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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interesting post! Sylvia's book Working with Wool is available here:
    She also has a new book out with Coast Salish-inspired patterns along with personal knitting essays: