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.
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.
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.
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!