I’m sure everyone reading this knows that today is election day in Canada – and it’s important! By tomorrow morning we’re either going to have a new government or a constitutional crisis on our hands – and either way it looks like voter turnout is high. (In case you haven’t been following along, Canadians really, really don’t like the current government, but we’ve been having some trouble getting our shit together to vote them out).
But since all of us Canadians are on the edge of our seats and will be until sometime tonight – let’s not talk about that. Instead, I want to talk about another Canadian thing that I’ve been learning about recently – and that thing is Coast Salish style knitting. That hat above is an example of the knitting technique which produces something that many of us on the west coast grew up with – the so-called “Indian Sweater” also known as Cowichan knitting even though it doesn’t particularly originate with the Cowichan band (one group of Coast Salish people). As the style was practiced by many people along the BC coast, it is most rightfully known as Coast Salish style because that’s inclusive to all the peoples who practiced it (and doesn’t reduce all native people to a single band, which they are not).
Anyhow. I grew up on Vancouver Island in the seventies and eighties – during which time pretty much every household had a toque or a sweater in this style. Made of bulky wool, in a base of three shades (black, white, grey) – I can’t say I thought about them too much. Like any colonial legacy, Coast Salish knitting was just part of what was, not noticeable even though a very rich history and tradition surrounded these items.
For a full history of this style of knitting, I recommend that you pick up Sylvia Olsen’s book Working with Wool: A Coast Salish legacy and the Cowichan Sweater from your local library – which is the only account that I know of and full of fabulous historic documents and photographs.
Anyhow. I have been learning to knit (since June of this year) and one of the things I love about learning a totally new craft is that it doesn’t matter if I’m bad at at it. That is, I’ll try everything knowing that it’s probably going to have some problems, because everything new has problems – this is a liberating thing! So at the end of September, I signed myself up for the Fringe and Friends Knit Along which I thought looked pretty straight forward. I mean, I hadn’t done colourwork before – but still, how hard could it be to knit a Cowichan-style vest?
The answer to that, of course, is mixed. No, it’s not particularly hard, but if you don’t know the technique for trapping floats *and* you knit continental – well – there just aren’t a lot of people out there who can show you how. Also (as I learned on Friday) true Coast Salish knitting requires that you trap the floats with every stitch, creating a backside to the fabric that is pebbled and where no strands are carried without being trapped – and there are no videos online that show that (but there will be soon). So I started out on the vest, trying at first to do a gauge swatch and trap the floats – and pretty much immediately got stuck. I just could not see it from the Fair Isle You Tube videos. Also, I was working with bulky yarn and big needles – something I found much harder than I thought I would – so rather than powering through, I set the whole thing aside and figured I’d get back to it next year.
Cue: Perfectly timed workshop.
Early last week I noted on Ravelry that Sylvia Olsen was coming to Vancouver to teach some Coast Salish knitting workshop *and* one of them happened to be on Friday night when I had nothing else planned. So I signed up (how could I not – that was stupidly fortuitous) and went over to Wet Coast Wools to learn about this knitting form that was so dominant in the place where I grew up. Sylvia got us started with the knitting project, and while we were doing the unstranded grey brim of the hat, told some of the story of her history with Coast Salish knitting, and the colonial relationship that it developed out of. So we learned both the style and some of the history of what is Canada’s *only* indigenous knitting practice (by which I mean something that emerged from Canada in a singular fashion, Coast Salish knitting is the fusion of European-brought knitting and Coast Salish weaving traditions).
While I can’t say that I trapped my floats perfectly – I think I’m only averaging every other one here:
I did start to get the hang of the technique and by the end of the class I had started the colourwork and was on the way to my hat. Saturday allowed me lots of knitting time and fueled by my desire to practice I powered through to a finish!
Not only that, I wore it out of the house on Sunday when I went to pick up chickens from our friends who raise meat-birds in the interior, and everyone in that little hunting/farming crew of ours were very impressed. It’s not hideous! But nor is it perfect.
Yesterday I pulled out the KAL project again and since we were having a lazy Sunday after errands, watching TV and eating moose meat tacos for dinner (such an easy thing now that we have a freezer full of the stuff) – I got lots of knitting time in to start off the project. Again, this has some issues – the bottom band cable got screwed up and I was well into the project before I noticed, and it’s hard to get even stockinette on large needles with bulky yarn – but it’s really just another piece on which to practice Coast Salish knitting techniques so that I can prep myself for a really large project like a sweater for Brian.
This vest requires that I knit and purl (it’s knitted flat) which mean that part of yesterday’s practice was figuring out how to trap the floats on the purl side – which I think I’ve got down now that I’m partway up the back panel of the vest.
Election watching at the bar tonight means that I’m not going to get anything done on this today – but I’m finding the colourwork process addictive – and I’m hoping that this panel will be finished by the end of this week (I’ve got a ferry ride to the island on Friday and one home on Sunday – that’s several hours right there!), plus Brian is out of town for a few days….. Not to get too carried away, but I could have this vest done before the end of October if I dedicate myself to it (and abandon my other sweater project for a couple of weeks)….
If you are interested in this style of knitting, or want to know more about Sylvia Olsen’s workshops, books, and stories – please check her out at her blog – she told us in class that she will be posting some technique videos to YouTube in the next couple of weeks – which I am looking forward to. In-person workshops are great, but videos really help to reinforce the learning.
As a final note, I want to acknowledge that the Coast Salish knitting techniques come out of a brutal colonial relationship which my people were a part of perpetuating in the interior of British Columbia (as homesteaders in Secwepemc territory), and which I perpetuate as a white person living on unceded native land. This does not erase the fact that I am from this land, and that Coast Salish knitting has a strong resonance for me and my family because is is such a place-based form of handwork – and so I learn it in respect of the people who have always lived here, and in the hopes that we can change future relationships through acknowledgement, reparations, and mutual governance of this place where we live.