CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 6 . . . . November 10, 2006
I once had a professor tell me that, if you can think about it, there is a children’s book that someone has written about it. Sylvia Olsen’s book, Yetsa’s Sweater, supports this notion. The Coast Salish people of British Columbia have been knitting Cowichan sweaters for over a century. The sweaters originate from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. Each sweater is one-of-a-kind and, as we learn from Olsen’s text, they are decorated with designs of special significance to the knitter or the intended recipient. In Yetsa’s Sweater, the new sweater is decorated with flowers, whales, waves, woolly clouds and blackberries—each design feature reflects a special part of the relationship that Yetsa shares with her grandmother.
In Yetsa’s Sweater, young Yetsa enjoys visiting with her grandmother and assisting with the various tasks associated with knitting Cowichan sweaters. While hand cleaning, washing, wringing, drying, teasing, carding, spinning and knitting the wool, Yetsa and her mother and grandmother share more than just a chore—they share the love that binds their three generations and the heritage in which they are all justifiably proud.
Yetsa is the granddaughter of the author. Yetsa’s real-life aunt, grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother have all made Cowichan sweaters.
Joan Larson’s pastel artwork contains richly colourful blues and greens that provide a visually interesting backdrop to the various browns, blacks, greys and whites that constitute the Cowichan sweaters. As well as evocative colours, the pastels are also conducive to deeply textured artwork with a realistic “feel” to it. Indeed, one can almost feel the sticky blackberry jam that Yetsa finds so delicious. One can almost feel the oily lanolin of the wool. The individual character of the human figures depicted in the book shine even more strongly through the artwork than the text. The inquisitive, vibrant personality of Yetsa is clearly evident, as is the patient, loving nature of Yetsa’s grandmother.
At book’s end, there are two pages of background information concerning Cowichan sweaters. Apparently, there are today only a few Coast Salish knitters still producing the sweaters. At ninety years of age, Yetsa’s great-grandmother is one of these select few. As such, this is a book of particular family significance to the author. It is so well written and so artistically illustrated, however, that it is a book that will appeal to a much wider audience. Olsen’s and Larson’s collaboration provides an interesting insight into a unique aspect of Canada’s diverse heritage.
Gregory Bryan teaches language and literacy courses in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.