My hero

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

An unlikely hero? Maybe. But Sarah Modeste fought a war (in truth she started the war), she made huge personal sacrifices and she took on the opposition almost single handedly. She had smarts, courage, and was just plain ballsy. And Sarah has fans, admirers. I’m one of them…I want to be like Sarah. Those are the characteristics of a real hero.

Sarah fought in a war no one really knows about and these days no one cares much about either. But for more than 25 years (mid 70s – early 2000s), with Fred by her side Sarah fought the wool war. Fred is now gone and their tools are stored in a barn but when I visited Sarah at the Elders’ Conference last week she was no less a warrior. “The sweaters are not what they used to be. They are just not right,” she said. “They are all made out of New Zealand wool and now some are even made from pre spun wool from India. If I could find someone like Fred I could start up the old machine again.”

In the mid 1970s Indian sweaters (now known as Cowichan sweaters) were so popular the knitters couldn’t keep up with the demand. Sweater merchants (business people from Victoria, Nanaimo, Duncan and Vancouver) began importing roving from New Zealand. The thinking was that if the knitters didn’t have to make their own wool they could produce more sweaters.

The strategy worked, of course, and in a few years most knitters gave up the hard work of washing and carding and became only spinners and knitters. There was no end of the wool supply. New Zealand spun yarn was predictably uniform—no more slubs and vegetation. Sweater merchants had another profit source. Production soared. It was a win, win, win. 

Except for the sweater. Sarah was not the only one who thought that Cowichan sweaters made from New Zealand wool were just not Cowichan. Oh it’s true, a few years later the Cowichan Tribes created a tag that was the sweater’s proof of authenticity. The tag read “genuine” Cowichan but failed to mention that the wool came from New Zealand.


Sarah at the Elders' Conference with her friend and Bishop Gary Gordon

It’s not that New Zealand doesn’t produce wonderful wool. The problem is that it doesn’t have the beloved characteristics that make Cowichan sweaters Cowichan. It has a longer staple, it has different colours, and it’s carded with a worsted process that creates the sleek, smooth, shiny features the merchants found so appealing. But it is just not right.

Sarah knew the difference. Real Indian sweaters were bouncy, airy, soft, had muted colours and were warm. Sweaters made from New Zealand wool were smooth, shiny, ropey, had crisp colours and the breeze went right through them. Merchants sold the features of the New Zealand wool (of course they did, they were profiting from the imports). They put the two sweaters side-by-side and pointed to the smooth, drapey quality of the one and said, “The colours are much brighter. The sweater looks much cleaner. It’s just a better sweater all the way around.”

Those were fighting words. Indian sweaters were not just “Indian” because Coast Salish people knit them. Sarah knew the sweaters had qualities, characteristics, knitting techniques and a style that was unique and worth fighting for. And when people wore the sweaters made out of the imported wool they felt the difference. The sweaters looked good but weren’t as warm or dense or…it was hard to find the right words but they were just wrong.

I’ve written Sarah’s story in Working with Wool and it’s a great read. The short version is that Sarah bought an industrial revolution woolen carding machine from England, circa 1876. She borrowed money—she almost had to hold up a bank to convince them to lend money to an Indian woman from a reserve. She built a huge shed to house her wool washing process and her new baby. She began buying all the local wool she could get her hands on—by local I mean west coast—from Saskatchewan to Oregon. Fred operated the machine—he was a master at the technology.

Modest Wool Carding produced local roving using the same mixed breed fleeces Sarah used when she was hand washing and carding. Knitters loved it. Customers who took the time to know the difference wanted sweaters made out of local wool. But by challenging the imports Sarah started a war. The city merchants upped the anti…they sold their brand hard…pretty soon they refused to buy sweaters made out of local wool. They forced knitters to take imported wool as part of their payment to insure they made their wool sales.

Sarah and Fred

Sarah would buy a sweater made out of New Zealand wool from a knitter caught in the cross fire but encouraged them to use local wool. I bought Sarah’s wool and sold it to knitters in the Victoria/Saanich region.

But she was fighting a big machine and she was fighting alone. She was the only First Nations wool producer and there were only a few of us on reserves who sold sweaters commercially. The merchants could buy more sweaters—knitters were more certain they could sell in town so many stuck with the sure thing and used the import 

Sometimes the battle got nasty. When I confronted a merchant in Victoria and suggested that forcing the knitters to use New Zealand wool was unethical and bad for the sweaters he said, “Come on Sylvia. You know why I really do it. When I control the wool I control the knitters. They can’t take their sweater money and drink it away.”

I couldn’t fight that battle. Racism was too big for me to fix. All I could do and all Sarah could do was to create a business that provided a good place to buy and sell sweaters and that ensured the sweaters still had the qualities that had made them famous.


Since Sarah closed the doors of Modeste Wool Carding almost all Cowichan sweaters are made out of New Zealand wool (much of it is pre spun now) except for the ones made out of pre spun wool from India.

A few knitters get their roving from Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs Alberta, which produces exactly the same local (from Saskatchewan to Oregon) wool as Sarah did. And now the woolen mill has gone one step further. In conjunction with our business, Salish Fusion, they are producing Prairie Sea Fusion wool…as close to the “real” handspun Cowichan sweaters were once made from.

This is the first sweater Joni, my daughter, and I made out of Prairie Sea Fusion

I gave the new wool the ultimate test. I brought three cones to Sarah as a gift. It’s the Coast Salish tradition that you give the first fish, the first deer, and why not the first balls of wool to an elder. I brought the first cones of the new wool to my hero. She held it. She pulled on it. She put it up to her cheek and said, “Tell Fen at Custom that I could find her a market for this wool. I could get back into the business.”

Old warriors never die. Sarah is 82 years old. She’s going to knit a sweater with the wool. But without Fred she doesn’t think she’ll be able to set the old machine up again. So she is working on plan B. “I’m thinking about cleaning out the old sheds and setting them up as a dance hall. You know I could bring in bands and people could come and dance. That would work, don’t you think?”

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  • I wish Sarah’s Modeste wool carder was still set up and working. The Cowichan sweaters around Duncan are beautiful and I would have loved to see the wool rovings from her mill and to watch and learn more about knitting in the Cowichan way.

    Tammy Bricker on

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