Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Our knitted legacy’: The history and significance of Cowichan Sweaters


Have you ever seen a Cowichan Sweater and wondered about its origins?

Perhaps you’ve walked past these knitted works of art, maybe even held one up or stroked the fabric, marveling at the design and the touch of the wool. Well, we have answers for you!

Acclaimed writer and director Mary Galloway is thrilled to share the significance of the Cowichan Sweater—revealing that the story is just as complex, beautiful, and intriguing as the product itself.

Her debut documentary, “The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy,” will be available to stream starting October 6th on CBC Gem and will be broadcast on CBC TV at 8 p.m. on October 7th in BC and Alberta.

In an interview with Galloway, she told Victoria Buzz that it began with a vintage black and white photograph of her late grandfather, Chief Dennis Alphonse, and a request to have some videos shot for the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.

They hoped to use these short promotional videos to help regain some traction for the knitting community, and in their search for a Cowichan filmmaker, Galloway’s name came up.

As Galloway shared her grandfather’s image and spoke with the community about creating a replica Cowichan Sweater, the project blossomed and evolved into an intricate unraveling of how the Cowichan Sweater came to be and where its legacy rests today.

“This film has been made with an entirely Indigenous crew, on our own lands, and about our own Peoples. It is a love story for the beloved Cowichan Sweaters and Knitters,” said Galloway.

“We are honored to share their story with you.”

(Still from The Cowichan Sweater / Courtesy of Nicole Pender)

Throughout the documentary, she speaks with expert knitters and Elders from the Coast Salish Territory, hearing stories never before told by Cowichan filmmakers. She learns just how central the sweaters have been in the hardships and triumphs of the community and how truly wonderful and skilled these women are.

In fact, the documentary highlights that it was often the only way the women could make money. As Indigenous women were both excluded from society due to their race and gender, they had to get creative and adapt.

So, they became the first business spokespeople, negotiating with farmers for wool and materials and transforming them into something that could be sold for the community to keep their families fed.

“I hope [viewers] take away the intricacies, the hardships, and the dedication that it takes to make a sweater… and that the knitters get the respect they deserve,” Galloway said, sharing the difficulties knitters still face today regarding the accessibility and affordability of materials.

Especially as wool prices continue to climb due to the monopolization of wool and import fees—currently resting at $20 a pound, with each sweater weighing around six pounds.

Currently, there are two non-Indigenous wool shops on the island; however, they impose restricting quotas and rules on their products, such as limiting the amount people can purchase. So, knitters often turn elsewhere but face heavy fees.

A local wool shop without these limitations would make it easier for the Indigenous community to freely practice their art without the worry and cost.

“It would make it a lot more accessible,” Galloway said.

(Still from The Cowichan Sweater / Courtesy of Nicole Pender)

The documentary concludes with Galloway receiving her very own Cowichan Sweater in her grandfather’s honor. To pass on the gift, the knitters allowed her to make the final stitches on the sleeve’s cuff.

“It was so surreal—I couldn’t believe that they saved that for me. I was really just trying not to mess it up,” she said.

“It was a beautiful moment that I’ll cherish forever.”

(Still from The Cowichan Sweater / Courtesy of Nicole Pender)

With this film, Galloway aims to preserve and inspire future generations of Indigenous youth to take up knitting, ensuring that the legacy and skill are passed from one generation to the next.

“I hope that when Cowichan youth see this film and witness their people learning to knit, they get excited too and want to jump in,” Galloway said.

“Hopefully, this helps revitalize the art of learning to knit.”

With both Truth and Reconciliation efforts and sweater weather approaching, Galloway believes it’s the perfect time for this film to stream and for audiences to find ways to connect and discover something new.


The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy

  • Where: The comfort of your own home!
  • When:
    • Starts streaming on CBC Gem October 6th
    • CBC TV at 8 p.m. on October 7th in BC and Alberta.

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