Unravelling Canada: A Knitting Odyssey, by Sylvia Olsen [Book Excerpt]

31 March 2021

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Excerpt adapted with permission of the publisher from Unravelling Canada: A Knitting Odyssey, by Sylvia Olsen, ©2021. Published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Over the years, when questions about design and knitting techniques made me think of distant places, my mind kept circling back home. What about Canada? What were Canadians knitting? Was there anything about Canadian knitting that was particularly Canadian? I wanted to know what Canadians were saying about knitting and what knitters were saying about Canada.

Maybe by exploring knitting in my own country I’d find out something about my Canadian identity, I thought. Canada is a huge collection of regions that has been struggling to find an identity since the nineteenth century, when a group of European men stood around a table and decided there should be a federation. The idea of discovering Canadian identity through knitting sounded far-fetched even to me.

As we made final preparations, it became clear that the book tour would be a storytelling tour, as well. It would let me wed my passion for knitting and my obsession with stories. I designed a simple toque to use as a teaching tool. Joni made kits for me to take on the road. Once we posted the news on Facebook, we were committed. The knitting tour was launched.

Image description: the cover of Sylvia Olsen's book ....

We set off on April 30, 2015, heading for more than forty knitting destinations, with fifty-two scheduled classes and almost nine hundred participants. Tex McLeod, world traveller and my indomitable partner (now husband), and I packed up our old red Dodge Caravan and set our sights on spending June 15 in Newfoundland.

I hoped to come home with a deeper understanding of knitting, a fresh appreciation for Canada and a renewed sense of being Canadian. Along the road, I intended to find my people.

It’s only in retrospect that our stop that morning at Tim Hortons in Mill Bay is significant. Every Canadian knows Tim Hortons is the country’s quintessential brand. Yet although I like cinnamon raisin bagels and carrot muffins, and once in a while I even enjoy an old-fashioned doughnut hole, I can count on one hand the number of times in a year I make a solo trip to Tim’s.

I don’t drink coffee. I have never had the inclination. Even the smell of coffee doesn’t tempt me. The same cannot be said for Tex. That’s why I should have known we would become living proof of the archetypal bumper sticker—the one with the moose crossing the road toward Tim’s. It should read: “Tim Hortons, the first stop on every Canadian road trip.”

With coffee in hand for Tex and a topped-up water bottle for me, we continued up Highway 1 to Duncan and Cowichan Secondary School. What better place for the first stop on a knitting road trip than a school that shares its name with one of BC’s largest First Nations, the Cowichan Tribes, on the home territory of the Hul’q’umi’num people, in a town that’s at the heart of North America’s only knitting tradition? Forty-five years ago, when Cowichan sweaters (or Indian sweaters, as they were commonly called in those days) first became a fascination of mine, the sweaters fuelled a bustling Coast Salish economy.

In those days, Duncan’s streets were lined with shops bursting with knitwear. Cowichan sweaters hung in the windows of grocery stores, department stores, gas stations and sporting goods and hardware stores. If you had a retail outlet in Duncan in the 1960s and ’70s, chances were you also bought knitting or took it in trade, knowing you could turn a quick dollar selling the famous garments. Walking down the streets of Cowichan Valley communities then, you would see as many Cowichan sweaters as you see fleece jackets today.

That all changed when a convergence of events strangled the Coast Salish knitting industry. In the 1980s, manufactured fibres began to replace heavy wool as the best material for West Coast outdoor garments. By the 1990s, what was once a fashion statement had met the sorry fate of all fashion. Other bulky knits competed with Cowichan sweaters for what was left of the dwindling market.

The decline in the knitting industry did have a good side. Coast Salish women no longer wanted to depend on the pittance they received from the hard work of knitting for a living. They convinced their daughters to stay in school and find work that paid a decent wage.

As far as knitting goes, all was not lost. Knitting reached its nadir in the 1990s and 2000s, but there has been a resurgence in its popularity. While there are no more than a few dozen full-time Coast Salish sweater knitters in the southern part of Vancouver Island now, people are picking up their needles and learning to knit again. They are making small items such as hats and scarfs, but this time for enjoyment, not for employment. The few stores in Duncan that sell First Nations art are filled with woodcarvings, silkscreened clothing, silver jewellery and manufactured items like sunglasses and cellphone covers sporting Indigenous designs. You can still find quality Cowichan sweaters in the small sections set aside for knitting in some stores. You can also find Coast Salish knitters selling their own products online.

While some folks continue to argue about whether the Cowichan people can, or even should, call their sweater Indigenous art, the Cowichan sweater is more than that. It has become an important icon in British Columbia. I maintain that if you want to teach BC history, the Cowichan sweater story tells it all. It’s about contact and race relations, power, politics and passion, industry and economy, family, innovation, and survival.

The mystique of the Cowichan sweater comes not only from the creativity and perseverance of the Coast Salish women who made them, or from the interesting fusion of European and Indigenous skills and art, but also from the love and commitment of the people who buy and wear the sweaters. The Coast Salish knitting tradition has found a rightful place in the bigger story of knitting traditions from around the world. The Cowichan sweater is an inspiration. The Cowichan Tribes had to trademark their name to prevent other garment makers from using it, but no one can take away the mythological status their sweaters have acquired. The mythology and the practical reality of knitting, especially Coast Salish knitting, was our knitting tour’s raison d’être. With the first workshop at my sister’s house under my belt, “Cow High” was the obvious second “first step” on our journey.

The school was holding a professional development day, and seventeen teachers had signed up to spend the morning knitting with me. I caught the first glimpse of something that soon would become obvious: the knitting tour was more than teaching knit and purl stitches. It was bigger than sharing a new way of doing two-stranded colourwork. These were teachers and they were finding the lessons. Some saw the workshop as history—what better way to learn about the Cowichan Valley than the story of the Coast Salish knitters? Others saw it as fashion design, science and innovation, mathematics, or mechanics. They all saw it as a way to teach students how to focus, relax and enjoy the satisfaction of creating something by hand.

Image description: Author Sylvia Olsen in a large meeting room, surrounded by seated knitters. Sylvia is holding a Cowichan sweater.

Sylvia Olsen at the Edmonton Knitter’s Guild. Photo credit Tex McLeod

Featured image courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre.

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