Home ยป A CBC News documentary delves into the rich history and cultural significance of Cowichan sweaters, showcasing their traditional legacy.

A CBC News documentary delves into the rich history and cultural significance of Cowichan sweaters, showcasing their traditional legacy.

Award-winning writer and director Mary Galloway has partnered with A Knitted Legacy Films Inc. to document the tradition of knitting Cowichan sweaters.

The Cowichan Sweater, Our Knitted Legacy is available to stream now on CBC Gem.

Galloway stated that the Cowichan sweater is a type of knitted clothing created using natural wool from sheep. The sweater is crafted with various patterns that vary depending on the individual knitter.

For more than a century, these hand-knit sweaters have been ingrained in our culture and history. Although they are exquisitely beautiful, many individuals remain unaware of their origins and significance. Hence, the purpose of this documentary is to educate people about these sweaters.

The movie delves into the past of the sweaters in the Cowichan and Saanich regions of Vancouver Island, as well as the indigenous knitters from these areas.

WATCH | The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy 

A number of crew members were Indigenous and had ancestral connections to the communities. However, Galloway had an additional personal journey she embarked on during the filming process.

Chief Dennis Alphonse’s Cowichan sweater was frequently worn by her late grandfather.

“This is a really personal story too, because I have a lot of photographs of my late grandfather,” she said. “He was on chief and council for over 40 years in our nation, and a lot of the photos I have he’s wearing this Cowichan sweater.”

The filmmaker, who is 33 years old and Indigenous, along with the crew, dedicated 15 days to conducting interviews with individuals from the communities. Some of these communities continue to engage in the practices of spinning wool and knitting these clothing items.

Galloway stated that in the Salish territory, our traditional craft of weaving has transformed over time into knitting.

This documentary aims to educate individuals on the weavers and the rich history behind the sweaters. Each sweater possesses its own distinctiveness, making them truly one-of-a-kind and highlighting their artistic value.

These knitters have developed an exceptional skill over time and have successfully preserved it through generations. The products they create are of such high quality that they can provide warmth and durability for a century, given proper maintenance.

“It had the atmosphere of a close-knit family.”

The crew was able to interview 20 community expert knitters.

Producer Tiffany Joseph, who is also from the area, explained how the crew were welcomed into each of the community member’s homes.

“We were able to enter these homes and … it felt like family,” said Joseph. “It was a really beautiful, enjoyable experience working with all Indigenous people to truly do this film in the right way … and I really feel like the right people came together to be able to do this work in our community.”

Two women talk.
Mary Galloway joins Sarah Modeste to gain knowledge about the origins of the Cowichan sweater. (Gabriel Underwood)

While they were part of the community, the crew had organized an event called “Cowichan Sweater Day” and encouraged members to participate by wearing all their knitted garments.

Joseph said that individuals arrived wearing Cowichan sweaters, vests, and headbands.

A person was dressed in Cowichan knitting from head to toe. They had a hat, a jumper, and a bag. They also wore slippers. Additionally, an entire family wore matching sweaters. These sweaters were not only made in the traditional colors of sheep’s wool but also included a blue variant that all family members wore. It was truly stunning to see more than twelve people in coordinating sweaters.

At that moment, Galloway successfully located the knitter responsible for crafting her grandfather’s sweater.

She mentioned that while creating the documentary, she embarked on a quest to locate the knitter who possessed the pattern for his sweater. Fortunately, they were able to construct a sweater as a tribute to him. She expressed her deep gratitude for the encounter.

Joseph had a personal motivation to participate in the show. Unfortunately, her grandmother, who was a knitter, passed away at the age of 92.

Joseph explained that his grandmother supported their family of 15 children by knitting, as the colonial society refused to purchase fish from his fisherman grandfather. This is the reason why he became involved in the project.

A tradition that survived colonization

Joseph explained that there was a shift in the wool utilized during the era of colonial settlement.

Originally the sweaters were made with hand-spun mountain goat wool and “woolly dog hair.” The two types of fur were blended together and weaved into blankets.

A woman sifts through wool.
Producer Tiffany Joseph says film crews were welcomed into the homes of community members and treated ‘like family.’ (Gabriel Underwood)

When Europeans arrived, they introduced sheep and knitting tools, resulting in a transformation of the craft from weaving to knitting.

Joseph stated that they discontinued the use of mountain goat hair and Salish woolly dog hair due to multiple reasons, all of which have negative consequences associated with them.

However, despite the alteration in wool, knitters persisted in exclusively utilizing natural shades of wool such as black, gray, and white.

Reinvigorating the wool industry

Joseph explained that in the past, there was a wool mill in the vicinity, which led to an increase in the number of knitters as the fabric became easily available. However, as time passed, the mill was closed down.

When she was approximately 20 years old, she remembers the time she learned to knit and successfully finished her initial knitting project, which happened to be a scarf.

After completing the task, she inquired with her teacher about making another scarf. To her disappointment, the teacher informed her that they had exhausted their supply of wool and were unable to acquire more.

Joseph expressed his deep sadness and disappointment, highlighting the significant effect it has on our community’s ability to sustain knitting due to the limited availability of wool.

Galloway expressed concern about the diminishing presence of this aspect of our culture, particularly due to the increasing costs and difficulty of obtaining wool.

WATCH | The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy 

This practice is widely recognized globally, but it is now facing the threat of disappearing and being exploited. Consequently, numerous clothing conglomerates and fast fashion brands have copied these sweaters, causing significant damage to our community.

By sharing the story behind these sweaters, she aims to inspire consumers to show their support for both the tradition and the skilled knitters involved.

Galloway expressed his hope that creating this documentary would assist people in comprehending the significance of purchasing genuine Cowichan sweaters and revive the industry to sustain its existence.

“It is a tradition that has been diminishing for a considerable period of time, but with the aid of this documentary, we anticipate reviving enthusiasm within the community and fostering a renewed interest among our youth in crafting sweaters and embracing this traditional craft.”

The Local Journalism Initiative supports the creation of original civic journalism that is relevant to the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada, broadening availability and consumption of local and regional news on matters of civic governance. Read more about The Local Journalism Initiative here.  If you have any questions about the Local Journalism Initiative program, please contact [email protected].

Source: cbc.ca