A few months ago, my friend, Joan, gave me a book, Sylvia Olsen's Working With Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater. These world renowned garments have a complex and interesting history, as do the women who make them. Coast Salish people once wove heavy blankets of two ply mountain goat and dog hair. These blankets were important, if not the most important, cultural products of the people. The blankets were used in potlatch ceremonies, giveaways and rites of passage; they held great cultural significance. Blankets became trade items as contact with the Spanish and British grew, but colonization and efforts to assimilate indigenous peoples brought an end to their production. Salish women took pride in keeping their hands busy and in working with wool; when the settlers introduced knitting to the West Coast of British Columbia and the United States, Salish women adopted knitting as their own and developed a style of sweater that became known as the Cowichan. These sweaters, made from thick hand spun singles wool, became a way to support their families as government policies drove the peoples further and further into poverty.
Ms. Olsen has a unique perspective on the history of these sweaters: she married into a Coast Salish family, lives among the people and has been active in the production, repair and marketing of the sweaters for decades. The book, published in 2010, is based on her Master's Thesis and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in hand spinning, weaving, knitting or the history of indigenous peoples in Canada. (Salish Indian Sweaters, by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, is another informative book on the history and making of these sweaters; however, as a member of the Coast Salish community, Ms. Olsen is able to offer insights unavailable to Ms. Gibson-Roberts.)
Coast Salish never received full benefit from their sweaters. Although certain traders were known for their fair payments and respectful treatment of the knitters, many traders took advantage of the knitters' need to support their families. The traders could be abusive and deceitful, offering far less than a sweater was worth, refusing to purchase sweaters made from wool not supplied by the traders or offering barter only. As the popularity of and demand for the sweaters grew, the knitters found themselves further behind. According to Ms. Olsen, what really struck a blow to the making of these sweaters was that same popularity - Salish knitters had to compete with cheaper imitation sweaters. Rather than work with their own designs and traditions, markets demanded homogeneity. Knitters would be required to knit hundreds of sweaters with the same designs, using wool imported from New Zealand and Australia, rather than their own home grown wool. Many of the knitters lost heart; their creativity stifled, they put down their needles and refused to teach their daughters to spin or to knit.
One of the passages which impressed me most in the book occurs when Elizabeth, a knitter, brings a sweater to Ms. Olsen for sale. Ms. Olsen was disconcerted by the "distinctly lop-sided series of snowflakes she had knit as her main design (p. 261)." The exchange that follows is worth quoting in full:
"I know what you're looking at," she [Elizabeth] said. "You think I've made a mistake."
"Yeah," I said. I was uncomfortable criticizing Elizabeth's work. She was a respected elder in the community and a good friend of mine. She laughed. "You see, the thing with you people," she said, referring to my whiteness, "is that you always want everything perfect. Everything has to be buttoned down so there's no place to move. You don't like any muss, any fuss. Any little thing out of place and you start squirming." . . . "You see, in our world," she said, referring to her nativeness, "we purposely leave a coloured stitch knit out of the order of the pattern or something like that. We don't call it a mistake. It's a window. It's where spirits come and go. That's why our sweaters are so comfortable. People can feel it. Our knitting isn't all stuck up and tight. You close things up so tight, so perfect they can't breathe." (pp. 261-262. Emphasis mine.)
Of all the things which I took from this book, the idea that demand for perfection stifles creativity strikes close to my heart. These days, we allow little margin for error in any aspect of life; in the age of social media, where everything is instant and global, where humans are publicly mocked for mistakes they make precisely because they are human, it would be wise to remember Elizabeth's words. Allowing ourselves and others freedom to be creative and express our artistic visions, especially when we don't agree with them, will not degrade our world. Rather, accepting a multitude of possibilities will expand our horizons and enrich our abilities.
If you're looking for a good read this summer, or any time of year, find yourself a copy of Sylvia Olsen's book. Along with the video below, it offers insight into an ever changing culture and its beautiful work. Enjoy.