What is a Cowichan Sweater? │ 5 Reasons Why Cowichan Sweaters are the Best

A wool cardigan sweater
My Cowichan style cardigan
If you've ever seen an authentic Cowichan sweater, in person, then you know what I mean when I say these are some of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I've ever seen.

If you're wondering what a Cowichan sweater is, keep reading.

Cowichan is the name of the tribe of Coast Salish First Nations of southwestern Vancouver Island, (of British Columbia, Canada) located in the Cowichan Valley. The tribe originally made their work from goat hair, sheep hair, or even dog hair.

When European settlers came and introduced knitting needles and sheep's wool to the Salish women, it changed the speed and technical details with which they could make them, along with a higher availability of wool. 

There's a great website that goes over their history in great detail diving into the Salish way of knitting and creating Cowichan sweaters. 

But here's the gist of it all: they're gorgeous.

Getting a true Cowichan, particularly a vintage one, will take research and the willingness to truly look at the wool of a vintage Cowichan to see the differences between them and modern knockoffs.

As with all fast fashion, the modern reproductions are cheap, made from low-quality wool, and are stitched together as quickly as possible. They may appear to be like a true Cowichan, but a feel of the wool, a check of the stitching and hardware, and you'll know the difference.

And if you're well-trained in the art of knowing vintage clothing, particularly wool, you'll be able to look at the piece and know instantly without even touching it, whether it's authentic.

Here's why vintage Cowichan sweaters are so magnificent.

They're beautiful: The detail and artistry behind true vintage Cowichans make them some of the most sought-after and valuable pieces. Much like that handmade vintage Aran wool of thick Irish sweaters, or the gorgeous wool of Nordic fair aisle sweaters and cardigans, the quality is second to none. There is beauty in quality. Wool that looks rich, thick, and literally pleasing to the eye doesn't compare to the modern, inexpensive, synthetic reproductions that are ubiquitous.

A close up of a wool sweater
They're real: Again, real wool looks nothing like modern wool (the way it's manufactured). Modern wool of fast fashion can have nice aspects to them, but they don't hold a candle to vintage wool. Real wool, wool that is rough, textured, and thick, is the wool to attain. Wool that feels greasy (due to the lanolin in the sheep's fur), is what you want to feel. Real is authentic. Authentic means quality. That's a Cowichan.

They're handmade: Most folks today don't own a single piece of handmade clothing in their closet. The talent and skill that goes into making clothing is already a lost art, but finding vintage handmade items is even more rare. Every day that goes by, we lose vintage clothing to time, moths and vermin eating into the material, fire, etc. So, if you can get yourself a vintage handmade wool item, preferably a Cowichan, you're getting something that is essentially disappearing. Modern small-batch clothiers do offer clothing like this sometimes, but those companies are few and far between. (Filson comes to mind.)

They're one of a kind: Back a hundred years ago, when the Salish women made their Cowichan sweaters, they were singularly made - meaning, they were one-of-a-kind items. So, you didn't run to Target, throw a Cowichan in the cart, and expect to see all of your friends wearing the same thing that season. One-of-a-kind is unique. And most vintage wearers find this highly preferential. Vintagers don't blend in, they stand out. They wear one-of-a-kind proudly.

They'll last a lifetime: That's the magnificence of doing something well. When you make something out of quality material, with an artist's touch, you've got something that lasts for a lifetime... if you take care of it. So, keep it tucked in a safe, dry, cool area, and make sure moths and other pests have zero access to the item. You're preserving history, here.

I happen to own a Cowichan-styled cardigan, probably made in the 1950s. I still need to find out if it's a real Cowichan. I think it could be because of the wool quality, but don't hold it against me if I'm wrong. I know many vintage sweaters were made with incredible quality that had nothing to do with being a Cowichan. And that could very well be what this is.

Did you know that in 2011, Canada made the Cowichan sweater an event of national historical significance? So much so that major modern labels had to remove the word "Cowichan" from their clothing titles that imitated the original? I mean, I love vintage Ralph Lauren, but that makes me happy they had to remove the word from their imitations. 

An image of a lightning zipper

I've sold many "Cowichan style" sweaters and cardigans, but none that have the original vintage quality that the original ones have.

Cowichan sweaters - and the Coast Salish people - deserve to have their items preserved as theirs. It's their history, hard work, design, and people's creation.

If you have the chance to own a vintage (or modern) Cowichan, take care of it, and wear it with pride. Research the history of the Cowichan on your own. There's even a Canadian documentary about it. Learn, read, listen to, and uncover what you can about the vintage Cowichan creations. They're the most beautiful sweaters (like the Irish and Nordic sweaters).

Because when you wear a Cowichan, you're wearing a work of art.

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