The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island

Cowichan KnitterThe late Amelia Charlie, prominent designer and promoter of the Cowichan sweater

Above is an example of the Cowichan sweater (photo courtesy Cowichan Tribes). The Cowichan belong to the Coast Salish people, long renowned for their fine weaving, so it’s not surprising the Cowichan people easily adapted their own designs to the knitting they learned from white settlers. Wool was plentiful too; Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands were ideal for sheep-farming so wool was readily available.

Update: Of the photo above, in February of 2014 reader John Wm Charlie wrote in to say:

Pictured above is my grandmother the late Amelia Charlie who was famous for making and promoting the Genuine Cowichan sweater. A true Cowichan sweater is made by people of the Cowichan tribe and with real sheep wool not imported New Zealand wool. Real Cowichan sweaters can still be bought on the Cowichan reserve and carry a Genuine Cowichan logo on them. Most of the stores that sell Cowichan style sweaters pay very little to the people that make the sweaters and sell for a huge profit. Please support the local knitters and buy from them, not the huge companies that offer nothing to the original people that own the rights to Cowichan sweaters.


The Cowichan sweater is unique in that it has a collar and was traditionally knitted all in one piece. While these days the sweaters sometimes have a heavy metal zipper, they’re otherwise unchanged. Many sweaters have traditional Salish motifs on front and back: usually killer whale, salmon, eagles or deer. I grew up with one of these—a proper pullover one with no seams —and many British Columbians would have had a similar one. The wool is not dyed—darker sheep produce the dark brown and grey wool for the designs. Because the wool was traditionally washed and carded by hand, the natural lanolin remains in the wool. This allows the sweaters to shed water in the wet BC climate.

These sweaters show up in popular culture all the time, though most of them are cheap knockoffs.  They are often also confused with what I think are called in some places curling sweaters, like the ones in The Big Lebowski (Starsky and Hutch also famously featured those). To a British Columbian eye, fakes are immediately obvious. What makes a Cowichan sweater authentic? It’s not necessarily even absolute adherence to traditional motifs. It’s more the quality, colour and weight of the wool. The fibres should be natural in colour, not dyed, and they should have the banded arms with traditional Salish weaving patterns.

I strongly recommend buying Sylvia Olsen’s excellent book on these sweaters: Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater.

 Emily Sawyer-Smith, Cowichan knitter, by D'Amour

Since it’s one of the most iconic BC designs, it seemed fitting that a custom-designed Cowichan sweater would be proposed for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as part of the giant merchandising circus we’ve been subjected to here in BC for the past few years. Celebrated Cowichan knitter and designer Emily Sawyer-Smith, above, produced the Olympic design sweater you can see being presented below to BC’s premier Gordon Campbell, at left, and Jacques Rogges, IOC president, at right. This actually seemed like a great development, but to the shock of many, and despite the fact that the well-organized Cowichan bands had assembled enough knitters to supply the Olympics with these sweaters, The Hudson’s Bay department store created controversy by claiming the Cowichan knitters’ output would be too small. Instead they had odd faux Cowichan sweaters made for their official line of 2010 Olympic clothing—in China. (Photo at bottom). And in maroon! However, despite that fact that the public considers The Bay’s sweater to be a “cowichan,” The Bay claims it is not – and in some ways it’s right. Many however still consider the design to be theft or appropriation. More here about the conflict over trademark and cultural property, and you can also read about the meeting held between the Bay and the Cowichan band here. In the end, after threats of Olympic relay disruptions and a lot of media coverage, an accommodation was reached at the end of October – real Cowichan sweaters would be sold at two Olympic pavilions as well as at the Hudson’s Bay. But the story doesn’t end there for First Nations art at the Olympics, where many other imported art objects are sold as “authentic aboriginal art” and are edging out true First Nations art. See that story here.

Emily Sawyer-Smith's Cowichan sweater should have been the Olympic sweater


Above is the weird hybrid knockoff being sold at the Hudson’s Bay Company as an official 2010 Olympics souvenir. It clearly references the Cowichan sweater (rolled collar, banded arms, motif, other similarities) but it also has the look of mass-produced curling sweaters (often with belts), and its wool is dyed, unlike the wool in an authentic Cowichan. Maroon is just wrong, even if you’re trying to get close to the red of the Canadian flag. While there is no completely standard design for these sweaters—they are after all a culturally hybrid product—the above knockoff seems poor on many levels, and as a British Columbian I’m embarrassed that this is how the world is going to witness our craft and design. What was the Hudson’s Bay Co. thinking? For successful innovations in Cowichan designs , Emily Sawyer-Smith’s Olympic rings design is far superior.

CBC broadcaster Grant Lawrence’s sweater, below, is another nice interpretation. Further below is Canadian WWII officer Cecil Merritt in in a Nazi prisoner of war camp along with fellow officers. He’s wearing a Cowichan sweater that was sent to him by relatives in Vancouver.

Cecil Merritt in Cowichan sweater

For more discussion on the sweater and its appropriation, see KnowBC and UBCWiki. Authentic Cowichan sweaters can be found at places like Authentic Cowichan Indian Knits, 424 W. 3rd St, North Vancouver, 604-988-4735, or online from individual makers, like this.

Below is a somewhat odd pair of sweaters, given the fraught historical relationship of the church to First Nations (photo from Wikipedia by Marg Meikle):

Dustin Rivers from Squamish Nation (Skwxwú7mesh-Kwakwaka’wakw) gives a speech to the 800-plus-crowd that showed up on Burnaby Mountain Monday night. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Above, Khelsilem (Dustin Rivers) from Squamish Nation (Skwxwú7mesh-Kwakwaka’wakw) gives a speech to the 800-plus-crowd that showed up on Burnaby Mountain outside Vancouver to protest the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Again I strongly recommend buying Sylvia Olsen’s excellent book on these sweaters: Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater.  Sylvia, whose son is Adam Olsen of the BC Green Party, runs “Salish Fusion” with him and his sister. It seems they also do custom work.

For custom work see Cowichan knitters.

And please visit Emma Charlie’s great blog! She’s a 3rd-or-more generation Cowichan knitter.

[Please note that this is an article about Cowichan sweaters. This is not a shop for Cowichan sweaters, or sweater patterns, or knitting services, nor can I give out advice on techniques or wool sources. Sorry! I know these are fantastic sweaters and many seek them and information about them, but I now find myself inundated by correspondence on this topic. If you don’t mind, please state your queries in the comments section and you may find that you get a reply there. Thanks.]

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63 Responses to “The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island”

  1. Cody Says:

    Thank you, LB! Checking them out.

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