Dora Wilson Cowichan sweater
Knitter Dora Wilson inspects a genuine Cowichan sweater. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse
Cowichan Valley

What happened to the Cowichan wool carding machine?

A reader asked what happened to a piece of Cowichan history. I consulted an expert knitter to find out.
Jacqueline Ronson September 8, 2020

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Hi there,

My name is Rashika Srivastava. I’m a journalism student at the University of British Columbia. As part of an internship, my goal is to help answer some questions sent to The Discourse by people in the Cowichan Valley.

This question, sent by Sue, got my attention: “Where is The Cowichan Indian Sweater Wool Carding Machine? Does a tribe house it? Is it in a museum?”

My efforts sent me on a journey to understand Cowichan knitting, and the process to prepare the wool, now and in the past.

I reached out to Dora Wilson, whose traditional name is Thulamiye, to learn more. Wilson is a Cowichan Tribes elder and also a knitter with a lifetime of experience.

What is carding?

Carding means to comb wool to align the strands such that wool can be spun into yarn.

The wool is washed and dried before it is carded.

“When my late mother was knitting, she used to bring us with her to the farms in Duncan. She knew where to go to the people who owned sheep. She would treat her wool right from the farm, which was raw wool,” Wilson says.

“We had to bring it home and wash it and dry it. And then you get to the carding,” says Wilson. Carded wool can be formed into roving, which is spun into yarn. Only then is it ready to knit.

“My late mother always said, ‘take your time and knit your knitting, you have to be in good spirits if you are knitting,’” says Wilson.

Dora Wilson Cowichan sweater
Dora Wilson holds raw, unprocessed wool, dropped off at her home by a local farmer. The wool is rich in lanolin, which makes Cowichan knits resistant to water. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

How do you card wool? 

According to an article by Marianne P. Stopp, Salish artists used dog hair and mountain goat hair for weaving blankets before Europeans brought in sheep. Settlers also brought wool carding tools.

Cowichan knitting is a unique form, born from both European textile techniques and Salish spinning and weaving.

At first, hand carders were used.

Hand carders are two rectangular brushes. One brush is rubbed against the other as wool is combed between them.

Wilson still has an antique set at her home, though she doesn’t use it, she says.

Dora Wilson Cowichan sweater
Dora Wilson demonstrates the use of a set of hand carders to comb wool. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Eventually, many knitters turned to drum carders, which required less labour.

It has two rollers instead of brushes. These rollers have a brush-like surface, and they can be rotated with the help of a handle. Wool is made to pass in between the rollers to get carded.

Dora Wilson Cowichan sweater
Carding wool manually is a labour-intensive process, even with a drum carder. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

What about commercial machines?

The game changed for many Cowichan knitters in 1978, when Sarah Modeste, Wilson’s sister, and her husband Fred bought a commercial carding machine. Their business, Modeste Indian Sweater & Crafts Ltd., helped supply local knitters with wool to make sweaters for hungry international markets.

This carding machine, as best I can tell, is the one Sue asked about in her question.

“They made it a lot easier for us women. She got the wool washed, cleaned and carded and ready to sell, ready to spin,” says Wilson.

Cowichan sweaters, known at the time as Indian sweaters, were big business. The local knitters making the real thing could not keep up with demand, particularly from Japan. Some outsiders made millions on knock-offs and imitations. 

The carding mill shut down when demand from Japan faltered. 

Wilson says she’s not sure what happened to the carding machine. She thinks it went into storage, and then one day it was gone. 

Dora Wilson Cowichan sweater
Dora Wilson has spun large balls of un-dyed yarn, ready for knitting. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Keeping a tradition alive

Today, Wilson still knits Cowichan sweaters the traditional way. She is proud to source wool in natural colours from farms in Sidney B.C. and on Thetis Island.

Typically, she has the raw wool sent to large commercial mills in Alberta Saskatchewan where it is cleaned, carded and made into roving. She still spins the wool herself, on an electric spinner. 

Want to learn more?

  • Working with Wool by Sylvia Olsen tells a detailed, illustrated history of Coast Salish knitting. 
  • Cowichan Indian Knitting, a 1987 book by Margaret Meikle, shares additional information, including a photo of the Modeste carding mill, on pg. 10.
  • Cowichan Tribes shares names and contact information for knitters and artisans on its website

Thanks for reading,

Rashika