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Cowichan sweaters: From raw wool to cherished keepsake

May Sam's wrists roll and fingers dance as she wields needles to knit wool into shape.

At 67, she has knitted hundreds of Cowichan sweaters over the years. Her magnificent works keep fishermen dry and loggers warm.

Her fingers are no longer as nimble as they were in her youth, when it took just two days to complete a sweater. Now, she needs two weeks to transform a pile of wool into a keepsake.

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Her busy hands, aged and sore, make a work of art from a mundane article of clothing.

The Cowichan elder is one of several dozen knitters on Vancouver Island who produce the durable, weatherproof sweaters in the traditional fashion.

Born in Mill Bay, she grew up on the waterfront and was taught to knit by her family. She now lives in Saanichton, where she entertains occasional foreign visitors who make a pilgrimage to witness the ancient craft.

"My work has travelled the world," she marvelled.

Last week, the federal government designated the Cowichan sweater as an object of national historic significance. It is a status that recognizes the sweater as Vancouver Island's gift to the world, a blending of ancient techniques with modern technology.

Long before Europeans arrived in these waters, the Coast Salish people wove textiles from dog hair, plant fibres, and mountain goat wool. Around 1860, needle knitting was introduced. Wool was spun on what became known as the Salish spindle, a large-diameter spindle found only here. The washing of raw wool before carding and spinning into thick, single-ply strands were demanding tasks.

The incorporation of traditional motifs – deer, whale, eagle – make the sweaters immediately recognizable as a product of this landscape.

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The historic designation was praised by Sylvia Olsen, a knitter who is author of Working With Wool, a prize-winning book about those who make and wear Cowichan sweaters.

"Everybody loves to wear them. Everybody loves to buy them," she said. "These sweaters have a heart and they have a soul."

After marrying and moving onto the Tsartlip reserve north of Victoria, Ms. Olsen was taught to knit by her mother-in-law.

She sees in the Cowichan sweater a story of the Canadian nation.

"It is truly one of our Canadian stories, when we came together as indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. It fused our history and our skills together."

The prized sweaters – no two exactly alike – make impressive gifts. On a visit to the Island in 1959, Cowichan knitters presented Queen Elizabeth sweaters for herself, her husband and children. The province's official royal wedding gift for the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981 was a sweater knit by Marjorie Peter of Duncan.

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In the summer of 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman was photographed fishing while wearing a woolly Cowichan sweater, which puzzled American commentators. The Victoria writer Bruce Hutchison wrote helpfully that a Cowichan sweater emits "a fine, wholesome smell of sheep, of haylands, of smoke, of Indian lodges and, if properly used, of fish. It takes several years, many fishing trips, many nights around the camp fire, a good smattering of stains from coffee, tea, whisky and the slime of many fish, to season a Cowichan sweater until, like a well-smoked pipe, it is fit for use." He suspected the president would be far too busy to ever turn his sweater into the real thing.

When it was learned the president had been wearing a borrowed sweater, the Cowichan band presented the American consul with a gift sweater. It also came with a request that Mr. Truman accept the title of Thaightethe Sieye, translated as "chief of peace."

His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, also got one, as did Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, not to mention visiting dignitaries such as crooner Bing Crosby, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

In more recent years, knitters have had to battle against knockoffs of their handmade creations. The Hudson's Bay Company angered the Cowichan Tribes by unveiling a version of the sweater as one of their Olympic products. After negotiations, authentic sweaters made by Cowichan knitters were also placed for sale at the store.

Twice a month, Mrs. Sam teaches students knitting and wool-washing techniques at the First Peoples House on the University of Victoria campus.

"There's not too many of us any more who do knit, who wash the raw wool," she said. "I have raw wool in my backyard that I have to wash as soon as it warms up. The ground is so wet."

Mrs. Sam is currently at work on two commissioned sweaters, as well as two pairs of socks. She has a confession.

"I hate making socks. You make one sock and you're not done until you get the other one done."

With each flick of her wrist, she furthers an age-old tradition.

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