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Native knitters 'left out in the cold' Add to ...

It's an iconic Canadian sweater that's been owned by Pope John Paul II and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and a pair of which were wedding gifts from British Columbia to Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

But the Hudson's Bay Company, which unveiled a version of the venerable Cowichan sweater last week when its Olympic Games clothing line was rolled out, has come under attack for failing to produce an authentic garment, or even to honour the design creators. The aboriginal knitters from the Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island, developed the distinctive look more than a century ago.

"My first reaction when I saw it was it's a knock-off and it's not a very good knock-off," said Ernest Elliott, general manager of the Cowichan Tribes, in Duncan.

The small town north of Victoria bills itself as City of Totems, but its real claim to world fame rests with its aboriginal knitters, members of the Coast Salish cultural group, whose blankets from dog and mountain goat hair hair evolved into sweaters under the guidance of the Sisters of Saint Anne in the 1800s.

Mr. Elliott said the Cowichan Tribes were approached by the Bay about a year ago and asked to bid on a contract to produce sweaters for Olympic athletes.

"We put in a bid, but we never heard back from the Bay. It's unfortunate this group of artists was passed over, because they could have really used the boost," he said yesterday.

"We couldn't imagine the impact it would have had on the world if all the Canadian athletes had walked into the opening ceremonies wearing genuine Cowichan sweaters."

Sylvia Olsen, a B.C. author who is working on a historical book, Working With Wool - Coast Salish Blankets to Cowichan Sweaters, said the Bay should at least honour the Cowichan knitters by including a label that tells the history of the sweater.

Ms. Olsen said this isn't the first time the design has inspired imitation. "Mary Maxim sweaters were said to be takeoffs ... in the fifties. In the seventies and eighties there were a lot of companies that made Cowichan look-alikes, and Cowichan Tribes eventually, by the eighties, defined what it was to be an authentic Cowichan sweater [by getting a trademark]" she said.

In a statement released yesterday, the Bay said its sweater is unique and uses colours and patterns not used in traditional Cowichan design.

"Our hand knit premium sweater is not a Cowichan sweater. It is a contemporary design inspired by a great fashion icon that is recognized as a knit sweater all across the country," the statement said.

"The prototype sweater was hand knit by Hudson's Bay Company's design team from which patterns were created for our manufacturer to follow. The whole [Olympic]collection is based on icons of Canadian fashion of which the knit sweater is one," the Bay said.

The Bay said the Cowichan Tribes were approached about producing sweaters, but in the end the company felt "they were unable to meet Hudson's Bay Company requirements as a national retailer for consistent quality, speed to market and volume for delivery."

Bill Routley, NDP MLA for the Cowichan Valley, has raised the issue in the B.C. Legislature and yesterday asked the government to hold a meeting with aboriginal knitters.

"These knitters seem left out in the cold," he said. "The Cowichan people deserve to profit culturally and economically."

THE REAL DEAL

The Coast Salish people on the West Coast were expert knitters long before the first Europeans arrived. Their blankets were valued trade items.

"The woven blankets represented a high cultural status amongst the Salish people, and it was a strong form of main currency," writes Coast Salish artist Joe Jack in an article about the history and artistry of his people.

Mr. Jack said each sweater is a unique piece of art, featuring traditional designs of animals, birds, sea creatures and geometric shapes.

In the 1800s, Sister Marie Angele of the Catholic Sisters of St. Anne order taught native women in the Cowichan Valley how to knit with sheep wool. From that, the now world-famous Cowichan sweater evolved.

The Queen, Harry Truman and Bing Crosby are among those who have owned authentic Cowichan sweaters.

But the design has inspired many imitations, some of which have been so close to the original they are often mistakenly called Cowichan sweaters.

Paul Michael Glaser, who starred as David Starsky in the seventies television series, Starsky & Hutch, helped make the style popular when he posed in a promotional shot wearing a sweater. But the famous Starsky cardigan, which is similar to a sweater worn by Marilyn Monroe in her last photo shoot, in 1962, appears to be a Cowichan look-alike, most likely produced from a Mary Maxim pattern.

In an effort to hold on to its design, the Cowichan tribes registered the term "Genuine Cowichan Approved" as a clothing products trademark.

Only an authentic Cowichan sweater, hand-knitted by a Coast Salish artist, can carry that label.

Mark Hume

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