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Sweater season: A documentary about the iconic Cowichan knitwear is up for a screen award

The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy has been nominated for the Best Documentary Program award at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards

Mary Galloway had never really thought about filming a documentary.

The actor and director of mixed Cowichan and settler descent, who grew up in Qualicum Beach but lives in Winnipeg, had been busy the past few years with a web series and other film work.

But when the Victoria Native Friendship Centre reached out to discuss the possibility of Galloway directing a documentary about their new line of authentic Cowichan sweaters, she found herself drawn in.

The project was originally supposed to be a one-minute commercial for Cowichan sweaters.

Ron Rice, executive director of the friendship centre, said the centre had hired a local company, Ecologyst Films, to make the commercial.

At their first meeting, a creative director from Ecologyst films burst into the boardroom a few minutes late, saying he had an update.

“Isn’t this our first meeting? How could you have an update?” Rice recalled saying to him.

As it turned out, a producer had just reached out to him asking around for projects that would fit into the CBC’s Absolutely Canadian TV show.

“And he said, ‘Well, I’m on my way to this meeting. I haven’t met them yet, but here’s what they’re trying to do,’ ” Rice said. “He didn’t tell [the producer] it was a one-minute commercial, but she loved the idea.

“They gave us the green light in less than a week.”

CBC’s only request was to try and find a Cowichan filmmaker for the project, he said.

Rice put out feelers in the community, and ended up contacting Galloway, whose grandfather, the late Cowichan Chief Dennis Alphonse, Rice had worked with for many years.

During a meeting over Zoom, the two quickly bonded over a photograph that Galloway had of her grandfather wearing a Cowichan sweater.

“I just felt like it all aligned,” said Galloway.

That sweater would play a prominent role in the resulting 44-minute film, The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy, which has been nominated for the Best Documentary Program award at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, set for May 31.

The film tells the story of Galloway’s quest for a Cowichan sweater knit in the same pattern as her grandfather’s, touching on the history and importance of the garment to the Cowichan sweater knitters themselves.

Considered a Canadian symbol — the sweater was given a national historically significant designation in 2011 — Cowichan sweaters have been gifted to dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II and have been worn by prime ministers from Diefenbaker to Trudeau.

Over the years, the sweater, developed through the intermingling of Coast Salish wool-working traditions and European techniques, has become a fashion statement.

Now The Cowichan Sweater is telling the less-known stories of the Coast Salish knitters who make the iconic garments.

Much of Galloway’s film is set in the homes of South Island knitters with the backdrop of knitted blankets, toques and laughter.

It features a wide range of Salish knitters, from elders who recall the arduous process of hand-washing wool with water heated by fire to teenagers just starting to learn the craft.

Galloway initially worried there wouldn’t be enough knitters to interview, due to the dwindling number of people practising the craft.

In the end, however, she met so many knitters in May and April of last year that she had to leave some interview content out of the final cut. She’s now working on a director’s cut so that everyone’s story can be heard.

Galloway said it’s rare to see more than one Indigenous person in film-production leadership roles, let alone an all-Indigenous, majority Cowichan film crew.

“People will come in, see a Nation, want to tell their story and just write it to fit the narrative they want,” she said. “They end up not really being the same story that [was] told because there’s so many edits.”

For this project, she and producer Tiffany Joseph often referred to themselves as story caretakers. “We’re not the owners of the story. We are there to support it and we’re there to voice this story for the community,” Galloway said. “It doesn’t belong to us — it belongs to the knitters.”

To get the ball rolling and to announce their presence, the crew threw a party at the Si’em Lelum gym in Cowichan at the start of the filming period last April, inviting community members to show up in Cowichan sweaters. (It’s now referred to in the community as Cowichan Sweater Day and some hope it becomes an annual event.)

For the next couple of months, the crew simply started interviewing every knitter they could find.

“I really did trust-fall into the knitters and what they were going to say to me. I had a very broad idea of what the story would be, but I didn’t really have a script like most filmmakers,” Galloway said.

Sometimes, the crew would start the morning with only the faintest idea of their schedule. “We really were flying by the seat of our pants.”

When a potential subject’s landline wasn’t picked up or if no one answered the door, the crew would just have to wait and try again another time. “These are a lot of elder knitters,” Galloway said.

A cottage industry emerges

Those who have studied the history of Cowichan sweaters, including the late CBC Answer Lady Margaret Mielke and North Saanich-based knitting historian and author Sylvia Olsen, have written about how the industry originated as a response to declines in the traditional Coast Salish economy after European settlement.

Coast Salish people adapted their wool-weaving traditions — which some have traced back to the 15th century— to European knitting techniques and tastes, with the distinctive Cowichan sweater style emerging out of that in the early 20th century. The sweaters quickly grew to become a cottage industry.

Prized for their warmth and durability, many of the early sweaters were worn by military members serving in the First World War. Diaries from that time note that a Cowichan sweater was an easy way to identify Canadian officers serving overseas.

Sweater production would become a lifeline for many Coast Salish families in the economic depression of the 1930s, though the settler-dominated industry often exploited the knitters. One written record from 1909 cites a peddler trading whiskey for sweaters on Kuper Island.

It was not uncommon for middlemen to broker the sale and purchase of both the sweaters and the wool needed to make them — and to force knitters to receive a portion of their proceeds in wool, a practice that continued well into the late 20th century.

In a paper on the importance of sweater knitting to Coast Salish families, Olsen — mother of B.C. Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands Adam Olsen — noted that families were citing knitting as a means of making ends meet well into the 1980s.

That history is well-known to Joseph, the film’s executive producer, who hails from the W̱SÁNEĆ, Squamish and the Cowichan.

Her grandmother, Geraldine Underwood, neé Thorne, supported 15 children through knitting, she said. “My grandma had to sell her sweaters and they were selling for pennies, really, when you consider how much labour went into them.”

It was often the only way to make money. “Canadians didn’t want to hire Indigenous people,” she said. “Even when Indigenous people were entrepreneurs — like my grandfather, he was a fisherman — they wouldn’t buy goods from Indigenous people.”

Charles “Chuck” Henry, a Penelakut First Nation member with Pauquachin and Cowichan Nation heritage, learned how to knit at the age of 10 from his older sister and grandmother, who herself learned at the age of eight.

He was teased by his grandfather when first learning the craft, said Henry, who attended Kuper Island residential school.

He persisted, however, and by the time he was 17, he’d done a whole sweater by himself, he said in a March interview at his home, knitting needles and a half-finished sweater in hand.

Henry stopped knitting for 20 years but picked it up again in 2010 to make a long sweater for his niece. It was well received and he hasn’t stopped knitting since.

That first sweater was a bit of a trial and error process. “The first sweater I made was way too big, so I had to tear it down, start all over and then it was way too small,” he said with a smile.

These days, he can often be found in the Inner Harbour selling his wares. He said he enjoys seeing people wearing his creations.

“To see people’s reaction when they put their sweaters on for the first time, or [their] slippers, that’s good enough for me.”

One of his earliest customers sends annual photos of her and her daughter wearing his sweaters at ski resorts across the world, he said.

He also knitted slippers for half a dozen patients in the Duncan Hospital cancer ward after a nurse came looking for a way to help alleviate cold feet.

Henry said he knits when he has trouble sleeping and has brought his knitting needles to a hockey game at least once. “To me, it’s just relaxing. It keeps my mind occupied, because dealing with depression is not an easy thing.”

It all comes down to wool

One problem facing Cowichan sweater knitters is the rising cost of wool — up by 20 per cent in just the past year to about $24 a pound.

There are also only a handful of places in B.C. where you can buy carded sheep wool.

Vancouver Island’s last wool mill, located in Central Saanich, closed in 2020, and most of the wool used by Coast Salish knitters is now processed out of a mill in Alberta.

“I pray that mill never ever breaks down, because what are we going to do without them?” Cowichan knitter May Sam — who still remembers when a pound of wool cost only $4 — says in the documentary.

For several decades, knitters in the Cowichan Valley had close and easy access to carded wool through Sarah Modeste, who opened a carding mill on Koksilah reserve in 1978.

According to Olsen’s book Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater, Modeste Wool Carding didn’t make much money but it helped transform the Cowichan sweater industry as it did away with the need for knitters to hand-card their own wool.

It would become the largest wool producer in B.C. a few years after it was established.

But as the sweaters gained more renown, cheap imitators, reproductions by non-native manufacturers and international market pressures ended up driving many Coast Salish wool workers out of the sweater industry altogether, Olsen wrote.

The Modeste mill closed about a decade ago. The old carding machine has rusted away after the Crofton warehouse where it used to be housed was rented out to supplement Modeste’s retirement income.

Ironically, the raw fleece has been at near historic price lows in recent years. Prices slid more than 65 per cent between 2018 and 2023. Island sheep farmers have said that burning or composting wool is sometimes more financially prudent than shipping it to Alberta or Ontario for processing.

Meanwhile, Cowichan sweater knitting is making a comeback of sorts. It got a boost when a Cowichan sweater lookalike from Hudson’s Bay Company was chosen to serve as the official team Canada outwear in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

The decision to choose an offshore-manufactured sweater over genuine Cowichan craft caused a furor among the Cowichan Tribes, who threatened legal action.

The renewed attention brought back knitters like Henry who had put down their needles decades ago due to the lack of economic viability. The goal is to see sweaters for a price that’s closer to their true value so that experienced knitters can make more than a couple of dollars an hour, through efforts like the Victoria Native Friendship Centre’s new online outlet.

Henry is also trying to bring a carding machine back to the Island so knitters can have access to Island-carded wool once again. A single machine — not including an industrial spinner — can cost $100,000 and there is a long waiting list from the only manufacturer in Eastern Canada that makes the equipment.

When the documentary was filmed last year, Henry was optimistic about the process, telling Galloway that he had found a possible property for the future mill and had lined up five sheep farms on Vancouver Island that would be interested in participating.

But after experiencing a health issue that landed him in the hospital earlier this year, Henry has put the plan on hold. “Maybe through this [story], it’ll encourage somebody younger and healthier to really look at getting a carding machine in Duncan,” he said.

Knitters rally for the cause

Since The Cowichan Sweater aired on CBC Gem in October, Galloway said that people have been reaching out to offer whatever support they can provide for Cowichan sweater knitters so the practice can continue into future generations.

Knitters, in particular, have rallied together for the cause, she said. “I had no idea that the knitting community was so strong and loud.”

A Vancouver yarn store, Baaad Anna’s, now has an option for customers to buy a spool of wool for Cowichan sweater knitters when they pay for their purchases.

Owners of a wool mill in Winnipeg have offered to share their expertise with anyone who wants to start up their own operation.

The principal of Galloway’s old high school, Kwalikum Secondary, has reached out to discuss adding the documentary to their curriculum, she said.

One of the last scenes in The Cowichan Sweater is of Galloway casting-off for her own sweater.

Despite the stifling May heat, she tries it on. The two Salish knitters who knit the sweater catch her in an embrace.

Asked how that moment felt, Galloway took her time in answering.

“It was breathtaking. I felt like I was home.”

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