The Cowichan Sweater: A History of the Handcrafted

Cowichan Sweater, front

Cowichan Sweater circa 1970s, materials: natural wool — Photograph is author’s own

There are many symbols associated with Canadian identity: hockey, the toque, the beaver, the moose, and Tim Horton’s, to name a few. One symbol of Canadian identity that has been less well known is the Cowichan sweater (Meikle, 1; Stopp, np). Made in the West Coast by Cowichan and Coast Salish people, this sweater has a long and complicated history within Canadian identity, combining traditional craft practices and the commodification of First Nations culture.

The Cowichan sweater is a popular item in Canada, particularly on the West Coast, where it is produced. You have most likely seen one, whether you were aware of it or not. Picture a heavy-knit, warm sweater, with in-set sleeves, a shawl collar and a sturdy zipper that runs from the bottom hem up to the collar. The sleeves go from the shoulder down to the wrist, finished in a rib stitch. The hem of the sweater rests at the hips, also finished in a rib stitch, so that it fits snugly to the body. The ribbing is approximately three inches long. The collar is made using a garter stitch, giving it a pebbled texture, while the rest of the sweater is knit in a stockinette stitch, giving it a smooth appearance. The yarn has been entirely hand-treated, from the washing all the way to the knitting, making each sweater unique (Meikle, 1-24; Stopp, np). All of the wool is undyed, with the different colours in wool being obtained from different coloured sheep. Most of the sweater is knit in a heathered grey yarn, with the designs knit in off-white and dark brown yarns. These yarns are used to make bands that run around the body of the sweater, along the chest and around the hips, as well as around the sleeves, below the shoulders and around the forearm. These bands are roughly three inches tall and are made up of an interlocking geometric pattern. Between these bands, also knit in the off-white and dark brown yarns, are a motif that is known as a Thunderbird. They are approximately six inches tall and ten inches wide, with one on each side of the torso of the sweater, and one on each sleeve. There is a fifth, larger, Thunderbird on the back of the sweater, that is approximately eight inches tall and twelve inches wide.

Cowichan Sweater, front

Cowichan Sweater, front — Photograph is author’s own

Cowichan Sweater, back

Cowichan Sweater, back — Photograph is author’s own










This sweater, along with a sweater with the same Thunderbird design and the added feature of pockets on the hips, was purchased by George Trach in the 1970s, as a gift to his parents, my grandparents. Since there are no records to be found on this particular sweater, and I have no living relatives who could tell me about it, the following information is lost to me: how much it cost, where it was purchased, and the year it was purchased. What I do know is that my father was working in British Columbia and brought these sweaters back for his parents. This particular sweater belonged to my grandmother, and its mate – which my sister now owns – belonged to my grandfather. The way that I know this is that my grandfather’s sweater has pockets, because he smoked and needed somewhere to keep his cigarettes. Though my mother knows very little about these two sweaters, she always made a point of telling me that bit of information.

While the Cowichan sweater plays a part in a larger cultural story of Canadian identity, this particular sweater has personal significance to me. It is a part of my family history, having been passed down from family member to family member. Over the years I have been told how much a sweater like this costs, or how much I could sell it for, but this is all irrelevant to me. Through this sweater’s connection to my deceased family members, I have singularized it, making it priceless to me (Kopytoff, 80). The monetary value of this sweater is irrelevant to me, because this particular sweater has connections to my family, including my grandparents, father, and sister. I was once told that my sweater would now cost $400-$500, if I were to sell it, or try to buy it. I responded by saying that I did not care, because it was my grandmother’s. The sentimental value that I have attached to this sweater makes the cost irrelevant to me.

The Cowichan sweater is known to be exceptionally warm, as well as waterproof, which comes from all of the work being done entirely by hand (Stopp, np). Knitting was incorporated into Coast Salish craftwork when it was introduced by European settlers in the 1850s (Meikle, 3).  This allowed for the sweater, as well as Cowichan mittens, hats, vests, and other knit garments to be made (Bunn-Marcuse, np). Cowichan sweaters have been sold as a commodity since the 1920s, and in souvenir shops since the mid to late twentieth century (Meikle, 22). In the 1970s, when my dad bought the two sweaters as souvenirs, Cowichan sweaters had reached a peak in popularity (Meikle, 23). This purchasing of a Cowichan sweater as a souvenir from a visit to British Columbia is a form of cultural tourism – learning about and collecting aspects from another country or region’s culture – (Kutzner & Wright, 97) which can be used as a source of income for locals, but is not without its pitfalls.

With the increased popularity of Cowichan sweaters in the 1970s, there was a boom in purchasing, which Cowichan knitters could not keep up with. Due to this imbalance of supply and demand, copycat versions of the sweater were being made (Meikle, 23). Other manufacturers and sellers were able to sell their versions of the sweater at lower prices, undercutting Cowichan knitters, making it hard for them to earn enough money off of the sales of genuine Cowichan sweaters. Due to the copycat versions of the sweater being machine made, they could not exactly mimic the weight or feel of a genuine Cowichan sweater. This made it easier to tell what was a genuine Cowichan and what was a copycat, but did not stop consumers from purchasing the cheaper look-a-likes.

owner in sweater

Owner in sweater — Photograph is author’s own

When I first started wearing my grandmother’s sweater it was 2002, and the sweater was deemed “weird” by my classmates. Despite this, I continued to wear it, and started getting compliments on it when I entered high school, two years later. The Cowichan sweater gained popularity around this time (Stopp, np), until it reached a boiling point with the Vancouver Olympics controversy in 2010 (Nicholas & Wylie, 208-211; Udy, np).

Leading up to Vancouver hosting the 2010 winter Olympics, there were bids from various manufacturers to dress the Canadian team. One of the bids came from the Coast Salish knitters, who also knit genuine Cowichan sweaters. They proposed to dress each athlete in a Cowichan sweater, but due to time constraints they were overlooked. In the end, the contract went to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), who then produced Cowichan-like sweaters, both for the athletes and to sell to the general public (Nicholas & Wylie, 208-211; Udy, np). This follows a history of the appropriation and copying of First Nations motifs, specifically the Cowichan sweater. The loss of the contract was a significant blow to the Coast Salish people, as it would have been a significant source of income, which was now lost to HBC (Udy, np).

With the rise in popularity of the Cowichan sweater, as well as the rise in knock-offs and copies, a “Genuine Cowichan Approved” certification has been created (Udy, np). This ensures that authentic pieces are being sold, which will hopefully protect the livelihood of the Cowichan knitters, so that they are not being undercut by copycats and knock-offs. This will also protect the tradition that has been passed down through generations of knitters (Udy, np). This also ensures that a piece of Canadian history and identity remains strong and alive, to represent Canada to the rest of the world for years to come.

The Cowichan sweater is a symbol of Canadian identity, with a rich and complex history. While it has consistently been enmeshed in cases of appropriation and exploitation, it also holds great cultural meaning, specifically for the Cowichan knitters. It is a tradition that just like my sweater itself has been passed down through generations, and hopefully will continue to be passed down, keeping this tradition, and icon of Canadian identity, alive for years to come.

Works Cited

Bunn-Marcuse, Kathryn. “The Northwest Coast.” The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, Sept. Web. 7 Mar. 2016. <>.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process”. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Appadurai, Arjun Cambridge University Press, 2013. 64-91. Web.

Kutzner, Diana, and Pamela A. Wright. “An Investigation into Key Market Segments for Aboriginal Tourism in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” Journal of Vacation Marketing 16.2 (2010): 97-110. Web.

Meikle, Margaret, and University of British Columbia. Museum of Anthropology. Cowichan Indian Knitting. no. 21.;no. 21; Vol. UBC Museum of Anthropology, 1987. Web.

Nicholas, George P., and Alison Wylie. “Do not do unto others: cultural misrecognition and the harms of appropriation in an open source world.” Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, ed. by Coningham, R. and Scarre, G., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2012): 195-221.

Stopp, Marianne. “The Coast Salish Knitters and the Cowichan Sweater: An Event of National Historic Significance.” Material Culture Review / Revue de la culture matérielle [Online], 76 (2012): n.p. Web.

TELUS Optik Local, “Hand Crafted | The Cowichan Sweater”. Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Udy, Vanessa. “The Appropriation of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage: Examining the Uses and Pitfalls of the Canadian Intellectual Property Regime”. Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage: Theory, Practice, Policy, Ethics. [Online], 2015: n.p. Web.

About gtrach

Gabrielle is still navigating this "being a grown-up" business, which involves being a fashion scholar, as well as a multi-disciplinary artist. The ultimate goal is to combine fashion into her art practice, which might just happen in the next couple of years.