Monday, April 22, 2013

Cowichan Sweater class with Barb Brown

Vogue Knitting Live held its first event in Seattle this year and I heard about it early enough to sign up for a day long class on knitting Cowichan sweaters. The class was taught by Barb Brown and even though I was ten minutes early for the class I missed Barb's introduction of herself. When I walked in she had already started and I understand the need to start early when there is so much material and knitting to do for each student.

Front of vest
Cowichan sweaters are a Canadian national treasure. They are iconic and known world-wide. I've wanted my own Cowichan sweater ever since I moved to Neah Bay and attended my first Makah Days celebration where at least one First Nations family travels from Canada every year to sell Cowichan sweaters, hats, and slippers. The sweaters are hardy outerwear made with thick, natural colored wool knit on needles smaller than what would usually be used in order to give the fabric a tight weatherproof construction. The sweaters are a continuation of Northwest traditional fiber arts with design motifs inspired by woven blankets, baskets, and Coastal art.

Barb gave us small skeins of bulky yarn from Custom Woolen Mills and I was surprised to learn that the yarn was actually 6 "plies" of roving, which is fiber that has yet to be spun into yarn. Every time you knit or crochet, the action of working with the yarn introduces twist (or takes it away) into the yarn. Since the yarn is not spun yet, whatever style of knitting you perform creates a twist in one direction or the other, and the thicker the unit of fiber the less twist is needed to keep the fibers together.

Barb is also a pattern designer and gave us a pattern for a toddler sized vest that we used to make a teddy bear-sized vest. The thunderbird design came from a basket that was given to her mother (or grandmother?) and she told us that we could use the design however we wanted since she created it. I think she tried to be careful to teach us that what we were doing is making Cowichan-type sweaters since it is important for people to recognize and acknowledge authentic Cowichan work.

Inside of vest
I knit in the continental style, which means I hold the yarn in my left hand and I have attempted to do colorwork before. I think I had forgotten that colorwork is not really easy to manage for me because of how color changes and tucking in non-working yarn means that I have both the main color and accent color in my left hand. I'm sure with more practice I could learn how to manage the strands while knitting in the style that I'm used to, or suck it up and learn how to knit with both hands. My hands and arms began to hurt because the yarn is so thick and the fabric is knit tightly. I can really appreciate how strong the hard-working woman are, and they must develop an amazing stamina to be able to finish an adult sweater so quickly. A morning of knitting and I was ready to go to lunch a little early. I knew that if I pushed myself I wouldn't be able to enjoy knitting in the afternoon.

It was very important that we knit enough to be able to learn how to do the amazing Cowichan 3-needle bind-off, which is a technique that Barb said she hasn't seen develop anywhere else. Barb's pattern includes written instructions but I could see why learning it in person would be much easier. The bind-off is worked on the shoulder seam from the shoulder in towards the neck and it creates a double braid that is visible from the front side of the sweater.

The shawl collar was not the correct scale for such a small garment and I will have to undo it and put something else on. Students groaned when they realized what the collar would look like, which was a very wide lapel. It was a sour note to end the class on but I think the 3-needle bind-off was worth it and I now want to see how it would work on the toe of a sock.

Vogue Knitting Live had a marketplace and I bought a book that I had been meaning to get called Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater written by Sylvia Olsen. She gave a talk about the book at Knit Fit last November and I wasn't able to buy the book from her. This is a wonderful book for lovers of Cowichan sweaters. She gives a good history on Northwest traditional fiber work. I haven't been able to read the whole thing yet and this weekend I gave it to Lila, who also fell in love with the book instantly. Once I find another copy I'm sure that I will read it cover to cover.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Aunt Lila's First Class

The view at Cape Flattery
When I moved to the Makah reservation in Neah Bay I was 14 and had been living in arctic Canada for a few years. Moving back to America and to a small, fairly isolated town at that age was hard and suddenly all the practice I had moving and making friends didn't help me fit in. We felt like we didn't have an accent but Neah Bay gets a lot of tourists so they asked us "Are you from Canada, eh?". Mary was in the class a grade below mine and we became best friends. It didn't take long for me to start calling her parents aunt and uncle and for us to refer to each other as cousins.

Mary's mother Lila is a kind, quiet woman full of love and stories. Lila taught me how to make pie crusts (I just remember one trade secret) and made every generous meal a cooking lesson. She worked or volunteered at the head start and would send Mary and I on frog-hunting adventures. She would drive us in her yellow VW Beetle down logging access roads and spot the frogs while staying near the car, yelling at us "Oh there's one! Oh, get it get it!". She would also take us for walks along Neah Bay's beautiful beaches and take us berry picking in the forests.

A couple of years ago Lila bought a used Ashford Traveller and she told me that as a child she would sit at her mother's feet and move the treadles while her mother spun yarn for sweaters. The wheel she bought had a few small pieces missing, the flyer was a couple millimeters too short and kept popping out of the maidens, and the wheel had a chunk of wood missing.

I planned a small class at the end of January with the help of Judith MacKenzie and my friend Lynda. I had specific people in mind that I wanted to teach how to spin: Mary, Lila, and Tanya. Judith donated her time and for the first class I wanted us to focus teaching on Lila. We held the class at the Makah Marina, it has a small kitchen and large windows with a wonderful view of the bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I was planning on giving Tanya my first wheel, a Louet S17 kit, but Tanya was unable to attend. The wheel Lila bought wasn't working so the Louet went home with her. Mary was too sick and stayed home and my friend Marisa went to Neah Bay with Lynda and I in her place.

Lila was so excited to finally learn how to spin and when she gets excited she cooks. She made so much wonderful food: elk stew, clam chowder, tuna sandwiches, a veggie plate with dip, cookies, pie, and cake. During lunch she told us the funniest story about a rooster that would come inside for coffee at breakfast.  

After lunch we were surprised to see a new student arrive. One of my brothers, Dwight, lives in Neah Bay and works with his friend Ringo as part of the spill response team. Lila's husband told Ringo about the class and Ringo told his wife Christen. I didn't know that Christen would be interested in learning how to spin and she took to it right away and told Judith that she wants to learn because it is a part of her heritage. Dwight came by and hung out and watched us spin. He knows how to build strip canoes and I would love to convince him to help build spindles or wheel parts someday.

Judith teaching Lila how to spin on a Louet S17
 I showed Lila the long draw method that I recently learned and it was fun being her teacher. It felt like the roles that we've had for so many years had suddenly been reversed and I enjoyed seeing another side of her personality. She asked great questions that I don't have the answers for yet. She was so happy to finally get a good introduction to spinning and was excited to practice at home. I called after the class was done and she told me that her goal is to spin enough yarn for 3 Cowichan sweaters.

Marisa learning how to spin on Judith's Jensen wheel
Neah Bay and the marina would make an awesome location for a spinning retreat. Lynda, Marisa, and I stayed at a 2-room hotel that is built upon the site of the house that my family rented when we lived in Neah Bay. Our landlord told me that there was a portion of a dog hair blanket that was stored in the attic, sadly it was thrown away. Our room was on the second floor which meant we were sleeping near where the blanket was stored.

I went home excited and inspired to become a spinning instructor so that I could teach more people and offer classes to more people in Neah Bay and elsewhere. And now the obsession with Cowichan knitting begins because so far the women that want to learn how to spin want to learn to make yarn for Cowichan sweaters.

A lot has happened since this first class: I have a bulky flyer and bobbins for the Louet, I took a Cowichan sweater class, and I have a new wheel. I'll try to write about the new equipment and fiber soon, but for now Mary is finally well enough to go home and we're going this weekend. Looking forward to going back to one of my hometowns.