If you’re not familiar with the term Cowichan, you’re almost certainly familiar with the style. These sweaters have been worn by everyone from Steve McQueen to The Dude in The Big Lebowski. More than just chunky knits with expressive designs, however, they’ve also got some deep history.
True Cowichans are made by Coast Salish knitters in British Columbia, Canada (where yours truly was born). As the story goes, the sweater style comes out of a cultural exchange in the 1850s. At the time, natives in the Cowichan Valley had been knitting leggings and blankets out of mountain goat and dog wool for centuries. When European settlers arrived, however, they learned how to knit socks, mitts, and sweaters, as well as farm wool from sheep. At some point in the late 19th century, a settler from the Shetland Islands named Jerimina Colvin taught Cowichan knitters how to embellish sweaters using Fair Isle traditions, forever changing the region’s knitwear.
Today, Cowichan sweaters are something of a mix of that history – hefty, wool cardigans with Native Canadian motifs, all expressed through low-gauge Scottish knitting techniques. They’re typically made without side seams, knitted from undyed yarns, and come with a slightly-dropped shoulder line. And unlike their Fair Isle and Shetland cousins in Europe, which are often machine-knit or hand-framed, true Cowichan knits are always completely handmade. That means a knitter, often a woman, is working with just two knitting needles and some bulky, hand-spun yarn.
You can wear Cowichans in all sorts of ways (with jeans and a t-shirt is probably easiest), but I particularly like this example from Kunal in Washington, DC. Here, he’s wearing a bison-motif Cowichan from Kanata with a corduroy floral shirt from Gitman, cotton/ linen herringbone trousers from Brooklyn Tailors, and some shell cordovan parajumper boots from Alden (pics of when they were new can be seen here, and they’re absolute knockouts). I like how the Kunal mixes different aesthetic genres – tailored trousers with a playful shirt, some work boots, and a heavy Canadian knit. It’s this kind of mixing-and-matching that I find most inspiring nowadays.
As for how to wear a Cowichan sweater without looking like The Dude, Kunal says it’s all about the fit. “While I have certainly dressed this sweater down, I don’t think it looks frumpy here – or Dude-esque, if you will – since it fits well and isn’t overly baggy.” With the right fit, a sweater like this can be used in lieu of a light jacket on a cold morning or even layered under a bigger coat (see StyleForum editor Jasper).
There are lots of places to buy Cowichan sweaters these days, but if you care about authenticity, we recommend sticking to sweaters that were made by Coast Salish knitters. You can find them from companies such as Hills Native Art, Kanata, and The Canadian Sweater Company. No Man Walks Alone has Kanata sweaters on sale this week for 20% off with the checkout code VORTEX. The code also works on outerwear, gloves, scarves, hats, and any other knitwear, and they do free shipping and returns. I’m trying to talk myself out of getting this one.