africa and assembled by members of Grands 'n' More in Winnipeg in recognition of the work being done for AIDS orphans in Africa. It's mostly crocheted but there, holding the branches together is a piece of beautiful yellow cables.

We left Winnipeg too soon...there was more to the city I needed to know, to time.


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