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Canada recognizes historic significance of Cowichan sweater

Emily Sawyer-Smith, pictured here in 2009, is a respected knitter of Cowichan sweaters. The sweater was recognized by the federal government on March 22, 2012. - Mike D
Emily Sawyer-Smith, pictured here in 2009, is a respected knitter of Cowichan sweaters. The sweater was recognized by the federal government on March 22, 2012.
— image credit: Mike D'Amour/file

The Cowichan Sweater and its Coast Salish creators were recognized yesterday by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

"Since the late 19th century, Coast Salish women have combined ancient wool-working technologies with European knitting to make Cowichan sweaters," a government press release states.

"These internationally recognizable sweaters have contributed to Coast Salish identity and aided Coast Salish cultural continuity when faced with the challenges of the loss of traditional resources."

The recognition means a bronze commemorative plaque will be presented to the community during an unveiling ceremony sometime in the future.

Life-long Cowichan knitter John George said he was honoured and pleased by the recognition.

"I believe everyone around Cowichan who knits is going to be very happy to hear about our government's recognition of our authentic Cowichan sweaters," said George, who can often be spotted knitting at the Quw'utsun' Cultural Centre.

He started knitting at seven years old, learning from his mother and grandmother.

Since then, he's knitted countless sweaters, taught his two sisters how to do the same, and is now passing the tradition down to his six-year-old granddaughter.

"Every time she comes to visit, she sits beside me and I show her how to do the knitting," said George. "She helps with the stitches, and makes sure she understands what I'm doing. It was totally up to her — she wanted to learn how to knit."

Cowichan elder Dora Wilson, 70, has been knitting for 55 years. She learned the skill from her mother and grandmother, and has passed it down to her daughter and granddaughters.

She says publicity for the Cowichan sweater — especially when imitation Cowichan sweaters caused controversy by being included in Vancouver 2010 Olympic gear — has helped raise the sweater's profile.

"I think our Cowichan sweater became more popular then, and my sister Charlotte and I have had many orders for our Cowichan sweaters — people are starting to know the difference now, between genuine sweaters and the imitations," Wilson said.

Wilson, for example, doesn't knit with the commonly-used New Zealand wool — hers in local wool she hand-washes and weaves.

"Imitation sweaters are sewn — that's an easy way to tell it's not an authentic Cowichan sweater," Wilson added. "Our Cowichan sweaters are knit whole: round and round if it's a pull-over, and back-and-forth if it's an open sweater."

The Cowichan sweater announcement, meanwhile, is part of the designation of 13 new national historic sites, people, and events that recognize Aboriginal history.

"Today's designations will bring to life the spiritual, cultural and physical ties that First Nations have to this country, for both Canadians and visitors to Canada," said Environment Minister Peter Kent, who made the announcement on Thursday. "They will give future generations an understanding of moments in time that span the centuries."

The cultural traditions of the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson River) — specifically in basket-weaving — were also recognized.

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