Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The craft of creating Cowichan sweaters is getting a boost through an initiative by the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. It’s called Knit With Purpose.
The centre, located on southern Vancouver Island in BC, was established 52 years ago to promote and strengthen urban Indigenous peoples.
As part of this mandate, organizers spent the past year researching what the impact would be if there was a revitalization attempt that focused on the knitters of Cowichan sweaters, while respecting the history of the mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who passed down the traditional craft.
“Maybe three years ago when a local family approached us, they were wanting to sell their family sweaters on Government Street here in Victoria, which is sort of a famous shopping street for tourists. And we were thinking about it,” said Ron Rice, executive director at the centre.
“We wanted to create some opportunities for artists year-round and not just in the tourist season.”
Although there was a desire to create a storefront where the knitters could sell their sweaters, the conclusion was reached that a true brick-and-mortar store would be too costly. So, an online store was created and Knitwithpurpose.com launched on Oct. 19. On the website you will see the work Knit and the word Wutth’els, which is Hul'q'umi'num' for knit.
“We’re trying to create opportunity,” he said. “We’ve been trying… to get this garment back to the place where it, sort of, belongs to Canadians, this sort of iconic sweater. You know (Cowichan) sweaters were the gift to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip when they came to visit in the 1980s.”
Rice said at one time the sweaters were just owned by locals. It wasn’t something that was picked up by tourists.
“I think we’re sort of getting back to that place where people are starting to understand the impacts of cultural appropriation, the positive impacts of economic reconciliation and, you know, investing in communities and investing in Indigenous women,” he said.
Through discussions, the centre decided there were three things that were needed to focus on Cowichan sweaters revitalization, said Rice.
They needed to find a reliable source of wool for the knitters in BC, as the closest one is in Alberta. They needed to remind consumers about the value of Cowichan sweaters and create an interest in the garment. And they needed to make sure the knitters were receiving a fair wage.
“Right now, knitters earn about a dollar an hour for the sweaters that they’re selling wholesale to stores in Victoria and Nanaimo,” Rice said.
Currently, knitters sell their completed Cowichan sweaters to tourist stores for anywhere between $90 and $160, which are then turned around and sold to consumers for $500 to $1,000.
“So we started offering knitters $500 for a sweater with the idea that we would work on finding a way to start selling them for a more realistic price,” Rice said.
The site features 12 local knitters and 30 sweaters. The website provides consumers the opportunity to purchase authentic handmade sweaters from Indigenous artisans.
“We are going to release pieces of the collection over the next three months, and then re-evaluate in January. And we might continue to sell into January and then sort of get back into replenishing the collection over the course of the spring and summer and release again next fall,” said Rice.
Knitters who were known to the administration of the centre were approached and asked if they would like to take part in the initiative.
“We were really trying to find people of pristine quality and their attention to detail and care for their finished product, and so we took referrals. As we added another knitter, we’d say ‘who else from your circle should we include’?” Rice said.
An added benefit to the centre was bringing the knitters together so they could connect to sources for the wool, as well as share tricks and techniques for their craft.
“And so you create a bit of an established circle around that,” he explained.
One of the knitters, Zena Roland, is proud to be part of the newly-developed website and played an integral role in bringing knitters together for this project.
“They approached me and asked me to connect them with a bunch of knitters,” said Roland. “So I had given them a whole bunch of ladies, getting the names and numbers, and they contacted them.”
Roland has been knitting since she was a little girl and said the journey of this project is exciting in creating a future for the craft.
“My late sister had taught me ‘cause my late mother was left-handed,” Roland explained. “So my little sister taught me how to hold it.”
She explained how when she was just starting to learn she would help her mom and sister by knitting the bottom part of the body portion of the sweater.
These strong family connections and ties of passing down traditions and techniques through the generations is exactly the essence of what Knit With Purpose wants to capture.
“We want to remind our own people what this meant to our economies before, and you know this was an entire economy built around the women of the house,” said Rice.
“So, the women would go and negotiate with the farmers for wool… They would collect it themselves and they would take it home and their whole family would clean it… and then they would knit. So, what we’re trying to do is get people to think in terms of this entire process and how we start to reclaim some of it.”
To find out more about the ladies behind the sweaters or to purchase one of their pieces visit www.knitwithpurpose.com
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