A short history of Coast Salish knitting told through the sweaters that made it famous.

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

The title is a mouthful but a lot has been written about the Cowichan…Indian…Coast Salish sweater and I want to show the story so people can read the sweaters as well as the words that I write about them. The tangible, visual objects themselves have so much to tell knitters, history buffs and people who are interested in the currently topical issue of cultural appropriation. The sweaters are ambassadors. They are threads between cultures. If we look hard at them they show us about the things we share, the things we love, the things we have in common. I love them for that.



The Galiano Library gave me the opportunity to put on a show with a few pieces from my sweater collection. Thanks to the generosity and help of Willow Jewell who made it possible and Tex, my trusty partner, for doing the tall work, the display has something old, something new, something borrowed and everything wonderfully interesting. 

The twelve sweaters in the show are a short illustrative journey through the history of Coast Salish knitting and other similar knitting styles. The collection disrupts many of our commonly held assumptions about the sweaters. For instance Indian sweaters were not always knit with only natural undyed wool. If the early knitters wanted to brighten up their knitting they added other yarn, not naturally dyed yarn, but anything that caught their eye. Nor were the early sweaters always knit with only stockinette stitch as we have come to expect today. The old knitters used stitch work along with colourwork. In fact it may only be a twist of history that “Indian” sweaters didn’t end up being cable sweaters.

The first photo I can find of what used to be called an Indian sweater (from 1913) was a plain white sweater that looks like it was knit with bulky handspun with a high neckline and a tiny shirt-like collar, and it was covered in cables. The earliest sweater that I have seen was owned by the Wilson family of W. & J. Wilson fame in Victoria. The family has photos of their grandfather in his “Indian sweater” and dates the sweater just after WW1. But while the sweater uses the same construction techniques (drop sleeves, no sewn seams) as the modern patterned Cowichan sweater, like the white cable sweater it was also plain coloured, but it had no design or stitchwork. 

The early sweaters were called “Indian” because Indians knit them not because they had any features that distinguished them from other handknits. The old Coast Salish knitters said they learned how to knit by pulling sweaters apart and copying the construction techniques of settler sweaters. They reproduced whatever they came across. 

The Cowichan sweater story is a fusion story from beginning to end. Coast Salish knitters took European knitting techniques as their own. They borrowed what they liked and only after several decades did the recognizable sweater emerge that became known as an Indian sweater. It incorporated common knitting construction methods and ancient universal symbols, some of which had been used in their baskets and blankets, that are common across the globe. The sweaters began very similar to Fair Isle and, it appears, that both styles grew apart and became different enough that the Indian sweater earned a name for itself.

Prince Edward of Britain made Fair Isle famous in the early 1920s when Fair Isle and Coast Salish knitting looked much more alike than it does today.


Early Fair Isle knitting (pre the common Cowichan style) had more discreet bands of colourwork than you see today. The Scottish knitting credits its unique look to its Scandanvian roots. It's easy to see how the ideas travelled.

Coast Salish knitting techniques were compatible with their handspun yarn and fit with their particular inclinations. For instance you won’t find needle and thread sewing anywhere—just a little thought that gives sweater historians like me something to ponder. The market played a big part in making Cowichan sweaters what they became. Customers came to expect the Indian sweater to look a certain way so mixing brightly coloured cotton yarn and fancy stitchwork into the design became “unIndian” and didn’t sell and pretty soon the sweaters needed to meet market expectations.

Coast Salish women weren’t the only people knitting heavy, designed sweaters. Fair isle knitting was emerging at the same time and looked very much like the modern Cowichan sweaters (especially in the early days of Fair isle). Icelandic sweaters also had similarities.

If you read the sweaters you can follow the stories, where they converge and diverge. Mary Maxim sweaters, made by knitters across the continent, used bold animal and geometric motifs much like the work of Coast Salish knitters. In fact Mary Maxim introduced the large pictorial images long before they were popular with the west coast knitters. Designs were borrowed back and forth between the two styles.

Read the sweaters more closely and you will find that they don’t share the same structure. Neither Mary Maxim, nor the later White Buffalo, nor even Ralph Lauren copied the Coast Salish sweaters other than that they are thick, patterned knits. 

One of the most important themes that can be read in the stitches is one that we have marginalized in the past. Knitters are artists and artists reproduce what they see by fusing images to make something new.

The borrowing never stops. Knitting designers are the people who are walking closely behind you reading the stitches on your knitted garment. They are the people who rush home and put the images onto a graph. A lot gets lost in translation and by the time the memory is committed to knit/purl/ssk something new and wonderful emerges.

I am not diminishing the havoc caused to the Coast Salish knitting industry in the 1980s and 90s by reproduction Cowichan sweaters that used the name and the sweater’s imagery to make profits through misrepresentation. Carl and I operated Mount Newton Indian Sweaters on the Tsartlip reserve at the time and we were vocal advocates for the knitters and “genuine” sweaters. Cowichan Tribes finally put a stop to the misuse of their name (although they have to remain vigilant to this day.) But fusion and borrowing will never stop—art and artists are organic and alive—the artistic process is unstoppable. The dark side of commercialism, where people don’t give credit where credit is due, also has a life of its own. We won’t stop it either. 

There was nothing okay about the way the BC government and Olympic Committee ignored the real story of the west coast iconic sweater when it made the Olympic sweaters in 2010. But in truth those sweaters are not Cowichan look-alikes. The Olympic sweaters used Mary Maxim construction techniques and hardly looked Cowichan at all. But the Hudson’s Bay drew on the popularity of Cowichan sweaters and failed to give the sweaters credit until the Cowichan Tribes forced their hand. Amends were made, but like so many government and corporate bungles it was too little too late.

I love sweaters. I love many many women and men who knit them, Coast Salish and others. I'm beginning to think that I love sweater stories the most and there is no better story of cultural fusion than the Cowichan sweater--it started by borrowing and ended up sharing. Not always willingly and sometimes it was more like robbery than artistic give-and-take. But Sarah Modeste (Cowichan sweater business woman par excellance) once said of companies such as Ralph Lauren, “Let them copy our sweaters. They are making us famous.”

However, copies will only make the Coast Salish women famous if the story is told and if the memory of sweaters remains. So I decided that’s what I can do by writing, talking and showing sweaters and bringing the sweaters I meet alive by sharing them. I am getting old now and have become particularly interested in getting along, in contributing to increasing understanding between peoples. I want to explore the things we share, things that we love together and the stories that have brought us's my way of making peace.

 Thanks for the photos....Tex McLeod and Sher O'Hara

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