Exploring Canada’s Knitting and Craft Heritage

With Canada’s 150th Birthday party fast approaching, I have been thinking of how much Canadian Men and Women have contributed to the Arts & Craft heritage of our beautiful country.  From our First Nations to the input of the vast number of immigrants who brought with them the crafting heritage of their home countries, we have a rich diversity of “hand made” in Canada.  We are not a “melting pot” of people here in Canada but rather a truly distinct collection of people, both indigenous and from around the world, who cherish and continue our cultural traditions.

On reviewing everything, I got a bit obsessed about the Cowichan knitting heritage of the Salish First Nations people of British Columbia. Tribute is given to a Scottish woman (Jermima Colvin) who taught the Salish the technique of knitting; however, these fascinating people learned to knit by deconstructing European sweaters, re-knitting them and over the years, developed their own indigenous patterns. The result is warm and woolly sweaters, generally made of undyed roving (white, black, grey, and brown), that has become an iconic symbol of their tribe. Prior to that, the group were weavers and wove with very short dog hairs, mountain goat wool or other fibres that could be found locally.


Yvonne Sam, a Cowichan knitter writes:

““The art of knitting is handed down by our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and my dad as well,” said Sam. “One of the most important things that my grandmother taught me was to never pick up my knitting when I’m mad or upset!! The reason for this, is so no bad or ill feelings are passed on to the person who will own their Cowichan sweater. I still go by what my grandmother taught me today.

We were also taught that each and every person has their own distinctive style of Cowichan sweater. Each Cowichan sweater owner is different and our knitters knit for the person, their style and their own very distinct personality.”
 In time, production of the sweaters has evolved into more than just offering a chance to hold onto cultural traditions for the Cowichan people, but also financial assistance as it grew into a national and international industry.

“Our Cowichan sweater helps to keep you warm and dry, and to most of our Cowichan knitters are a life line, where knitting helps us to bring in the income to help raise our families.” 


Early knitting revealed that the women used a variety of materials as knitting needles, including whale or deer bone, bamboo chopsticks (remember the huge influx of Chinese workers into BC to work on the rail), or wood.  Interestingly, each sweater is done, in the round on at least EIGHT double pointed needles!  I would love to sit and watch one of these knitters actually construct a garment.


So, in my quest to find the perfect Cowichan sweater pattern, I noticed this lovely sweater on Ravelry by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts in her book Salish Indian Sweaters.  I loved the theme of the waves, whales and eagles flying over the water, most appropriate for this Vancouver Island tribe.  However, the book is out of print AND my local library could not access it.  If you want to purchase it, it is now worth upwards of $200!!  If you ever get your hands on a copy…..don’t let it go!

Onwards and upwards, I started with this adorable hat called Maquinna by the Art of Yarn.  At least I captured the waves and whales!  I did it up in Northern Lights by Cabin Fever and it was perfect.  Click HERE to view our colours!

Click HERE if you would like to order this kit

Donna Druchanas fashioned “Sylvia’s Cowichan Cowl” so I knit that one up in Northern Lights as well and was really pleased with the results.  It will be cozy warm over a sweater or jacket for next fall.  Not sure if the Greek Key pattern is common with the Salish knitters, but it looks good!

Click HERE if you would like to purchase this kit.

I just received the pattern from the White Buffalo Mills Company for an Eagle Sweater.  I ordered in some Briggs & Little Country Roving, and cannot wait to get started on this project.

If you are looking for your own Cowichan inspired project, you might want to consider some of these projects as well.

#14 Cowichan Sweater by Barb Brown

Vogue Knitting, late Winter, 2017

(would be great in B&L Country Roving)

West Coast Cardigan by Jane Richmond

Also done in B&L Country Roving

Or consider ordering an Original from the Salish Knitters


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