Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Knitting All Night: The True History of the Cowichan Sweater

review by Peter Grant

Working With Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater

Sylvia Olsen
Sono Nis Press, 2010

This lavish book celebrates the iconic Cowichan sweater. It’s the first ever full-dress account of the handsome serviceable outerwear invented by Coast Salish women of Vancouver Island. The many photos of smiling owners — kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents, movie stars, captains of industry, fliers and fishers and just plain folks — attest to the garment’s high status. Now see (goes the subtext) the circumstances in which Cowichan sweaters are created. Come inside the three-room shack of the First Nations knitter. See the piles of wool, the spinning wheels integrated in a living space that includes ten children and various relatives and hangers-on. See the women knitting all night after working all day, sitting back to back on the floor, their needles clacking quietly away to earn them a pittance from the white dealer — just enough to put a little food on the table, the rest of their meagre payment in wool to knit more sweaters for the same dealer. See the family eating their Christmas dinner of dried fish. See too some reasons for First Nations’ poverty — systematic disenfranchisement; theft of their economic stake; official promotion of marginal livelihoods; their reduction to wards of the government. Migrating to hop farms in Washington every summer to earn just enough money to feed themselves and get home — and those were the good old days. All the while working, working so hard just to stay on the treadmill. Not a pretty picture — not nearly as pretty as the decorated products of their industry. For those who can handle history free of idealization and stereotype, this book serves as a crystal-clear window on First Nations society.

The author is a woman of European descent who learned knitting from her mother, left home at 17 and lived on reserve for more than 30 years, raising a family with her First Nations husband. She co-operated the Mount Newton Indian Sweaters shop on the Tsartlip reserve for 12 years and learned how to knit Cowichan sweaters herself. I hope someday to read a memoir of Sylvia Olsen’s life. It would recount the remarkable story of her writing career. (I was privileged to hear her relate her story to a group last year.) She began as a storyteller and had to learn the skills of the writer, with the guidance of such people as Diane Morriss, of Sono Nis Press. When she began recording stories of First Nations peoples’ experiences in residential schools, she submitted to the wisdom of the elders, who were very firm about, for example, conveying the abusive character of a priest without reproducing his abusive language — “We heard it already; we don’t need to hear it again.” The result was the fictionalized No Time to Say Goodbye, first of the 13 books Olsen has published in the past 11 years. Working With Wool evolved from a master’s thesis at the University of Victoria. It took Olsen eight years to complete the book. Now her writing is beginning to reap the recognition it deserves. She won the City of Victoria Bolen Book Prize in 2010 for Counting on Hope, an historical novel for juvenile readers. Working With Wool took the 2011 Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing and was nominated for a BC Book Award. Olsen is working on her doctorate, her thesis a history of First Nations housing. She consults on housing with First Nations across Canada.

With her insider perspective and scholarly dedication, Olsen’s detailed account of Coast Salish woolworkers bears the stamp of authenticity. I found particularly fascinating the account of the origin of sweater knitcraft from the ancient Salish textile industry, wherein goat and dog hair were combined with various vegetable fibres, hand-spun and woven into blankets — the principal currency of the traditional Coast Salish economy. Much of the early evolution of knitting, following the introduction of needles via European immigrants, is conjectural, veiled in obscurity — the craft was learned by observation; the industry purely cottage; the marketplace hugely one of barter; records were not kept. The focus sharpens considerably in the chronicle of recent evolutions in both the knitting industry and the larger context of First Nations society. Olsen interviewed numbers of knitters, beginning with her mother-in-law, and incorporating generous portions of the transcripts, in which we can hear the real voices of these hard-working women. Here is Cecelia, born 1923:

I was eight years old when I started knitting with my mother. Our dad went fishing once in a while, but it was seasonal. My dad used to card the wool, my mom would spin and knit, and I would knit. They paid us $4.50. I guess that would have been in 1935 about. When I first got started we bought the farmers’ wool for three cents a pound. We washed it in the spring and summer so it was ready in the winter. I got left with eight kids when my first husband died. I was knitting about five sweaters a week at that time. I stayed up most of the night. I would pack wood up from the beach for the fire. Then I would knit all night. I always liked knitting. All the kids would go to sleep and I would knit. We didn’t have electricity. I don’t think anybody got electricity or running water on the reserve until 1958 or 1959. We had oil lamps and if we didn’t have enough oil we would use candles. The kids had to eat and we had to work whenever we could.

Working with Wool is constructed a bit like a Cowichan sweater — knit in the round so you keep coming back to the same threads, building layers with each go-round. One works through its 320 pages in hope of a good outcome, of a knowledge that fair play won the day, that Coast Salish knitters are accorded their rightful status and economic means. While there have been success stories of fair-trade indigenous enterprises like Modeste Wool Carding on the Cowichan reserve and Mount Newton Indian Sweaters at Tsartlip, the sad fact is that success and popularity has taken a dreadful toll on the authentic Cowichan sweater. It has been co-opted and mass-produced or become an object of designer fashion. Particularly galling was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s huge contract to supply knock-offs of Cowichan sweaters to the 2010 Winter Olympics Canadian teams, with barely a nod in the direction of the rightful proprietors of what is after all a species of intellectual property. We can only hope that Working With Wool isn’t in the nature of an eulogy.

(The book is a hard-cover beauty with high production values. It has a gorgeous feel. Just one minor cavil. A reader with aging eyes that have recently graduated to 2.5-power Pharmasave reading glasses, must squint with dismay at blocks of quotation printed in medium-grey ink.)

Peter Grant is an historian and poet who lives in Victoria, British Columbia.