Deep Dive - Nepenthes New York Cowichan Sweater
Welcome back to "DEEP DIVE." In this particular installation, we take a close-up look at the Nepenthes New York x Canadian Sweater Company Cowichan Sweater and Vest. These traditional items are made of 100% wool and feature a unique motif. But more than being cozy and warm, these items feature a deep history. As a product of colliding cultures, the Cowichan Sweater links cultures and traditions while continuing to serve as part of the connective tissue of a community.
The Cowichan Sweater is a type of knit garment crafted by the First Nation people of Canada's Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. These unique sweaters utilize an intricate and complex weaving technique - passed down and developed through generations - and feature designs which incorporate a range of motifs. No mass production techniques are involved in producing a Cowichan Sweater; every step is completed by hand.
The story of the Cowichan Sweater begins with the history of knitting. A method that uses needles to link together loops of yarn, knitting remains a cornerstone of modern clothing. Surfacing in the Middle East around 1000 AD, it stood apart from other ancient textiles, which were produced predominantly on heavy, fixed looms. The creation of knit garments required only yarn and needles, making it an ideal technique for the nomadic Arab tribes who populated the region at the time.
Knitting came to Europe via the Catholic Church. In 13th Spain, Christian royal families employed artisans from Al-Andalus - the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula - to craft liturgical garb. Over the next few centuries, knitting spread throughout the continent, controlled by secretive guilds that protected their coveted techniques and manufactured ornate stockings, girdles, and socks.
Among the various European regions that developed elaborate and unique methods, the knitting styles in the British Isles stand out for their innovation and technical performance. Amongst the thousands of fishermen, sailors, and dock workers who resided on the vast stretches of coastline in Scotland, England, and Ireland, wool sweaters became the garment of choice to protect against cold wind and rain. Knitting also served as a form of cultural expression, as Gansey, Fair Isle, and ultimately Aran knitting transformed into symbols of national identity.
Blanket weaving was a fixture of the Cowichan People for at least 300 years before the arrival of Europeans in North America. Made from mountain goat hair, these blankets were practical and served as a currency. However, in the 19th century, the numerous wool blankets Hudson's Bay Company produced rendered traditional blanket-making obsolete. In 1864, the Sisters of St. Ann opened a schoolhouse in Duncan, BC, teaching knitting to Indigenous girls. Returning to their community, these women combined traditional Indigenous weaving with European techniques, weaving traditional symbols into the goods they made. Knitting integrated into another culture, transforming once again.
Each step of the Cowichan Sweater manufacturing process is carried out locally, according to tribal methods. Associated more with individual households than the tribe, each family developed unique designs, ranging from orca, deer, and thunderbirds. The craft was passed through generations from mother to daughter.
Vancouver Island wool, rich in lanolin, the natural oils found in wool, is carded into thick yarn. The yarn isn't dyed, so sweaters only feature white, dark brown, and grey colors. As these garments are knit in the round as one tubular piece, the only seam is at the top shoulder. The sweater's motifs appear as each horizontal layer is completed, often repeating around the waist and shoulders. The thick wool and abundance of lanolin give Cowichan Sweaters water resistance that helps absorb body moisture while ventilating body heat. If taken care of properly, they can last a lifetime.
In the early 20th century, only the Cowichan people wore these sweaters. By the 1920s, the Canadian government began sending these items to fairs and exhibitions, kicking off business with non-Indigenous merchants in nearby Duncan, Victoria, and Vancouver. After decades of steady growth, its popularity took off worldwide in the 1970s, as the style became associated with the jet set class who frequented the ski lodges of the ritzy Whistler ski resort. Celebrities cemented the item's icon status after being donned by stars like Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and Steve McQueen.
In Japan, the Cowichan Sweater gained recognition through the pages of Ski Life magazine, a periodical printed by Heibosha (Magazine House), which would later become Popeye Magazine.
The items sold at Nepenthes New York - be it an in-house label like Engineered Garments or third-party manufacturers - are chosen for their character. Selection is made by looking at a product's spirit and essence. The Cowichan Sweaters made by Canadian Sweater Company fit perfectly with the Nepenthes New York perspective - authentic, unique, and practical. Each item is produced in Canada by local artisans and imparts a piece of the Cowichan people’s story. For this special makeup, Nepenthes New York chose a sweater and vest with a simple geometric pattern - commonly found among the earlier Cowichan designs - and a signature shawl collar.
Like any iconic piece of clothing, the Cowichan Sweater allows for constant rediscovery. The style of the times is constantly changing. This presents an opportunity to showcase a timeless work in a new way. Worn over a high-tech down vest, below a technical shell, or contrasted with dramatic colors or patterns, the saga of the Cowichan Sweater continues at Nepenthes New York.
Available in-store and online at nepenthesny.com.