________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 7 . . . . December 1, 2000

cover The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters.

Christine Welsh (Director and Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2000.
52 min., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9100 028.

Subject Headings:
Knitting-Social aspects-British Columbia-History.
Coast Salish Indians-Social conditions.
Inidan handicraft industries-British Columbia.

Grade 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Joan Payzant.

**** /4

The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters describes the origins of Cowichan sweaters, which have travelled to far corners of the world and which have been worn by such notables as former President Harry S. Truman and singer Bing Crosby.
    Originally, the Coast Salish aboriginal people of southern Vancouver Island were weavers of ceremonial blankets which utilized traditional native patterns. Since there were no sheep on the island, little woolly white dogs provided the wool. The first white settlers brought sheep whose wool was much sought after in its various natural colours - white, black, tans and greys. At a time when it was difficult to earn a living, women started knitting sweaters which they sold to in order to have money for food for their families. They worked extremely hard at their craft because they started from "scratch," first washing the fleece by hand and then picking out twigs, straw and other unwanted elements. Next came the difficult carding and hand spinning before the final washing and their being able, at last, to start the actual knitting.
    Not only the adult women knitted. Men, boys and girls learned the entire process just by watching their elders. Often the young people made toques or socks to earn money for themselves. Patterns were handed down through generations, patterns incorporating such elements as birds, animals of the woodlands, stars, snowflakes, clams and waves. Knitters would sometimes work all night when they were desperate for groceries. But, as so often happens, dealers exploited them. In Victoria, the knitters were paid $55 for a sweater which they would later see on the dealer's rack with a tag for $270. Since the wool, itself, cost $45, for all their labour the knitters only made $10.
    One brave woman tried to get a loan at a bank, but she had no success. She wanted to buy a carding machine which could supply 33 pounds of carded wool per hour. Bank officials would not listen to her request. So she simply sat in the bank until someone would talk to her. Although she did not get a loan, she was allowed to buy the machine on her credit card. It was successful in that the knitters could produce more sweaters at a greater rate, but the time they saved in carding was used for more knitting with the result that they were working harder than ever.
    Because of synthetic fabrics, there is not the demand for Cowichan sweaters today, but they are still popular with aboriginals, selling well at gatherings like potlatches or canoe races. There is happy footage of canoe races on the video, showing native built canoes each with several paddlers in stiff competition. As an eastern Canadian, I was intrigued by the contrast to our local war canoe races which take place between boat clubs. Here, the long canoes are factory produced, and the paddlers are members of local boat clubs with few if any of Nova Scotia's aboriginal people taking part.
    The older women who were interviewed on this video had beautiful, wise faces, their serenity mirroring their philosophy of life. For years, they have relied on their knitting when money was scarce, and this work ethic, too, has been passed on to their children. However, today many young people are opting for higher education, such as lawyer Lydia Hwitsum, daughter of one of the knitters. With a little twinkle, Lydia acknowledges that, if she finds it difficult to make a living in her profession, she, too, could fall back on knitting - which luckily is not apt to happen.
    This is an excellent video, showing first of all how ingenuity solved the problem of feeding families. Secondly, it illustrates the respect family members learn for each other as they work together to make an industry successful.

Highly recommended.

Joan Payzant, a former teacher-librarian living in Dartmouth, NS, has always loved to knit.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364