Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

Thanks to Virgil Sampson for inviting me to show part of my sweater collection at the 2015 First Nations, Inuit and Metis Art Show at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney, BC. The show will be open until the end of August.

This display is one of the reasons I collect old Cowichan sweaters. The other day I stood a few strides away from the display case and overheard a woman say, “Now I so wish I hadn’t given our old Cowichans to the second hand. Remember when all we wanted was to be able to afford to get one…when all we wore was our Cowichans…” Her voice tailed off into a story, like stories I heard across the country about people’s love for their sweaters.


The collection reminds people of connection, value, meaning at a time when our society is mourning the loss of connection itself, when we are no longer enjoying our values of fast and easy and when we are reimagining what is really meaningful. Our old Cowichans bring us back to a time when we made things and we actually wore what we made. It was a time when we brought our shoes to the repairman and when tailors altered our hand-me-downs so they fit. We long for a time when material objects aren’t just objects they were meaningful. I can’t count the number of old, worn-out Cowichans people ask me to fix, “I could get another few years of wear out of it,” they say. “I’m just not ready to give it up. It’s been everywhere with me.”


There are other reasons I collect sweaters. I get to meet interesting people like Gillian Thompson. Gillian prepared a beautiful lunch for me several weeks ago and then gave me two treasured sweaters that had once belonged to her beloved mother Mollie. Mollie lived in the Cowichan Valley and sweaters were an important part of her life. Now I am honoured to look after her sweaters, tell their stories and share them with others—there is something life affirming about that responsibility.

Lately I’ve found several interesting sweaters on EBay. I had resisted these sweaters because they were missing the wonderful personal touch of meeting the owners and hearing their stories. But when I see old sweaters on the screen I feel like I need to conduct a rescue mission. My relationship with these sweaters is different but the sweaters—the stitches—the designs—the construction—hold the same connection to the past. The material itself is the story.

Instead of travelling to meet these sweaters I wait for the mailman—yes we still have a mailman. The sweaters come in bundles. This week I became the happy owner of two interesting sweaters. One came from a vintage clothes collector who had owned the sweater for years. The only thing he knows about it is that it is from Montana. That leaves the story-making up to us.


The wool is old, there is no doubt, it has been hand mixed and carded. I remember Rita Sam knitting these simple designs. This sweater has been knit by someone wanting a short cut around colourwork. Both designs use a pick-up stitch that allows the knitter to made several rounds without carrying the second colour. Just a little insight into how the knitter might have been feeling…perhaps.


This sweater came from a collector in Phoenix, Arizona. It was older than what it looked in the picture. It has the same, very old, white wool as the other…already getting brittle. I have seen these snowflakes on white in several photos of old sweaters. This design element is an old theme that interests me. And, as an extra bonus the sweater fit me perfectly…as if it had been custom knit.

I fell in love with old sweaters when I met Judy Hill’s collection. They were stored in bags and she so generously allowed me to empty them in her shop and rummage through them for past displays. Joni and I have started to knit a heritage collection of sweaters. We are reproducing the very old ones and it is turning into an amazing experience. I examine the details of each sweater and follow them.


Oh you might say—isn’t that stealing someone’s art? Some may think so. I don’t. I say, “Be inspired!” Reworking old classics is the way the sweaters began. Cowichan sweaters are one of the best expressions of fusion we have on the west coast. The original knitters learned to make the sweaters by pulling other sweaters apart and reproducing what they saw. The west met Europe in a creative knitting encounter and the borrowing both ways has continued for a century—patterns, designs, techniques, wool production…may it never end.

We are honouring the old works, bringing them back to life, both in the display and in the sweaters’ reproduction. We are experiencing the past in a tangible way. We bring new wool to old design combinations. We are inspired everyday to create something that someone might want to reproduce in 50 years. I heard a fine carpenter say that he was making antiques not landfill. I like that.


Although my family does not have the old sweaters we once wore the Snobelen’s had a Cowichan sweater wearing tradition of our own. Here’s a photo of my two older brothers, Philip and Clyde Snobelen in Victoria in the early 1950s. Both are wearing Cowichan sweaters.



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