Cowichan Sweaters

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Arrow Head pattern Cowichan Style Sweater knit using Prairie Wool

Knit a Vintage Classic ~ Cowichan Styled Sweaters just like mom made

Cowichan inspired sweaters hold a fond familiar spot in many of our hearts. In our shop, we often have a sample in our window and daily men and women walk in and relate to us how they used to have one and how much they miss it.  They usually recount to us who made it for them, (this really matters to them) and how much they loved to wear it.

We grew up on Vancouver Island not far from where these sweaters were first made.  My mother, who was very fond of handwork and was herself an amazing knitter would visit the women of the Cowichan Native band and with her keen eye and knowledge would pick out the most beautiful sweaters.  These where made with hand spun local wool in warm rich earthy natural shades.  They always had geometric designs and the “white” yarn was never white but a deep cream.  These vintage sweaters have been called many names.We referred to them as “Indian Sweaters” and we associated them with the  Coast Salish women more specifically women who lived in the Cowichan area centred in Duncan, British Columbia.

Cowichan Sweaters is the correct name for the original but these designs were also referred to as Salish or Siwash Sweaters.  Only the women of the Cowichan band make the originals but as knitters we always get inspiration from the work of other knitters.

The originals sweaters took their influence from nordic motifs and incorporated techniques of fair isle knitting.  Knitting was a skill learned from the new immigrants from the British Isles who settled on Vancouver Island.  As these classics became popular other motifs such as animals important to the Coast Salish began to appear.  Here are a few pictures of sweaters we have made using animal motifs.

Back view Eagle Motif Sweater knit using Brown Sheep Burly Spun

Winter is coming and it is time to get the needles out to bring back some of the old favourites.

We have collected a selection of vintage patterns that we sell in the store and online.  We also stock several yarns that are suitable for making these wonderfully warm garments.

You can find our selection in our Vintage pattern section on our webstore.  They are available as printed copies and in PDF format.  Most of the patterns are copies of patterns designed for White Buffalo Wool which was very popular in the 70’s.  This yarn  is now unavailable unless you find someone who has a serious stashing problem.

Back View Orca and Waves Sweater knit using Brown Sheep Burly Spun 

In place of the handspun originally used or White Buffalo Wool we find our Prairie Wool knits up to make a very similar garment.  The Prairie Wool is 6 ply unspun roving and contains the same weight (.5 lb) and the same yardage 122 yds or 112 m as the White Buffalo.  It knits to a gauge of 9 – 11 sts and suggested needles are 8 – 9 mm or US 11-13.

We have also successfully knit our vintage patterns using Brown Sheep Burly Spun which is a spun roving yarn.  It has the same yardage and gauge as the Prairie Wool but provides more stitch definition and is available in sharper colours.

Cascade Magnum could also be used.  It is lightly spun it would have a slightly different appearance.   The advantage of the Prairie Wool is the warmth created by knitting unspun yarn (traps more air), the disadvantage being it is a little more difficult to knit with as it easily pulls apart.  After a little knitting you get used to this and should not find this a problem.

We have also made several versions with other yarns. We have used them singly to create smaller sizes (sample to the left) or with yarns held together to get the pattern gauge.  Berroco Peruvia Quick works well for this and as the yarn is spun and plied it will make a sturdy, long lasting warn coat.

Reindeer Sweater knit using Berroco Peruvia Quick in single weight. 

I made lots of these sweaters for my family in the 70’s.  I loved spinning and dyeing so mostly I spun my own yarn.  I always knit them on straight needles but now I would only knit them on circulars.  It is much more comfortable to work with bulky yarn on circulars.

Most people want these sweaters with zippers which you can put by hand or machine.  Several of my most recent knits I enlisted the aid of a seamstress and they did a wonderful job.

Below are a few more samples to give you some ideas. Happy Knitting and a Warm Winter to all!

Cowichan Sweater orca whale

Orca Detail

Orca and Waves

Eagle Detail

Eagle Motif Knit using Brown Sheep Burly Spun

Prairie Wool

Back View

Back View

Cowichan Sweater Patterns from White Buffalo Wool

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Vintage White Buffalo Sweater Pattern

The sweater that is a Canadian Favorite!

With the new generation of knitters there is renewed popularity of Cowichan Sweaters.  These sweaters are the original art of Cowichan women who had a history of working with fibre.  They knit these sweaters, firstly for their family members and then as a means of income.  They have been popularly known by other names such as Indian Sweaters and Salish Sweaters.  Only the women of the Cowichan Band can lay claim to true Cowichan sweaters but knitters who love their rustic appeal can make a similar version using our collection of Vintage Patterns and Prairie Wool or they can order a Cowichan Sweater Kit.

 

These sweaters were so popular that knitters wanted to create versions of them for their own family.  These were usually knit with bulky roving yarns that were not spun but the twist from the knitting made them a strong and light.   A popular brand of yarn used for this was White Buffalo Wool.  The White Buffalo Company created pattern designs that although not exactly like the Cowichan designs were in the same spirit.

Cowichan Sweaters – A little history.

The women of the Cowichan tribe as well as the Coast Salish people created woven blankets from fibre collected from wild goats or sheep; the yarn they spun was often mixed with hair from white haired dogs that they kept for this purpose.  These blankets were very prized and were a measurement of wealth.  They were the most treasured and valuable gifts that were handed out at Potlatch.  The Potlatch was a coming together event of the people where they feasted and exchanged gifts.

With the arrival of immigrants from Europe the indigenous women learned how to knit and adapted their experience with the heritage of fairisle and Nordic knitting to create their own unique designs.  The new immigrants brought their sheep and spinning wheels and they passed their skills on to the Cowichan women.   The women soon learned to create their own yarn using the fibre from sheep.  They made practical sweaters incorporating designs that were familiar to them.  The fibre was washed but not scoured so much of the lanolin remained in the yarn; this made warm garments that help protect against the environment.

Originally the designs were geometric sometimes quite similar to Nordic designs but eventually animal images worked their way into the sweaters.  Eventually due to demands of the buyers other images that were perceived to be “Indian” began to show up in the sweaters.

The Cowichan women knit pullovers in the round.  At a later date openings were added; the sweaters were cut and a zipper or buttons were inserted.

If you wish to knit your own Canadian classic then you can order a kit or order a copy of a vintage pattern.   These can be knit with any natural yarn that knits to about 9 stitches per inch such as our Prairie Wool or in Cascade Magnum.