Unless you’re a serious knitter, chances are the name Mary Maxim won’t ring a bell. But if you’ve ever snapped up a hipster curling cardigan in a vintage shop or – better yet – found a reindeer sweater knit by your own grandma in the back of a family closet, you’re likely already aware of the aesthetic that the name represents. While you won’t find a Maxim label on either of those examples, it’s likely that one of the company’s patterns was used to create it.
In the early 1950s, woolen mill owners Willard S. McPhedrain and his wife, Olive, started their pattern company in Manitoba, popularizing graph-paper knitwear patterns and, along with them, rugged, chunky patterned cardigans inspired by the West Coast Cowichan knitting tradition. In 1954, they moved their burgeoning operation to Paris, Ont. Over time, zipping up one of the designs became synonymous with the tradition of handmade gifts, as well as a rugged-yet-refined Canadian style.
Thanks to a new collaboration with Roots, the brand will once again be front and centre this holiday season. Design teams from both iconic Canadian brands have co-created a new winter knitwear collection featuring the motifs of reindeer, polar bears, hockey players and, of course, beavers, on heavy-knit cardigans, hats and mittens arriving in Roots stores in November.
“Mary Maxim is Canadiana, it’s real,” says Roots’s senior director of merchandise, Syd Beder. Beder says he and creative director Stephanie Holden had noticed a revival of the bulky sweaters on the streets and in the media. In an industry obsessed with the hunt for heritage brands to reinvigorate, Mary Maxim was just obscure enough to be tantalizing. Roots has sold similar designs in the past but Beder says they wanted to “raise the bar” this winter by very publicly tracing an aesthetic lineage back to Mary Maxim.
To their delight, they were the first to track down Mary Maxim executive vice-president Carol Steed and pitch a partnership. Steed says she too had noticed a revival of vintage Mary Maxim sweaters and the craft of knitting.
“To have someone like Roots pick it up and think it’s a great marriage between the two companies – it’s unbelievable exposure for us,” she says. “We’re known but they’re KNOWN.”
For this project, decades-old logos and graphics were revived and archival Mary Maxim designs were tweaked to include familiar Roots elements such as the salt-and-pepper knit and cream-and-red stripes of their cabin line. Sixty $400 wool and acrylic beaver-motif sweaters were hand-knit in Canada (a nod to Mary Maxim’s 60th anniversary this year) while more affordable versions (about $200 each) were made in Asia.
For craftier gift givers, Roots will also be selling a Mary Maxim scarf kit in their stores. And for the ultimate do-it-yourselfers, Mary Maxim will be offering pattern kits for sweaters in the Roots collection through www.marymaxim.ca beginning in early December.
For his part, Beder suggests he’ll be picking up the hockey player sweater – and not because of his love for the sport.
“The hockey player is a little more imperfect [than the other designs],” he says. “It’s perfectly imperfect. It looks like your mom could have made it.”