Coeuraj crafted a narrative, created a digital presence, and facilitated a roundtable engagement session to launch the initiative and garner interest from potential partners. The session highlighted the true significance of the Cowichan sweaters, the cultural mainstays that authenticate the process of making them, and the challenges and opportunities of a globally competitive economy.
Redefining the Iconic Cowichan Sweater Business
In 2021, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre and Ecologyst, a Vancouver Island apparel company, came together to redefine the genuine Cowichan sweater business and support local Indigenous knitters. They wanted to tell the true story of the sweater and secure partnerships to realize its full potential in the marketplace.
The Cowichan Sweater
The Cowichan sweater is an icon of the Coast Salish people and is easily recognized by those residing on North America’s West Coast. Cowichan knitters use raw, bulky wool in three natural colours to create the striking patterns for which the sweaters are best known. The sweaters are usually oversized, keeping their wearers snug, dry, and enveloped in the history of the Cowichan Valley and surrounding regions. These sweaters last lifetimes.
From sheering to spinning, pattern making, and knitting, the Cowichan sweater was a way of life for many Coast Salish families. For the few knitters that still make them, the sweater remains a way of life, only the environment has changed: Supply chain challenges, cheap knockoffs, and poor visibility in the marketplace have led to low returns on labour and a diminished craft.
At the same time, the Cowichan sweater is recognized as nationally and historically significant in Canada. It has been gifted to other heads of state and celebrities on behalf of the Canadian government. And, since gaining popularity in the mid-to-late 1900s, fashion retailers have been eager to copy it. To this day, knockoffs of the Cowichan sweater are produced, mimicking the distinctive patterns, and retailed worldwide.
In the early 1900s, the Coast Salish people began knitting the first Cowichan sweaters. The production process was then, and for decades after, entirely local, and a wool mill was eventually established on Vancouver Island.
Today, the mill no longer exists, and knitters have resorted to sourcing wool from places such as New Zeal at a major cost. Where once the techniques of spinning and knitting were taught and passed down through generations, now there are only a handful of knitters on Vancouver Island and the coastal mainland of BC. While the sweaters continue to be sold at local outlets and prized by their wearers, most people outside of the region know little about the connection to the Coast Salish people or the ‘Genuine Cowichan’ label that separates authentic sweaters from their popular knockoffs.
In 2021, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre and Ecologyst came together to redefine the genuine Cowichan sweater business.
They approached Coeuraj to help craft a narrative, create a digital presence, and facilitate a roundtable engagement session to launch the initiative and garner interest from potential partners. The session would highlight the true significance of the sweaters, the cultural mainstays that authenticate the process of making them, and the challenges and opportunities of a globally competitive economy. Enthusiastically, Coeuraj agreed.
We began by launching a website to introduce the initiative and house the central ideas the sponsors wished to express to their followers and potential partners. We collaborated to design a set of outcomes for the session that would see knitters share their experiences, interests, and hopes for the future of the Cowichan sweater business with others from local politics, the fashion industry, investors, and the broader community. Coeuraj wove the benefits of a more sustainable supply chain and business model into the session experience, including increased market share, establishing fair wages for Indigenous workers and artistry, investment opportunities through the revival of the knitting industry on Vancouver Island, and mentorship opportunities through the Friendship centre to grow the craft.
Participants mapped the current supply chain and then worked in tight-knit groups to envision new ways of doing business. Together, in one room, participants drew from a variety of expertise, from procurement to production and sales. Together, they distilled several guiding principles to inform how the business could be expanded in a good way.
Unravelling the whole process from sheep to sweater to sale, participants were able to appreciate the value of the “Genuine Cowichan” label that is only given to authentic Cowichan Sweaters, and how that label could easily show up in the marketplace as a compelling brand story. The knitters, some of them nestled in sweaters of their own, brought entrepreneurial energy coupled with a deep understanding of their industry and heritage, both of which are essential to bringing the real Cowichan sweater—a cultural icon and a finely made product—into the marketplace.
As a result of our work and collaboration with the project sponsors, a variety of partners pledged to support the growth of the genuine Cowichan sweater business.