Back to the Fibreshed

There is a lovely article by Rebecca Burgess over at Fibershed. Beautiful pictures and the story of the alpacas of Renaissance Ridge in Northern California.

It reminded me of a book that I finally bought: Working with Wool by Sylvia Olsen. Subtitled "A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater", it genuinely breaks some new ground in the documentation of the most distinctive garment from my own region. I had hesitated when it first came out, as I already own the books by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and Marg Meikle, thinking "Who needs another book, however interesting and well-intentioned, by a person from outside that culture?" Olsen, however, married into the Coast Salish nation at nineteen, and lived and worked with the knitters of Cowichan sweaters for thirty years. She avoids most of the romanticizing that Europeans often bring to the subject, and allows the voices of the Coast Salish knitters to tell their own stories.

There are no patterns here, which pleases me. I know I'm being knee-jerk politically correct here, but really, if it's not knit by a Coast Salish person, then it's not a real Cowichan sweater. After many years of fighting the marketers of inferior knock-offs, the Coast Salish have won the legal right to the exclusive use of the label "Cowichan". How sensitive they are to this issue arose a couple of years ago in connection to the sweaters marketed by the organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics. If you want to make your own version, the Gibson-Roberts book gives all the details, but why not just save up and support the knitters by buying an authentic one? But maybe I am just being pedantic.

Olsen recently won the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing. The media release says:
Blending her own experiences working with knitters and sweaters from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, her desire to learn as much as possible about how government and business intersected with knitters and purchasers, the stories of the knitters themselves, and more than a hundred archival photographs, Olsen has woven a fascinating narrative, a cross cultural story that involves all British Columbians, First Nations, settlers, governments, and churches. “We have all been touched by, or involved with the sweaters in one way or another,” she says.

Jean at One Small Stitch has an interesting post on Peruvian mummy dolls, which is very relevant to this discussion. Sometimes it does take a caring, educated person from another culture to ensure that traditional ethnic techniques are preserved.


  1. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Heather, thank you for writing this. With increased globalization among crafts people, due mostly to the internet, it is critically important that all craftpeople respect the traditions, culture and work of peoples around the world. this message needs to be spoken and heard more often

  2. yes... this debate is always so interesting, and i had never thought about it in relation to knitting. and really, while i'm still obsessing over dissertation topics, a very good reason for me not to write about CPWs.

    what about the desire to reproduce garments (or anything) from a particular culture and history? how about just taking inspiration from it? i was thinking about this when reading art & fear. they write that art has to be rooted in one's own time & place. otherwise it's just appropriation.

    but i'm still fascinated with boro, and estonian lace, and i still really want to knit an orenburg someday. how can one not look back and elsewhere when there is such beauty?

  3. I share your questions, Dru. I think creating a lace shawl or sweater in the style of another culture to learn and appreciate more of that culture is fantastic - our world should be all about that kind of sharing. When commerce enters the picture, it changes things, though. We would never try and replicate a piece of boro cloth to sell it as a genuine Japanese piece, but we might just to enter into a deeper relationship with cloth and enrich ourselves creatively.

    it's a complicated issue!

  4. Complicated issue for sure! I own a triplet (3 attached together) of those mummy dolls, purchased at least 30 years ago before I found out that the cloth was plundered from gravesites. The spinning and weaving on them is wonderful and like Jean, I feel that I'm preserving them somehow. I certainly wouldn't get rid of them even though I feel that their creation was totally wrong and that my buying them probably encouraged more grave robbing behaviour. Sigh. Did someone mention complicated?


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