Help 'Salish Indian Sweaters' Get Republished

Picking tomatoes, bein' cozy. Photo: Nick Eliuk aka Dad

Cowichan sweaters are a Canadian icon. When I was very little, my mother diligently ensured I was swathed in the thick, waterproof, warm wool that has become part of Canadian heritage. Sadly, both the hat and sweater left my possession before I was old enough to appreciate or even now remember them.

Growing up in the greater Vancouver area in B.C., we often went to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. I remember going into the gift shop and looking up at the display of Cowichan sweaters, and wishing to have one some day. I figured a $400 sweater was likely never in my future, and reserved that pining away in the gift shop was as close as I'd ever get.

"Originally built in 1889, Capilano Suspension Bridge stretches 450 feet (137m) across and 230 feet (70m) above Capilano River" Photo: Jennifer Eliuk

Fast forward 15 years and possessing solid knitting skills, I started pining away to make my own. I would find a pattern, make my own design, find the most legit wool possible and knit up one of these bad boys! Any knitter that's started researching these books very quickly learns that there is just one book that explains the traditional techniques used by Cowichan knitters, Salish Indian Sweaters by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts. This book has been out of print for a number of years now, and is very hard to find. I've seen it on Amazon for $150, and some libraries carry it. 

In February, I once again stood in front of the display of sweaters at the Capilano Suspension Bridge. "Are these made by Cowichan knitters?"

"Yes they're handmade in Vancouver!" the clerk replied. "But are they First Nations knitters?" I asked again. She had no idea and didn't try to find out. In my bag was Priscilla's working copy of her much beloved, out of print book.

The gift shop at the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Photo: Jennifer Eliuk

A couple of days after my visit to the bridge and all its newest attractions - the treetops adventure, the cliffwalk - I took the ferry out of Tsawwassen and headed to Duncan. I was invited to crash a grade five field trip, and one does not turn down the chance to be 12 again. A class from Kitsilano had studied First Nations history all year, and wanted to host the Cowichan knitters for tea. We shared Nanaimo bars, of course, and the children showed their sweater designs.

The kids show the Cowichan knitters their designs. Photo: Jennifer Eliuk

A few of the local knitters showed up, and they looked through Priscilla's book. Some had heard of it but not seen it before, one knitter was 15 and it was new to her. 

Priscilla and her editor and friend, Deb Robson, really want to republish this book. Deb has already done a tremendous amount of work to get this done, but we'll need some help to finish it up and make the second edition a reality.

Current status of the reprint:

  • All the text has been converted and given an initial editing, and Priscilla has written new material on designing respectfully within the tradition.
  • The initial design for the interior has been completed in InDesign.
  • All the charts (from the previous edition and the new additions) have been redone in Illustrator for clear, print-quality images - so the new edition will be especially easy to use and refer to.

This is a substantial accomplishment by Deb! 

What needs to happen next:

  • The original photos were all shot on film, and the negatives are all stored together without contact sheets. Contact sheets need to be made to locate the original images used in the book, and scanned digitally for ease of reproduction in today's technology. Cost to do this is approximately $700.
  • It's foreseeable that the 30 year old images may not be high enough quality in some cases to use in a second edition, therefore we plan on taking new pictures to supplement where necessary.
  • Priscilla would like to write a new foreword updating readers about the newest generation of Cowichan knitters and how they're keeping their tradition alive. I hope to interview them to provide some of these details.
  • Once it's complete, we need to get the book to a publisher: arrange for the book's publication, either through another publisher or through an independent effort.

Cost to take new pictures will be low, since I plan on shooting these pictures myself, however it would be great to get some of the travel expenses covered (ferry, hotel in Duncan, etc.). My camera is adequate but not optimal (a much loved Canon 40D), so I may rent a camera for this. 

Although I live in Denver, Colorado now, I'll be spending a couple of months this spring at my parents' house in Bellingham, Washington. It's during this window that I'll travel back to the island for the photos and interviews.

Deb is putting together the details of the budget to get this book completed, and we plan on firing up a fundraising campaign to help. When that's ready I'll publish more information here on my blog, and will get the word out with knitters every way I know how. 

The book is about 70% ready for republishing right now, and we don't need much to get it done. I have no doubt that there are enough knitters interested in having this book available again, in an updated second edition, that we can raise a small amount of funds. The book will be much more accessible to people and will keep these techniques documented.