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Genuine Cowichan

I love visiting with my dear friend, Carmen George from Penelakut. She is an intergenerational survivor, and has one of the most beautiful, generous hearts I've ever witnessed. Carmen is mindful to incorporate teachings and cultural activities to support her own healing journey, and in her presence I've had the privilege of sitting in ceremony, participating in fish processing, and watching her knit beautiful "Genuine Cowichan" items. In fact, I've been the fortunate recipient of one of her handiworks: an amazing headband with a custom TOOTH pattern carefully stitched around the perimeter. I absolutely LOVE it.

Cowichan sweaters and garments have been crafted by knitters for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Historically they were made from the coat of the Salish Wooly Dog, but following its extinction, knitters shifted to using sheep's wool. To legitimately carry the label of "Genuine Cowichan" there are specific criteria that must be met: "they must be hand-knit by a Coast Salish artisan, in one piece, with un-dyed wool, in accordance with traditional tribal methods"(Williams, 2020). Patterns are proprietary, many being passed down family lines since time immemorial.

Carmen is a beautiful knitter and has fond memories learning the practice from her mother, Maria. She shared with me her recollection of a memory from her childhood: her mother soaking wool in grey tin wash bins filled with steaming water, and then carting the wool (the process of combing). Carmen recalls that only after the arduous process of transforming the wool into yarn could the knitting begin. She shared with me her gratitude for still have knitted pieces of her mother’s making: slippers for each of her own children, and a baby sized Cowichan sweater that is now being worn by her first granddaughter. Carmen shared:

"When finishing an item, it needs to be steamed pressed. As I iron completed pieces, the smell of that wet wool rises in a steamy cloud to my face. The scent and the feeling of the steam triggers such a strong memory of my mom -- sharing these times with her and learning from her. It was a good feeling. A comfort.

When I see my granddaughter wearing the pieces that my mother made, it reminds me of seeing the wool wrapped around her fingers as she knit. The same wool that is now wrapped around my granddaughter. For me, it feels like she’s sending a hug from heaven every time baby wears her sweater…like she’s right here with us."

As Carmen shared her experience, I was moved by the connection I witnessed. It's wonderful how participating in a traditional activity provides connection to those who are no longer with us. Further, the act of gifting offers Carmen the opportunity to spread the intention of love and good feelings on to those who receive her crafts; she has woven them into the yarn through her working fingers, just as she learned from her mother. The realization that her knitting is so permeated with her love makes my gift even more precious to me -- I will treasure it always.

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