A lot of effort and love goes into the knitting of the iconic Cowichan sweater, which is why it is imperative to ensure that the Indigenous artisans who create these authentic wearable art pieces receive a fair wage for their work.
On Oct. 19, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC) launched their new Indigenous-led enterprise called Knit at the Powerhouse in Victoria. This milestone for Indigenous artisans is committed to raising awareness on the importance of reclaiming Indigenous art, fair wages, and preserving the heritage of the culture and creation of Cowichan sweaters while sustaining heritage, and upholding the traditions of the Coast Salish people, they said in a press release.
“The Cowichan sweater is so much more than clothing,” said VNFC executive director Ron Rice. “It’s the passing down of culture, of telling stories and sharing traditions. It is this rich heritage that lives in every one of these sustainable treasures.”
These Indigenous sweaters come from the hands of Cowichan Tribes knitters, and are interwoven with the storytelling of Coast Salish culture. They first became popular with the settler community in the 1920s, during a period when Indigenous crafts were seen as valuable collectibles, quickly leading to large companies profiting off the misappropriation of Cowichan knitters.
While they say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, that is not how Indigenous knitters of Cowichan sweaters felt when their handmade creations were copied, using similar designs and inauthentic material in the 1950s, all while stealing the Cowichan name. Authentic Cowichan sweaters are made by Coast Salish artisans, using mountain goat and Salish woolly dog wool to knit sacred patterns. Any knock-offs are a knock down, they say, and disrespectful to First Nations knitters, not to mention a cultural exploitation of the true Cowichan sweater.
According to Rice, the average Cowichan sweater knitter only makes $1 an hour, so the launch of Knit will ensure that Indigenous artists are paid well for the work they do. VNFC will buy the sweaters directly from Cowichan knitters for $500, and sell them for $895. Rice said the proceeds will help design a curriculum which will explore business planning, distribution and e-commerce to allow knitters to become more entrepreneurial, as well as the option to take more control over their individual retail sales. To purchase a Cowichan Sweater at a fair price for the artists visit www.knitwithpurpose.com. Those who purchase Cowichan sweaters from Knit will be taking a stand against cultural appropriation, while wearing their sweater as a symbol of the movement.
“Properly compensating Coast Salish artisans for their work not only provides them with a quality of life but ensures the continuation and protection of the sacred designs that are passed down through generations,” said Rice. “I’m proud to be a part of this milestone initiative that ensures the social responsibility and authenticity of the unique craftsmanship that goes into every Cowichan sweater.”