1113 Roll up the wool to win

Unravelling Canada: a Knitting Odyssey
by Sylvia Olsen

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2021
$24.95 / 9781771622868

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve

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When we moved west in 1962 my in-laws gave us Cowichan sweaters. In those beautiful, emblematic, warm AND water-resistant garments, we felt officially citizens of British Columbia. Over the years, as our children grew to adult size, we gave each of them their own Cowichan sweater, a West Coast family coming-of-age rite. And it wasn’t specifically West Coast; we lived in Vancouver, but their grandparents were in the Okanagan. Walking along a European road during her gap year, our eldest daughter was recognised as British Columbian because of her sweater.

Sylvia Olsen has written about sweaters before, notably in Working with Wool; a Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater, (2010) which received the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing and in the picture book Yetsa’s Sweater (2006) which was nominated for four prestigious children’s literature awards, both published by Sono Nis Press. The knitting odyssey was planned in collaboration with Diane Morriss of Sono Nis to promote Knitting Stories; Personal Essays and Seven Coast Salish-inspired Knitting Patterns (2014), but as she travelled Olsen found a whole other story emerging. She would have to write yet another book — this book.

Sylvia Olsen. Photo by Tex McLeod

Then, between the journey’s end and the book’s completion, disasters struck, first fire and then pandemic, Sono Nis suspended publication and the project seemed to be dead. Olsen attributes its rescue to the interventions of her husband and son, but I suspect her own reputation could be enough to attract other British Columbia publishers. Fortunately, Douglas & McIntyre stepped up with an offer to publish the book, and here it is: a book which takes the sweater far from home and into a wider national context. Knitters are revealed as textile artists and crafters, community boosters, and entrepreneurs. Canadian identity is discovered through knitting.

For six weeks in 2015 Olsen and her husband Tex drove their old red Dodge Caravan from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. In urban centres and small towns, Olsen presented workshops and met other knitters with whom she exchanged patterns, techniques, and above all stories. The experience turned out to be about much more than knitting.

Arriving in Saskatchewan, summer 2015. Tex McLeod phot0
Knitter Charlotte Williams and a Cowichan sweater. Courtesy Aboriginal Multi-Media Society

Acknowledging some controversy around the status of the Cowichan sweater as “Indigenous art,” the author claims it is “more than that. It has become an important icon in British Columbia. I maintain that if you want to teach BC history, the Cowichan sweater tells it all. It’s about contact and race relations, power, politics and passion, industry and economy, family, innovation, and survival.” So the sweater exemplifies an “interesting fusion of European and Indigenous skills and art.”

Part of the mystique comes “from the love and commitment of the people who buy and wear the sweaters.” This is good news for me; a non-knitter less by choice than by natural clumsiness, I come to the topic of Cowichan sweaters not as participant but as aficionado. I hasten to add — for the benefit of more creative readers — Olsen includes information about techniques, patterns, etc. as her Cowichan sweaters encounter other traditions such as Icelandic, Fair Isle or Aran.

That leads to another important aspect of this little book: witnessing the Coast Salish knitting tradition find its “rightful place in the bigger story of knitting traditions from around the world.”

A Cowichan sweater from the 1970s. Photo courtesy Pinterest

Olsen addresses the issue of cultural appropriation, but warns against “letting our sentimentality get in the way of good thinking.” For one thing, knitting was not traditional among Coast Salish women. Moreover, she goes on: “To cast a false protectionism over Indigenous women is to deny their roles as businesswomen and caretakers of their families. Reducing Coast Salish knitting to a tradition relegates Indigenous women to the past and diminishes their achievement of transitioning their handworking skills into the future.”

Olsen herself embodies the “fusion” she discusses in relation to the knitting. She was born in Victoria to a family of German, Scottish, English and Irish settler blood, with history in the Prairies. At 17, she married into the Olsen family in W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip First Nation), and remains part of the family long after her marriage to Carl Olsen ended. Her relationship to her mother-in-law Laura, who died in 2007, was especially close. At 63, she married Tex McLeod adding Ontario and more Scotland to the mix. And yes, Adam Olsen MLA is her son.

Sylvia Olsen at the Art Studio in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, June 2015. Tex McLeod photo

And so, along the trail of her Great Canadian Knitting Tour, she saw the Cowichan sweater take its place among other traditions and techniques. The book is part travelogue, part knitting history, part Antiques Knitting Roadshow, and part memoir. Olsen is a talented crafter and a knitting historian, but also a very practical business-person. Part of her discovery concerns the “unique roles yarn shops play in Canadian communities,” the yarn shop as a small business and a different sort of enterprise. “These businesses are not philanthropic. They are not charities. The owners are passionate businesswomen, smart and savvy. They know how to buy, sell, budget and promote.” The bottom lines include “artistic expression, education, cultural sharing and developing and supporting community.” These shop owners are most, if not all, women. So is it the female factor “that makes yarn shops examples of capitalism done differently, places where humanity leads, not the dollar”?

Perhaps. But Olsen also met male “mill owners who operate their companies with bottom lines that incorporate their determination to use Canadian wool, to adopt environmentally sustainable practices, and, most importantly, to keep age-old traditions alive.”

The book is crammed with people’s stories, encounters with kindred spirits, and appreciation of the Canadian landscape. The word “unravelling” in the title could mean a destruction, a discarding of something imperfect or no longer useful, but a knitter unravels in order to roll up and begin anew. In the course of her odyssey Sylvia Olsen unravels her view of the country, picks out preconceptions, adds some new design ideas, and rolls it back into material with which to craft a different way of looking at Canada.

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Phyllis Reeve in her 59-year-old Cowichan sweater, April 2021

Phyllis Parham Reeve writes about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications. She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. She co-founded the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina on Gabriola Island. More details than necessary may be found on her website. Editor’s note: Phyllis Reeve has reviewed books by P.K. Page (Margaret Steffler, ed.), Peggy Lynn Kelly & Carole GersonIain LawrenceMichael KlucknerJack LohmanMona FertigLara CampbellKen LumIan Hampton, and Robert Amos, among others.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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4 comments on “1113 Roll up the wool to win

  1. I love this. Sylvia’s books are treasures. I wish I’d been resourceful enough to repair my old Cowichan sweater, made by a woman of the Tsartlip First Nation in 1972.

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