If you’ve never heard of a Cowichan sweater before, you’ve almost certainly seen one. Movie stars like Steve McQueen and Marilyn Monroe were photographed wearing them, as were decades worth of dignitaries, including prime ministers, presidents, royals and even the occasional pope. Then there are the on-screen incarnations. You might remember Michael Glaser donning one in Starsky & Hutch in the 1970s. Or, like everyone else, maybe you’ve watched The Big Lebowski and wondered whether you too could pull off one of his Cowichan-inspired Pendletons.
More than anywhere else, though, if you’re at all immersed in the world of online menswear, you’ve likely spotted them in your social media feeds. Cowichan-related hashtags boast many thousands of posts, with vintage-minded dressers, second-hand stores, and internet resellers posting an impressive array of these chunky and evocative knits.
If none of this rings a bell, however, Cowichan sweaters are warm, durable and hefty woollen cardigans that feature a range of geometric motifs and large images, with animal designs being particularly common. Traditionally they are handmade using undyed, home-spun yarn that is rich in lanolin, giving them an added measure of water- and stain resistance. Cowichans are also historically knit all in one piece, meaning they typically don’t have side seams. The only seam, in fact, appears at the top of the shoulder and is usually slightly dropped. While some original sweaters were pullovers, Cowichans are mostly styled as cardigans and can feature buttons but more often than not have zippers.
The name derives from the Coast Salish people of the same name in British Columbia, Canada. The Cowichan have been making their titular garment since the nineteenth century when it was born out of a cultural exchange with European settlers who arrived in the Cowichan Valley in the 1850s. Cowichan craftspeople had been weaving garments and blankets using mountain goat and dog hair for centuries prior, but took up knitting with wool once Europeans entered the equation.
The exact origin of knitting among the Coast Salish is unknown, though there are two prevailing theories. The first credits Jeremina Colvin, an immigrant from the Shetland Islands in the northeast of Scotland in the late 1880s. She is said to have taught Indigenous women to card, spin, and knit sheep’s wool, with the latter likely taking the form of Fair Isle knitting, a colourful, patterned technique not all that far removed from now-common Cowichan motifs. A second theory looks to the Sisters of St. Ann in Quebec who travelled to BC in the mid 1800s to set up schools for local children. At these schoolhouses, students were taught domestic skills partly as a means of assimilation. Knitting, therefore, became a part of the syllabus and continued to be taught in these institutions until the 1960s.
Whatever the original source, however, Cowichan knitters combined First Nations weaving and European knitting techniques to create something entirely unique, with the first recorded Cowichan knit dating to around 1900. At the time, only Coast Salish people wore these jumpers, but by the 1920s Indigenous crafts were regarded as collectable and, in response to this newfound demand, the Cowichan began selling their knits to merchants in places like Victoria and Vancouver. Around the same time, the first mimicked designs started appearing, although it’s around the 1950s and ’70s that the more widespread imitations really take hold as Cowichan knits became known the world over. This was in no small part thanks to media exposure associated with some of the famous figures listed at the start of this article, often as a result of them visiting Canada in some official capacity, at which time they would be given a Cowichan-crafted knit as a gift.
Since Cowichan-inspired knitwear has become so prevalent over the last few decades, the Cowichan people started selling their products under the label Genuine Cowichan and registered a federal trademark back in 1997. In 2011, the Canadian government also officially recognized Cowichan knitters and their work as nationally and historically significant. To this day, a handful of Coast Salish craftspeople continue to make and sell the genuine article (You can read a magazine profile on them here).
Regular visitors to this site will likely not be surprised to hear that I can’t get enough of these jumpers. With a professed soft spot for knitwear, a particular weakness for cardigans, and a dubious track record as far as buying niche knits are concerned, Cowichans predictably rank among my favourite garments. They capture so much of what there is to enjoy about clothing: Quality and craft, art and history, practicality and self-expression. They are also riotously fun to wear, in my experience, plus there’s little chance that you’ll ever walk into a room only to find that someone else has got the same thing on as you do — unless it’s a screening room at Lebowski Fest, that is.
I don’t recall ever seeing a Cowichan sweater I didn’t like and, apparently, I can’t be trusted anywhere near them. My past track record suggests that I will giddily buy nearly every Cowichan I come across, price and fit be damned. Luckily, you don’t find them all that often in the UK, which is a good thing as far as my bank balance is concerned anyway. The downside is that they tend to take up rather a lot of storage space (also something you don’t tend to get much of in Britain) and, for fear of moths getting at them, I’ve all but covered mine in a panoply of cedarwood and lavender. So they’re not the most practical thing for me to be buying in vast quantities, you understand.
That said, in the unlikely event that you have one of these expressive knits that you’re looking to chuck out, do send it my way instead as I’ll be happy to take it out of your hands and into my rapidly filling sweater shelf. Or, failing that, should you happen to have a house offering ample Cowichan storage, I’m always in the market for those too.
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