Nov 11, 2010

Cowichan Sweater Makeover

When I was a kid growing up on Vancouver Island (hereafter referred to as "The Island" as Islanders call it), we were forced to wear itchy but unbelievably warm "Cowichan" sweaters, which are either knit by, or based on patterns created by, the native band on the Island. The distinctive hand-knit Cowichan sweaters are knit from thick wool in natural colours — brown, grey, cream and black — like the one pictured at left. They generally have geometric repeating patterns or simple animal designs. Authentic Cowichan sweaters (usually knit by Cowichan women) are expensive to buy new because they're knit by hand. (Which I totally understand: If I knit a sweater by hand and sold it, I'd have to sell it for about $3,000 to make it worthwhile. Knitting takes so freaking long.)

Cowichan sweaters are also bulky by definition because the yarn used to create them is so thick and dense. That's what makes these sweaters so warm. A Cowichan sweater is about all you need to withstand the mild winters where I grew up.

Lately I've been nostalgiac for a Cowichan sweater. There's something very ugly-yet-pretty about a nice Cowichan sweater that says "Screw it, I'm going to be warm. Too bad for you if you can't see my boobs." But, of course, living in New York City and being on a there's-still-a-recession-going-on budget, there's no way for me to find my own used Cowichan. I could knit my own, but (as earlier noted) that would take me until 2012. A quick scan on eBay turns up a few nice examples of authentic Cowichan sweaters — not cheap — and a whole bunch of factory-produced Cowichan-style sweaters that sellers also refer to as "Lebowski sweaters."

Lucky for me, I have great friends. And lovely Sarah found me the above sweater at a thrift store in Victoria. It wasn't super cheap but a steal compared to buying one new, or investing the time to make my own. Many Cowichan sweaters are cardigan-style, with a zipper closure in the front. After trying on this one, I remembered why: they're so hot! And you need to be able to open up the front so you don't die of heat stroke. Coupled with some inspiration from this great blog Grosgrain, whose author teaches how to turn a regular sweater into a cardigan, I decided to have a little faith in my abilities and turn my Cowichan into a cardigan so I could get on with wearing it already.

The Results 
It wasn't easy, and all the while I was chanting in my head "measure twice, cut once" — the mantra of carpenters and anyone slicing into something that could entirely unravel with one false move. All I used to make the transformation was some double-fold bias tape and a bunch of buttons. I decided against putting in a zipper because I didn't think my sewing machine could handle it. The sweater is really thick and I had to really ram it through to get the feed to work.

I also took in the sides somewhat to get a less boxy fit. I'm hoping to buy a real camera soon to improve upon the photos I post here (and portraits of my daughter). Law & Order SVU scouted our apartment this week for a shoot later this month and I'm hoping to convince my husband to invest our compensation in a quality camera. More sweater:


  1. Nicely done. Wish I could find a good one.

    My mother is Cowichan, she taught me to knit these sweaters. Countless hours were spent sitting by her side. No words were spoken simply "watch" was all that was said. I enjoyed your story.



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