Two women knitting Cowichan Sweaters

After years of exploitation, the iconic Cowichan sweater is being protected with a new fair-trade program

Editor’s note: Prior to the colonial era, Coast Salish Peoples used mountain goat wool, dog hair and plant fibres in their woven textiles. Cowichan sweaters were produced after the arrival of sheep and European two-needle and multiple-needle knitting techniques. According to Marianne P. Stopp, The first documented instance of Coast Salish knitting took place at the Sisters of St. Anne Roman Catholic mission in Duncan, in the Tzouhalem district, which opened in 1864.

By Mike Graeme, Indiginews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The art of knitting Cowichan sweaters has been in Zena Roland’s family for generations.

Her grandmother knit sweaters for the likes of Bing Crosby — and Roland herself has been practicing the craft almost her entire life, for more than 50 years.

But although the Cowichan sweater has become an iconic symbol of the West Coast, cultural appropriation and the exploitation of artisans has made the craft unsustainable for many knitters who need to make a living.

“We weren’t getting a good price for a while and it wasn’t worth doing,” Roland said.

Now, Roland is part of a group of Coast Salish knitters who are reclaiming their work crafting Cowichan sweaters, with a new initiative that pushes back against the unfair wages and design theft that has stifled their practice for decades.

The landmark fair-trade initiative Knit Wutth’els was launched by the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC) at the Powerhouse on Oct. 19.

See also: A Breed Apart: What was the Coast Salish woolly dog, and can we bring it back? and Salvaging the sacred from climate disaster

“The Cowichan sweater is so much more than clothing,” said Wush’q Ronald Rice of the Cowichan Tribes, who spearheaded the social enterprise in his role as executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. 

“It’s the passing down of culture, of telling stories and sharing traditions. It is this rich heritage that lives in every one of these sustainable treasures.”

With designs that depict ancestral stories and personal histories in every stitch, the sweaters are more than just a fashion statement; they are canvases for storytelling and cultural preservation, according to Knit Wutth’els.

At the launch, the initiative’s first collection, comprising 30 Cowichan sweaters and other articles, was made available for purchase. 

Sweaters can now be bought directly from the Knit Wutth’els website with each sale directly supporting Cowichan artists.

Until now, the labour of Cowichan knitters has been substantially undervalued, said Wush’q. 

“The knitters were making about $1 an hour, maybe $2 an hour if they’re a very fast knitter. And it’s been like that for decades.”

Working full-time at $1 an hour would be the equivalent of a $2,000 yearly salary.

Cowichan knitter Anne-Marie Rice said this lack of compensation deterred her family from knitting.

“My grandparents didn’t want my mom or my aunt or uncles to do it as a living because it didn’t pay that well,” she said, adding that wool is expensive and companies have a reputation of undercutting knitters while profiting off their work.

“Companies sell us the wool for $90 and then pay $150 for a sweater. Then they turn around and sell those sweaters for a thousand bucks.”

In addition, some companies further exploit Cowichan knitters and culture by creating and selling fake knock-offs, which started to happen soon after the settler community became infatuated with the sweaters in the 1920s. Imitation sweaters started to grow in popularity in the 1950s, as companies appropriated Cowichan designs and promoted them under the Cowichan name.

It’s an issue that continues today, with fashion companies like Aritzia, Hudson’s Bay and Ralph Lauren being called out in recent years for appropriating their own versions of “Cowichan” sweaters — with many being sold at a fraction of the price of the real thing. 

Before colonization, Cowichan knitters utilized durable wool from native species including mountain goats and the now-extinct Salish woolly dog. Now, knitters typically work with sheep’s wool, which makes the sweaters soft and rainproof.

When Roland was growing up, local sheep farmers in “Duncan” would give Roland’s mother wool in exchange for knitted products. But those farms have largely phased out, and the number of wool processing mills in the province has dwindled.

“Back in the day, we used to have a lot of farmers who would give us wool, but there’s nowhere to card it anymore. There’s nowhere to process it.”

Beyond wool scarcity, low wages, and appropriation, knitters face an insecure seasonal market, said Wush’q.

Wush’q, a recipient of the B.C. Medal of Good Citizenship — an award second only to the Order of B.C. and given to those “who have greatly contributed to improving the social fabric of the province” — saw the knitters in his community struggling with appropriative and unstable market forces.

Last year he began to pursue a vision with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre to buy all of the knitters’ products, and Knit Wutth’els was soon born.

“We’ve been buying everything they could knit and have created a stable, year-round income for them,” he said.

After the knitters are fairly compensated, additional proceeds will go towards a program to train Cowichan knitters in entrepreneurship, e-commerce, and business planning, giving them more control over their trade.

“Properly compensating Coast Salish artisans for their work not only provides them with a quality of life but ensures the continuation and protection of the sacred designs that are passed down through generations,” said Rice. 

“I’m proud to be a part of this milestone initiative that ensures the social responsibility and authenticity of the unique craftsmanship that goes into every Cowichan sweater.”

Top image credit: Zena Roland knits during the Knit Wutth’els launch. Photo by Mike Graeme

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