Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cowichan Sweaters-- A New Challenge

I don't think I would define myself as a hardcore collector-- even my stash is (I swear) very manageable. But there are four things of which I have modest collections: chopsticks, knitting needles (I mean fun, old ones, in addition to the ones I actually work with), quilts and... wait for it...


Yep. I have quite a bit of ink. This might sound like a stretch but I like my tattoos in a way similar to how I like my knitting. Both begin with an idea and a picture or a sketch, one that immediately evokes a sense of joy and excitement. Both carry stories with them-- I can tell you where I was when I knitted this or that, and I can tell you the significance of each of my tats.

I especially love it when the two worlds collide. These days I see one tattoo artist exclusively-- Bart Willis at Southside Tattoo in Austin. You might not think that a tattoo artist in Texas would have any interest in knitting. But consider that Bart is a Canadian transplant and then the equation changes. He spends his summers working in Western Canada and this affords him legitimate opportunities to wear wool in July. Once, long ago, I made him a nice thick hat for his Northwest summer adventures.

A few weeks ago to celebrate my 49th birthday, I visited Bart and got a new tattoo-- a piece of artwork my son drew when he was ten and we were on a trip to Japan. The image is extremely significant to me and reflects growth, change, adventure and, of course, love of my son.

While I sat in the chair getting worked on, Bart asked me if I knew about Cowichan sweaters. I did not. But I whipped out my iPad when the needles weren't moving and did a quick search. Turns out Cowichan is the name of a First Nations Tribe and the sweaters are well known in southeastern Vancouver Island. Even if you never heard the name, it's possible you've seen the distinct style, which often features animals native to the area.

The more we talked the more excited I got. And then, before you know it, I had happily committed to making Bart his own Cowichan sweater, the one pictured above, featuring Killer Whales, an image Bart often tattoos on people. In fact, if there were a Guinness Book of World Records record for most Orcas tattooed on people, Bart would be the record holder. Pretty cool, right-- how I walk in a place for some ink and I come out with new knitting knowledge.

Bart started researching patterns and this in turn led us to Carol, who has an Etsy shop called Rain Coast Studio.  Carol patiently fielded my ten gazillion questions as we strived to come up with just the right color combo an determine if there was a pattern the right size for Bart who is not quite as big as Sasquatch but could maybe be his little brother. Finally, all that was settled. I expect the kit to arrive any day now. I am super excited that it contains Canadian wool, which I first heard about when I read a tribute to Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle, mother to Rufus Wainwright (whom I adore) in the New York Times.

Apparently Kate liked to use scratchy Quebec wool to make Norwegian sweaters. When I was on a trip to Canada last summer, over in the east in the maritimes, I was in a whale-watching town called St. Andrews and there I came across Cottage Craft, a yarn and craft shop that's been around forever. I picked up some semi-scratchy wool of my own which I've knitted into a fabulous swatch and am about to knit into a full-on sweater pattern I've been thinking about for a few years now. I mean, this wool knits up beautifully, as in I want to buy a mountain of it just to have on hand.

But first, before I get to that other sweater and the imagined mountain of Cottage Craft wool projects, I must first joyfully dive into the Cowichan sweater which, I admit, looks a little daunting. I'm going to figure it out though. And while Carol tells me the wool is soft, just knowing the source adds an extra thrill for me. (The deeper I get into knitting, the more I want to know-- the animals, where they live, how they are raised, their names!)

I'll let y'all know how it goes.


  1. impressive undertaking! Will be waiting with baited (hahaha) breath on the whale progress. BTW some of my favorite yarn came from a place in the San Juan Islands where a picture of the sheep was on the label.... a cute picture of a very contented looking sheep, I must say.

  2. Good one spike! I esp. like the sasquatch little brother part. I must tell you about raising sheep someday. My source of teen income. Xo