Dora Wilson does indeed have wool.
Bags of it are piled on a couch in her living room, and balls are nestled in a laundry basket. Hand-knit sweaters are spread on any flat surface available. She needs roughly six pounds of the material to make each one.
“I make sure I keep three pounds of grey, three pounds of white and one pound of black,” Ms. Wilson, 80, said in her Duncan, B.C., home, where she was busy finishing up Christmas orders for Cowichan sweaters. She has been knitting and selling them since she was a teenager.
Ms. Wilson, whose traditional name is Thulamiye, is an elder of the Cowichan Tribes, a group of Coast Salish peoples whose traditional territory includes what is now known as Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, and whose skills and designs have come to define the garment that bears their name.
Though methods of making the sweaters have changed as decades have passed, the tradition survives through knitters such as Ms. Wilson, who pass on their skills and connect with local farmers in a quest for the perfect wool.
The Cowichan sweater is said to date back to around 1860, when Coast Salish women – skilled at weaving with mountain goat wool, dog hair and plant fibres – were introduced to European knitting techniques.
Made to shed the rain and snow, and with generous collars to turn up against the wind, the sweaters were practical wear for loggers and fishermen. Over time, they gained celebrity cachet. They have been given as gifts to dignitaries and royalty, including United States president Harry Truman and Queen Elizabeth II.
By the 1960s, middlemen were hustling to meet demand, with dealers buying up to 5,000 hand-knit Cowichan sweaters a year, according to a 2012 journal article by Parks Canada historian Marianne Stopp.
That didn’t necessarily translate into bigger profits for the knitters. Their earnings never reflected the garments’ popularity, their final selling prices or the time they took to make, Ms. Stopp wrote.
Still, Cowichan sweaters were an economic and social force, helping knitters – mostly women – support their families while showcasing Indigenous design to the world.
Ms. Wilson, one of nine children, recalls her mother trading sweaters for food at a local store. Ms. Wilson sold her first sweater when she was 15, to a driver who flagged her down as she was headed to a store to sell it. These days, she charges about $700 to $800 for an adult sweater, which takes her about a week to make.
As the sweaters’ popularity increased, so did the prevalence of imitations. The Cowichan Tribes pushed back, applying to register the term “Genuine Cowichan” as a trademark. The application was approved in 1997.
In 2009, B.C. knitters cried foul when the Hudson’s Bay Company unveiled a knit sweater as part of its product line for the Olympic Games, saying the design was too close to their own. The controversy ended only when the knitters secured a licensing agreement with the company.
In 2011, the federal government designated the Coast Salish knitters and the Cowichan sweater as having national historical significance, citing the use of thick, single-ply strands and a “Salish spindle” – a hand spindle found nowhere else in North America.
Ms. Wilson used to have a treadle-operated spindle. Her current version, bought at a garage sale after a fellow knitter died, runs on electricity and whirs in a blur as she stretches wool to the tension she wants.
With her eyesight not as sharp as it once was, Ms. Wilson these days often collaborates with her daughter, Maureen Tommy. The two women recently finished a sweater for a woman who had asked for a pattern with bears. The finished sweater features six of them, each different. Although they are knit tightly into the garment, they look as though they could walk right off.
Knitters such as Ms. Wilson used to wash and card their own wool, a laborious process in which fibres are cleaned and brushed into material that can be spun.
May Sam, an expert knitter and elder with the Tsartlip First Nation, remembers washing wool by hand and spreading it in the sun so it would dry a brilliant white.
Now, Ms. Sam and Ms. Wilson get their wool from local farms, but leave the carding to others.
Their main supplier is Lorea Tomsin, who raises purebred sheep and runs a mobile shearing service through her Sidney, B.C., company, Country Wools.
Ms. Tomsin nurtures connections between farmers, consumers and craftspeople, especially the Cowichan knitters. She said she is driven by a belief in the importance of local food networks and community ties.
She sends sheared wool to an Alberta mill for carding into a product called roving, which knitters such as Ms. Wilson and Ms. Sam can then spin to their own liking.
Working with Ms. Tomsin makes the knitting process a lot easier, Ms. Sam said at a sheep farm on the Saanich Peninsula, where she and Ms. Tomsin were checking on a flock.
Ms. Sam was on the lookout for black wool, prized because it is relatively rare. Lambs may be born black, but tend to turn grey as they get older.
“To me, a black sheep is gold,” she said.
Asked how she started knitting, Ms. Wilson said she learned by watching. When she and her mother visited sheep, her mother would show her how to measure fleece to gauge what kind of wool it would make. Now, she shows her grandchildren the same thing.
Surrounded by knitting with designs that include orcas, waves and snowdrops, Ms. Wilson is perhaps most proud of a freshly knitted garment, carefully pressed and hanging in a place of honour in her home. It’s a vest, with a large eagle on the back. It was made by her granddaughter.
She learned to knit by watching.
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