Sunday, March 24, 2013

My Own Cowichan-Inspired Sweater

Last fall I had the opportunity to meet the delightful Sylvia Olsen, Vancouver Island native and writer of lots of books, including Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater.  She asked me if I might be interested in doing some sample knitting for her, and I said yes, as I long as I could take my payment in wool and instruction on traditional Salish knitting.  (Ever since I moved here I've felt compelled to try making my own Cowichan-inspired sweater.)  Fortunately for me, she agreed.  So she spun me a sweater's worth of this amazingly lofty and light single-ply.  It's a blend of many breeds, and the mixing of short and long fibers helps to create a yarn that is bulky, but not heavy; you can tear it apart easily with your hands, but once it's knitted up, the resulting fabric is very durable.  The yarn isn't available commercially, but Salish Fusion, a company run by Sylvia's kids, sells beautiful sweaters and accessories made with it.  (Check out their incredible knitting bags especially.)

The main color ball is definitely bigger than my head, which, as you can see, makes me smile.  

(Those boots are my husband's - I put them on because they were by the door and I wasn't expecting my feet to be in the photograph, but it's kind of a great look, right?)

My plan is to knit a pullover with pockets.  I've already learned (and modified) the Cowichan way of doing color work, and now I have to decide which color patterns I want to use.  I plan to stick with geometric patterns because  I like that look better than eagles and other animals.  (Geometric patterns are also more traditional than the animal motifs.  A lot of the patterns you see on sweaters are based on early weaving and basket motifs.)  

I'm really excited to play with the construction, which is always seamless, and includes a very clever kind of shawl collar worked in garter stitch in two parts.  The shoulders are joined using a three-needle-bind off, and I've seen many that were worked with the "seam" showing on the outside, a design touch I love.  The sleeves can either be picked up from the armholes and worked down, or knit separately and then attached by crochet hook.  I think I'll go top-down because I like the idea of just weaving in my ends and being done, and I like being able to adjust sleeve length as I go.  

Because this yarn is so unique, and because this is such a big learning experience for me, the sweater I knit will be one-of-a-kind, and I don't plan to write a pattern for it.  However, if I like the process and the end product enough, I may source a more available yarn and make a pattern inspired by this sweater.  I'll also be documenting my progress here, so you can follow along and see how it goes for me.  


  1. i'm excited to see the progress of this sweater! it sounds beautiful already! i would be so uber happy with that haul of wool too! hhahah. xo

  2. Wow! I'm really interested in learning more about Salish knitting. CAn't wait to see your sweater growing here...

  3. Thanks, folks! I think it's going to be a great learning experience trying out new techniques and knitting the way folks around here have knitted for a long, long time.

  4. AWESOME! I am so fascinated with the Cowichan sweater and signed for an all day Cowichan sweater class at Vogue LIVE in Seattle, Barb Brown is the instructor. In February I took a little trip to Victoria and I purchased Sylvia's book, Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater, and her children's book, Yetsa's Sweater. Would you or Sylvia be interested in teaching a Cowichan sweater workshop at my yarn store sometime? It would be cool to have a demonstrate how Sylvia spins the yarn, the construction of the sweater and a brief history of the Cowichan sweater.
    Will you be at Vogue LIVE?

  5. Oh, I forgot to ask, is the yarn similar to a Lopi yarn?

  6. I'll definitely be at VKLive Seattle and last time I talked to Sylvia she was thinking of coming down for a day or two. Send me an email with your contact info (andrea@andreaknits.com) and we can figure out how to get together. I'll be working the Hazel Knits booth all weekend, but I'm sure I'll have some time in the evenings or maybe before or after the event (I'll be in Seattle for a few days extra.)

    The yarn really isn't similar to Lopi, though it is single ply. I'll bring a little sample with me if we set up a meeting (I'm riding my bike down, so I'm watching how much weight I bring.)

    I'm so glad to hear other folks are fascinated by this knitting tradition. I'm really enjoying learning about it.

  7. My shop isn't open yet, we're hoping for July, but I would love to have you both come down when it is open.
    Please bring a little sample of the yarn, I'm curious. I will look for you at the Hazel Knits booth. Do you know woman named Stormy that lives in North Bend, WA? I ran into her at our local co-op and we talked about knitting and she mentioned that she might be at the Hazel Knits booth.

  8. Yes! Stormy is wonderful. I worked at the Hazel Knits booth with her at Sock Summit a few years ago & I'm looking forward to seeing her again. I look forward to meeting you too!

  9. Andrea! Hello! I want to knit my own Cowichan too:)
    I am emailing you now about this... ;);)


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