Cowichan Knitting: History and Continuity

by Heidi Bergstrom

In my previous blog post I outlined some of the political issues faced by the women from the Coast Salish Cowichan Tribe concerning their sweater designs being appropriated by the Hudson’s Bay Company during the BC Winter Olympics in 2010.  In this post I will focus on the a bit more on the background history of the Cowichan knitters and their techniques and how contemporary artists are responding to this history and honouring it.

This summer had its fill of trips to the Victoria International Airport which has been undergoing a series of renovations. On my most recent trip I happily discovered a quiet lounge on the 3rd floor, accessible only by elevator.  As I entered the lounge I was impressed to see a permanent display about the history of Cowichan Coast Salish knitting as well as 3 contemporary works in continuity with this history. When I say in continuity I do not mean reproductions, but authentic responses and interpretation in new contemporary forms.  Continuity is provided through linkages in symbolism and story telling and the materials themselves.

The Coast Salish peoples traditional range on the west coast from Oregon, USA to Vancouver Island and parts of mainland British Columbia, Canada has been confirmed with archaelogical evidence dating back some 8,000 years.  Contact with Europeans first began in the 18th c but more intense colonization on the west coast only occurred around 1843 with the Hudsons Bay Company establishing a trading post at Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, now the capital of British Columbia. (See http://www.firstnations.de/development/coast_salish.htm for more detailed research on the Coast Salish.  This site also has an excellent list of resources and web links)

The question often comes up while researching this topic whether the Coast Salish had a history of weaving or knitting prior to contact with colonial settlers and traders.  The short answer, as explained in the display, is that they did indeed have a history of spinning dog hair and plant fibers for weaving prior to contact, but with the arrival of the colonists they gained access to a new and plentiful supply of sheep’s wool. They also learned the basic technique of knitting through contact which they quickly adapted and expanded the technique to include using up to 8 knitting needles at a time, to achieve a seamless sweater.  Knitting products were traded and continue to be sold and are generally recognized as being important to the local economy for the Cowichan knitters.

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Royal BC Museum photo and text on wall

 

A commissioned blanket hangs on the wall by Roberta Jimmy of the Tseycum First Nation.

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The Whorl carvings by Charles Elliot are most outstanding. Possibly ten times or more than the size of an ordinary whorl they dramatically integrate the central features of the whorl while also providing a vehicle for the symbols of the people.

 

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Charles W. Elliot, New Beginnings, Red Cedar, 2009

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Charles W. Elliot, Message, Red Cedar,

There is one observation I have to make as well that has to do with the set up of this display and area. While I appreciate the lounge itself and the display, I also think that it should be more prominent within the airport itself. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV) has an ongoing display of art rentals in the main area of the terminus which is not even close to this calibre of work in either technique, quality of materials, or meaning. I am continually disappointed by the choice of cultural representation by the AGGV and when I discovered this gem neatly tucked up on the 3rd floor, well I was even more so.

In BC some would argue that the availability and access the local population has to First Nations art and culture is much greater than other parts of the country. I would agree, but that doesn’t mean a local exhibit of importance such as this should be marginalized, even inadvertently. I am sure that YYJ believes they are dedicating significant space to this subject, and they are. However, I am pretty sure that there are probably less than 1% of the visitors who are aware of it given its location within the airport.

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   All photographs by Heidi Bergstrom

For more information about the Cowichan techniques check out the following:

BOOKS

Working With Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater
Sylvia Olsen, Sono Nis Press, 2010

BOOK REVIEWS

Pacific Rim Review of Books
Knitting All Night: The True History of the Cowichan Sweater
review by Peter Grant

VIDEOS 

YouTube video search results for Cowichan Sweater:
https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=cowichan+sweater

Knitting The Cowichan Sweater – Shaw TV Victoria
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynpvos7UFZo

The making of Cowichan Sweaters by Ameila Charlie, a Newsreel from 1958
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6sCF9TUhTE

 

Knowledge Network, The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters
https://www.knowledge.ca/program/story-coast-salish-knitters

The Story of Cowichan, Cedar Hats and Weaving
https://brentwood.sd63.bc.ca/mod/page/view.php?id=1105

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