If you’ve paying attention to me the past few weeks you’ve noticed I’ve been clicking away at my needles at some sort of project. Today I’m going to discuss my final project for my Ethnoarchaeology class which is to knit some baby booties in the Cowichan style. This archaeology discipline places an emphasis similar to Historical Archaeology that text-based accounts should go hand in hand with material goods to create a narrative that might be obscured otherwise. However ethnoarchaeology places a heavy emphasis on active observation with communities that still exist and can offer insight to how their culture functions and the implications archaeologists can therefor place on former cultures.
The Cowichan style is an interesting case of how a native people subjected to the advent of colonialism use and adapt new technologies by combining old ones into a new and inspired product. In this case the Cowichan name comes from the Cowichan valley on Vancouver Island. However it didn’t only occur in the areas and the Coast Salish were known to have knitted in the style throughout the area. Coming from missionaries coming into the Vancouver area in the mid 1850’s the Cowichan quickly adapted the new knitting technologies into their new style using an already rich history of basketry and weaving.
The Cowichan brand soon became well known across the US and there are known accounts of sweaters being taken over seas for WWII which soon became popular due to their durable nature and ability to retain heat and keep out moisture. Patterns on the sweater were often inspired by past history or even designs that were fancied. One known example is a sweater knitted with a Chinese dragon motif, inspired by an imported tea box. Sweaters in general have a heavily knitted collar and made seamless through knitting techniques.
However not all is well with the knitting style, in the process of becoming famous there are many “copy cat” styles that although Cowichan “inspired” are not true items in the Cowichan style. This comes by different seam lines, non-native design and various other little tid-bits such as dyed wool and a different treatment process. This has resulting in native knitters taking shortcuts such as bigger yarn and needles and smaller projects in order to keep up with national demand. Judging by the vast number of knock offs the style itself is in trouble of not retaining it’s native origins.
(Note: the booties above are not Cowichan in origin)
For my own personal project I’ve decided to knit baby booties in (hopefully) a similar style. This mostly means yarn types and colors, wool treatment and design. Although baby booties lack the amount of space to make the elaborate patterns the sweaters have become world famous over. They’re not quite done yet, still needing some last minute duplicate stitching to finalize the pattern but I’ll be totting them around class. (I’ll upload a pic on the blog when they are 100% finished)
For a more in-depth posting on the Cowichan sweater and where I got some of the pictures from I suggest looking at: http://blog.ounodesign.com/2009/12/21/the-cowichan-sweater-of-vancouver-island/ for more information!